Archaeologists find new signs of the St. Croix River’s prehistoric people

Recent excavations uncover artifacts dating back approximately 1,000 years to an era of big changes in cultures and technology.

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Students and archaeologists work together to excavate the Two Creeks Site in June 2022. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Humans have been living along the St. Croix River for thousands of years. Little is known about who they were and how they lived, but a recent archaeological excavation near Marine on St. Croix has added more details to this story.

For the past two summers, teams led by the Science Museum of Minnesota have been working at the site on the river banks, amid soaring pines and spring-fed streams. They have revealed a rich array of artifacts spread over a small area that may have been used as a campsite for hundreds of years. (Note: To protect the site from vandalism or looting, the exact location will not be disclosed. For St. Croix 360’s purposes, we’ll refer to it as the Two Creeks Site.)

The findings have included numerous pieces of pottery handcrafted possibly a thousand years before today. There have also been stone tools, animal bones, charcoal, and more. Dr. Ed Fleming of the Science Museum has been in charge of the project, with excavation assistance from University of Minnesota students.

The Two Creeks Site is interesting because the artifacts are restricted to a few centuries, while many nearby sites show evidence of thousands of years of use. The objects are all from the Late Woodland Period, which lasted until around the time the first Europeans arrived on North America’s East Coast.

“It provides a pretty great opportunity to understand that period,” Fleming says.

They were interesting people living at an interesting time. They switched from spears to bows and arrows, made a lot of pottery, and started cultivating simple crops. As the archaeologists have found, the people who stayed at the site so long ago lived rich lives supported by the many resources of the St. Croix.

Connecting corridor

Above photos by Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360

Fleming says the Two Creeks Site fits into a larger network of villages and camps that have been studied along this stretch of the St. Croix River. Archaeological evidence has shown how the river has long been a vital trade and travel corridor, linking the Lake Superior region to the Mississippi River basin.

“The St. Croix is this great north-south corridor that transcends two biomes,” he says. “It connects the north woods to the prairie.”

Based on what Fleming and others have found in the St. Croix Valley, it also connected people. Excavations along the river have shown how it was a gateway between two worlds: the woods and the plains.

Pottery was one way the St. Croix’s unique position affected the culture. Woodland period people made pots that could hold up to several gallons, using them for food storage and cooking. The pots were all decorated, using a variety of techniques, to create markings and patterns, especially around the pot’s neck and rim.

People in different areas used different tools to make different patterns. At Two Creeks, like other St. Croix Valley sites, the intersection of cultures and influences is apparent.

“We have pottery styles that appear to be more common in the woodland areas and some pottery styles that are more common in the prairies,” Fleming says.

There is also a specific pottery style from earlier in the Woodland Culture than the Two Creeks Site named for the St. Croix River region, where it was first found. The St. Croix Stamped style has since been discovered at sites elsewhere in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

Digging deliberately

Above photos by Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360

One morning last June, about a dozen aspiring archaeologists were working in dappled sunlight shining through white pines towering overhead.

Through a four-week course in the field offered each summer through the University of Minnesota, students get valuable experience with the tools and techniques of modern archaeology. Fleming and his team get the kind of crew necessary for such a dig.

Some of the students knelt or sat on the ground in or next to shallow square pits, where they gently scraped away dirt, occasionally plucking interesting items out to examine. Others sifted the soil through screens to find any small objects. Science Museum staff guided the efforts, studied the objects they found, and carefully catalogued everything, precisely recording its location and depth to help reconstruct the site and its story.

The work is slow and meticulous, the findings can be subtle. But after spending a morning hunched over the ground, an archaeologist might handle something last touched by human hands a millennia or more ago.

The past two summers, the teams have turned up pieces of pottery from at least 20 different vessels. That’s a lot for such a small site, Fleming says, indicating a likely long period of repeated use.

Archaeology in action

Above photos courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

Finding a prehistoric settlement takes a lot of time and a great deal of expertise. Fleming says the first thing to do is look near water sources. Almost all settlements are found on the shores of lakes or rivers. Along the St. Croix, all the sites have been found at places close to the river but elevated above the floodplain. And most have a spring-fed creek (or two) nearby, offering plentiful drinking water.

Fleming and his team have focused on places meeting these descriptions for the past several years. They will first conduct “shovel test,” digging small holes at regular intervals in lines, seeking any sign of past people. Anything they find will be analyzed and mapped, and perhaps the archaeologists will figure out where to focus a full excavation in the future.

Digging into the past like this is both important, and sensitive. “The archaeological record is fragile and not replaceable,” he says. But knowing what kinds of cultural resources are found where is critical to protecting them.

The Science Museum archaeologists never excavate an entire site, but when they do dig, it’s methodical, and they share their results with others. It is illegal and unethical to disturb mounds or human remains in Minnesota and most places. Fleming says archaeologists can learn a great deal from studying settlements.

The excavations at the Two Creeks site so far have been near the base of a gentle slope. The soil is fairly thin, and the artifacts are found near the surface. Fleming says in the future, he hopes to excavate farther up the slope, hopefully expanding understanding of the site’s size and the people who were here long ago.

Thank you to Dr. Ed Fleming for his assistance with this article!


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8 responses to “Archaeologists find new signs of the St. Croix River’s prehistoric people”

  1. Sarah Avatar
    Sarah

    Great story, Greg! I know this location very well and visited the dig site last year. Lots of exciting artifacts there. Great science and what an experience for the students.

  2. Shelly schwartz Avatar
    Shelly schwartz

    What a fantastic dig ! Great job on bringing history to the light.

  3. LMckenzie Avatar
    LMckenzie

    Are they ready to say the race or will they only confirm lies? Until these people speak truth they shouldn’t touch the remains of our ancestors whom were enslaved on these lands by their foreparents.

    1. CoryTrevorsen Avatar
      CoryTrevorsen

      I was going to comment on how it doesn’t seem like any local indigenous people were consulted on this and that is disgusting.

  4. Beth Brown Avatar
    Beth Brown

    “Little is known about who they were and how they lived”

    Indigenous people know.

    1. CoryTrevorsen Avatar
      CoryTrevorsen

      Yes! I may not know the name of the river but I know it isn’t St. Croix.

  5. Josie Winship Avatar
    Josie Winship

    I believe that indigenous people need to be involved in this dig and if they are not they should. For one thing it is clear the people who lived in this spot were not white Europeans. There ought to be atleast half Native people on your team. That is the respectful thing to do or at very least consult.

    1. Rob McManus Avatar
      Rob McManus

      While it is obviously the case that indigenous people lived here, do we have any definitive evidence that the woodland people were somehow related to the current indigenous peoples in the area? I think they all moved in much later. These people could have become extinct or moved on for instance. Culturally, I think we can say from the evidence of artifacts that they weren’t from the cultural groups who currently occupy the land or who recently occupied the land.

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Archaeologists find new signs of the St. Croix River’s prehistoric people