Archaeology at Chief Looking's Village
The archaeological site of Chief Looking's Village, or CLV, sits on a hiltop along the Missouri river overlooking Bismarck, North Dakota. It's as far removed from the romanticized images and locales of archaeology as one can get. Few of the visitors to the state park in which the village rests imagine the town of earth lodges that once perched there. CLV was a town of around five hundred Mandan Native Americans. It ringed by an earthen mound and palisade, marked by wooden bastions at intervals, and was occupied only for a few generations during the late 15th century. The people of this town farmed maize by the banks of the Missouri, and traded with nomadic plains tribes, as well as with other farmers further up and down the river.
I spent half my summer excavating at CLV with PaleoCultural Research Group. We were excavating large storage pits filled with bone, ceramics, and lithics, hoping to compare the archaeological materials from two varieties of houses that were built in CLV (an earlier rectangular type of earth lodge, and a later circular variety). Discussion of this will have to wait, as the laboratory analysis of the artifacts is ongoing.
The Mandan are a Native American Tribe speaking, unsurprisingly, Mandan, a Siouan language. Their oral histories describe their origins in the east, near a lake. This is supported by anthropologists, who theorize that, like other members of the Siouan language family, they may have originally migrated west from the Great Lakes region near the Mississippi, or from the Ohio River Valley.
Work at the site, like any archaeology on the Great Plains, was slow and methodical, with excavators at a constant loss as to the stratigraphy of their grid units. It is fair to say that even for an expert in the field, identifying the earthen fill of a large storage pit, one that was dug into the surrounding sediment is a bit like being a water diviner.
On the great plains nothing preserves above the earth's surface. All that remains above ground at CLV is a series of faint depressions, where earth lodges once sat. Below ground, however, we quickly hit a trove of artifacts in almost every excavation unit. Some of the most interesting finds included stone celts, pottery sherds, stone tools, bone awls, hoes made from bison scapula, stone fishnet weights, and bone fish hooks, to name a few.
Even as excavations were underway at CLV, researchers from multiple universities were also busy conducting geophysical surveys of the site in order to help direct excavations during this field season, as well as to prepare for future research at the site.
It is hard for such impermanent archaeological features to inspire public interest as easily as Egypt's pyramids or Rome's aqueducts, and the archaeology of the large Mandan towns along the Missouri tend to go unheard of among American history buffs. Work like this excavation at Chief Looking's Village- which even offered tours of the live excavation site- go a long way towards educating the public about the rich cultural heritage under their very noses.
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