History buffs help pros at archaeological dig

Volunteers put dirt back into a hole at an excavation site near Courthouse Rock in the Nebraska Panhandle on Sept. 29.

BAYARD, Neb. — Courthouse Rock was bustling last month as almost 30 people worked to excavate a Native American site near the formation. The dig was held by History Nebraska in honor of Nebraska Archaeology Month.

It was a chance for members of the community to join archaeologists in trying to uncover missing pieces of the region's past.

Few locals attended the event, but a number of out of-towners drove for hours for the chance to excavate the site.

Many of them made the trip from Lincoln. Among those travelers was Kristen Huddleston.

"I wanted to do this a couple years ago, but I had a trip to somewhere else that day," Huddleston told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. "When I heard about this one, I decided to come out."

Eric and Stacey Severson likely had the longest trip, traveling from Altoona, Wisconsin, for the dig.

They traveled to Fort Robinson State Park for last year's excavation as well.

"We're history buffs," Stacey Severson said.

The couple turned up a few exciting finds, including some pottery shards, a knife point and an end scraper.

"That is a hide tool," History Nebraska archaeologist Nolan Johnson said of the scraper. "We also found lots of stone flakes or pieces that were knocked off when they were making tools."

The crew also found bone fragments, some of which were burned. The largest bones came from bison and included a humerus and ribs.

The end of the humerus was smashed open.

"People did that a lot with long bones," Johnson said, explaining that they were after the bone marrow inside of it. "It was really high in calories."

The fact that some of the bone fragments were burned tells Johnson that the people who once occupied the space were likely cooking there.

He had initially hoped to find a hearth at the site, but the crew didn't have any luck.

"We didn't find anything intact, but that doesn't mean it's not out there," he said. "It's a huge site, and we excavated very little of it. We know they had to burn these somewhere."

Johnson said it's not unusual to find only a few bones rather than a complete skeleton. He said if the site is a kill site, archaeologists are more likely to find complete skeletons because the animal was killed, processed and butchered in one spot.

"Our site was so far up that I don't think they killed bison up there," he said. "I think they killed them somewhere else and basically took the good parts up there. That might be why we're finding certain kinds of bones."

Johnson thought that it was unlikely that bison would be grazing at the site because of its elevation.

Johnson said pottery and three projectile points found at the site help confirm that it was most likely a Dismal River site, a place used by a group of Native Americans who lived in Nebraska around 1550-1750.

"They're Plains Apache folks," he said. "They lived in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming before they moved down into the Southwest."

There are multiple Dismal River sites in the state, including big villages where structures have been found.

"I think the site we were at was more of a hunting camp or some kind of special use site," Johnson said. "I don't think they would live up there. The wind would blow them away."

He said the excavation turned up a number of different rocks, including obsidian flakes. This is unusual because there are not obsidian outcrops in Nebraska.

"We hope to send them off and get them sourced," Johnson said. "They'll be able to tell us where the rock came from, which tells us where people were getting their tools. We can compare that to other Dismal River sites."

Knowing where they conducted their trading will give more insight into the path that the nomadic tribe followed as they moved through the area.

Although the area that was excavated wasn't large, Johnson said it was thick.

"We ended up excavating 14 1-by-1-meter squares," he said. "The deepest we got down to was about 85 centimeters. We were finding stuff all the way down to that level. It was surprising."

The next step is washing and cataloging all of the artifacts that they turned up.

Overall, Johnson said he would call the dig a success.

"I'm certainly satisfied with what we found," he said.

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