Minnesota Archaeology

A Brief History of Minnesota Archaeology

Some of the earliest professional efforts at site recording in the area were undertaken by J.V. Brower, A.J. Hill and T.H. Lewis in the late 1800s, and by N.H. Winchell in the early 1900s. Although much of their work entailed exhaustive field verification of previously unrecorded sites, a great deal of data was derived from informant interviews rather than actual field survey, a method which resulted in frequent ambiguities and generalizations in the physical and legal descriptions of sites. In subsequent years, university-based archaeologists tended to focus on excavating previously identified sites, and relatively few new sites were recorded in this period. Since the 1970s, however, increasing emphasis on state and federal protection of cultural resources has resulted in a number of compliance investigations, which, in turn, have yielded studies ranging from preliminary site inventories to projects designed to evaluate and salvage individual sites.

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An Overview of Minnesota Archaeology

The cultural sequence in the region begins with PALEOINDIAN (ca. 10,000 to 6000 BC). As glaciers receded from the Upper Midwest, migratory groups of people settled throughout the area's open woodlands and succeeding grasslands, hunting native herding animals such as bison and mastodon, and likely exploiting available small-game, fish and plant resources as well. Throughout much of this period, the climate was becoming successively warmer and drier. In addition to distinctive, lanceolate projectile points (Clovis, Folsom and Plano types), the tool kits included large, bifacially flaked knives, simple choppers and large scrapers. The settlement pattern for these peoples is poorly understood.

Characteristic of the ARCHAIC period (ca. 6000 to 800 BC) was a continued reliance on large game hunting and increasingly diversified technologies associated with hunting, trapping, fishing, foraging, woodworking and plant processing. This diversification of culture and associated technologies reflects more highly regionalized adaptation to local environmental conditions as climatic trends shifted to a cooler, wetter configuration, a pattern which continues to this day. Chipped stone tools such as stemmed and notched projectile points dominate the tool kit, but the use of pecked and ground stone implements also became widespread, and use of copper implements is apparent late in the period. Evidence of the exploitation of diverse floral and faunal resources suggests a seasonal round type subsistence-settlement system, with habitation areas often located along the margins of lakes and major rivers.

The WOODLAND period (ca. 800 BC to historic contact) in the region appears to have been associated with incipient plant domestication, but intensive gathering provided the bulk of subsistence needs. Settlement patterns resembled those appearing previously, with particularly intense occupation of stream/lake junctions late in the period. An especially significant technological innovation of the Woodland peoples is the development of ceramics. Earthwork (mound) construction frequently associated with mortuary activity also developed at this time.

Evidence of ONEOTA / PLAINS VILLAGE occupation (ca. 900 AD to historic contact) is reported for areas of southern Minnesota, with the largest identified sites located along the margins of major river valleys or other water bodies. These peoples appear to have developed a blended subsistence strategy based on simple agriculture, gathering and bison hunting.

Early in the HISTORIC period (ca. 1630 to present), western portions of the State were occupied by Yankton Dakota, while Santee Dakota occupied the east. Ojibwa peoples had largely displaced Dakota in the northeast by the mid-1700s. French fur traders had moved into the region by the late 1600s, to be succeeded, in turn, by English and American traders. EuroAmerican settlement of the area accelerated in the early 1800s with the establishment of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Urban commercial centers formed around the water-powered mills of St. Anthony Falls and the northernmost navigable areas of the Mississippi. The region saw the development of agricultural communities in the south and west, and lumbering centers in the east and north during the mid- to late 1800s.

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State Archaeological Resource Management Legislation

MS 138.51: "It is in the public interest to provide for the preservation of historic sites, buildings, structures, and antiquities of state and national significance for the inspiration, use, and benefit of the people of the state".

The "Field Archaeology Act of 1963" (MS 138.31-.42): "The state of Minnesota reserves to itself the exclusive right and privilege of field archaeology on state sites, in order to protect and preserve archaeological and scientific information, matter, and objects".

The "Private Cemeteries Act" (MS 307.08): "... all human burials and human skeletal remains shall be accorded equal treatment and respect for human dignity ... (t)he state archaeologist shall authenticate all burial sites for purposes of this section ...".

The "Outdoor Recreation Act of 1975" (MS 86A): "... the unique natural, cultural and historical resources of Minnesota provide abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation and education, and ... should be made available to all the citizens of Minnesota now and in the future".

The "Minnesota Environmental Rights Act" (MS 116B): "... each person is entitled by right to the protection of air, water, land and other natural resources within the state ..."; natural resources are defined to include historical resources.

Federal Archaeological Resource Management Legislation

The "National Historic Preservation Act of 1966" (PL 89-665): Established a national historic preservation policy; created the National Register of Historic Places and the Cabinet level Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and established the Section 106 process, which requires a consideration of cultural resources for undertakings that are federally funded, licensed, or permitted.

The "National Environmental Policy Act of 1969" (PL 91-190): Requires that archaeological and other historic resources be considered during the environmental assessment process and in environmental impact studies.

The "Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979" (PL 96-95): Established criminal and civil penalties for disturbing prehistoric and historic archaeological sites on Federal and Indian lands, and for sale, transport or receipt of archaeological resources excavated or removed from public lands or Indian lands or in violation of State or local law.

The "Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act" (PL101-601): Mandates the repatriation (return) of Native American or Native Hawaiian human remains, associated funerary items, or items of cultural patrimony held by agencies receiving federal funds.

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Map: Distribution of Recorded Archaeological Sites in Minnesota



photo of projectile point
ca. 10,000 - 8000 BC

photo of projectile point
ca. 3000-1000 BC

photo of projectile point
ca. 2500-800 BC

photo of projectile point
Madison Triangular
ca. 800-1700 AD


photo of ceramic
La Moille Thick,
ca. 500-300 BC

photo of ceramic
ca. 100 BC - AD

photo of ceramic
ca. 800-1400 AD

photo of ceramic
Orr Phase,
ca. 1300-1800 AD

photo of artifact
Shaving mug

photo of artifact
Bone dice

photo of artifact
Clay pipes

photo of artifact
Toothpaste jar and lid