Experts uncover interesting artifacts at Fish Creek preserve

Though it’s barely bigger than a coin, this potshard shows clearly the marks of the material or rope used in making it. (submitted photo)
Though it’s barely bigger than a coin, this potshard shows clearly the marks of the material or rope used in making it. (submitted photo)
Archeologist Jeremy Nienow teaches the group how to evaluate the soil. (submitted photo)
Archeologist Jeremy Nienow teaches the group how to evaluate the soil. (submitted photo)
Participants sift soil, looking for tiny potshards. (submitted photo)
Participants sift soil, looking for tiny potshards. (submitted photo)

The Fish Creek bluff in Maplewood must have hosted something like a family-and-friends reunion as people gathered centuries ago at their favorite summer spot: along the water and offering enough room for a number of families, unlike their winter homes.

We know they hunted, fished, cooked, sharpened and restored tools and explored the surrounding area together. We can guess that they enjoyed catching up with one another, admiring how the kids had grown and missing those they'd lost since last year. 

But the rest, dating from as long as 1,500 years ago, as Maplewood historian Bob Jensen puts it, is "a mystery in our own backyard."

Taking care of the past

Archaeologist Jeremy Nienow — one of four archaeologists in the state certified to conduct exploratory digs — is called in when private companies or public entities plan to develop a site that may include Native American artifacts.

The Fish Creek bluff site had already yielded some evidence when a private developer paid for exploratory digs.

The 142-acre Fish Creek open space has meadows and forests, and is situated just east of the Mississippi River and north of Interstate 494 on the southernmost Maplewood border.

"Our goal for this dig was to establish the boundaries of the site, as the county and Maplewood look at putting in trails, and to find the types of artifacts that are there," Nienow explains.

Thanks to a grant from the Minnesota Legacy funds, the city and county were able to use Nienow's expertise and include community members in a two-day exploration of the site July 24 and 25.

A dozen people paid $15 apiece, dressed in clothes they were willing to get dirty and packed their own water and lunches, to help dig — and possibly find and hold something hand-created a millenium ago.

As Jensen, president of the Maplewood Historical Society, describes it, Nienow gave everyone detailed instructions on how to dig in the shovel tests, how far down to go and how to carefully transfer the soil and what it might contain to the volunteers operating screen "sifters."

"Jeremy warned us very carefully, 'If you guys find any human remains, we have to stop immediately and call the sheriff,'" Jensen recalls.

The suitably impressed and now rather tentative volunteers then put shovel blades to soil. "It wasn't 10 minutes before someone yelled 'I found human remains!' and held up the plastic arm from a doll," Jensen says. "It was 'from humans,' but it wasn't 'human.'"

Overall, the group found about 30 different pieces of artifacts, Jensen says, with about 20 pottery chips and 10 stone chips.

The materials that last

A few weeks later, the volunteers gathered again, at the Maplewood Nature Center, where they used toothbrushes and water to clean off the finds. "We each got a chance to hold them and see how they were made," Jensen notes.

The pieces of pots — most smaller than a nickel — were among the most telling. They center the finds in the "middle woodlands" period of Native American culture in the eastern U.S., between an early period of hunting and gathering and a later one of agriculture.

Jensen says from what he's learned, the pieces at Fish Creek might date from 200 BC to 400 AD.

The evidence: in the middle woodlands period, clay containers were made with purposefully roughened exteriors, which dissipated the heat expansion from firing and helped keep the vessels from cracking. They'd be used to carry water, to cook or bake in or for storage.

Archaeologists theorize that clay pots might have been roughened before they were fired by wrapping twine rope around a small paddle and whacking the outside of the wet clay. That would account for the Fish Creek potshards' grooved and semi-regular, semi-random pattern.

Further, Nienow, says, the stone chips people were finding as they sifted were the small kind found after a spear head or scraping tool is resharpened, not the big flakes made when it's first created.

"That would lead us to believe that this is a summer camp — a place where several groups or family groups came together to hunt, to fish and to do things in a larger group than they would live in the rest of the year," Nienow says. "They were restoring tools they already had, not making new ones."

The sharp heads being made in the period, Nienow notes, were not for archery arrows. Instead, during most the middle woodland centuries, people had transitioned from handheld spears to thrown atlatls, with smaller heads on long, flexible poles. Because the poles flex like javelins, they can be thrown with force and accuracy.

The rest of the group's lifestyle? What they wore or how they made shelters? "We just don't know, because anything organic — hides, cloth, other organic items — have long since disintegrated," Nienow says.

Larger patterns of trade, with Michigan copper ending up out west or Dakota jasper being found in the east, indicate that during the middle woodland period people traded over hundreds and thousands of miles.

Though no copper or jasper were found at the site this time around, Jensen says in 2005, when the CoPar group wanted to develop the site, the digs it paid for revealed a piece of jasper as well as pottery and stone flakes. At least that's what's recorded on a list made at the time.

With the economy about to tank, CoPar went bankrupt — and Maplewood swung into action to try to save the iconic bluff site as open space. Though it was able to preserve the site, during the chaos at the company the artifacts were lost.

"By law, the artifacts were CoPar's for a period of time after they were found. Unfortunately, after the developer went out of business, they disappeared," Jensen explains. "We think they were just discarded."

What's next?

Currently, the artifacts are being stored by the City of Maplewood. Nienow will present them and outline what they indicate at a special event Nov. 17 at the Maplewood Library.

Jensen holds out some hope that there's enough cooked material blackened onto the potshards that carbon-14 dating could be used to try to narrow down the years Fish Creek was occupied. Nienow notes that such work can cost hundreds of dollars per item — and several items should be tested in order to discount any "outliers" that might look similar but are not from the same time period.

From there, by law, they must be kept in a certified depository — usually the Minnesota Historical Society. However, Jensen says, the Ramsey County Historical Society is in the process of being certified, and the Maplewood group hopes these artifacts can be kept closer to home.

Maplewood Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Ron Cockriel, who participated in the dig, says, "This just consolidated for us what a special site Fish Creek is. Finding these things and holding them in your hand is the precious part."

Holly Wenzel can be reached at or at 651-748-7817.


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