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Archeology talk to focus on ancient sites

Archeologists Ron Schirmer (left) and Clark Dobbs review progress at a field excavation site in the Red Wing area.

The prehistoric villages that once thrived on the banks of the Cannon and Mississippi rivers are well known. Archeologists have been studying them for decades.

But what was here before the large villages developed? How did earlier residents live?

Those questions will be the focus of a presentation at the Anderson Center on May 13 in celebration of Minnesota Archaeology Week. Dr. Ron Schirmer will speak at 7 p.m.

Schirmer, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, will discuss new ideas about the pre- and post-Mississippian cultures in the Red Wing area, including relationships between Red Wing and points north on the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.

New radiocarbon data on the Bartron Village, near Prairie Island, and possibly other village sites will be presented, and Schirmer also will report on what the annual archeological field school will be doing starting this month.

For a number of years, the focus of archeological research around Red Wing has been on the large villages, Schirmer said. Several sites once were surrounded by hundreds of mounds.

The pottery which was found and other evidence established a connection with the Middle Mississippian culture, so the Red Wing settlements often are referred to Mississippian villages.

There is more to be learned, he said. For the past couple of years he has been surveying this area in hopes of discovering who lived here before that period, and it appears there are many smaller sites dating to the Late Woodland period, about 600 AD to 1050 AD.

"It was quite a bit more complicated" than expected, he said. "Pretty complex societies interacted with each other" before the Mississippian influence spread up from the south. Earlier connections to the north also are becoming evident.

"The precursor to the large village period in Red Wing was far more dynamic and interesting than anyone thought it would be," Schirmer said.

"We're trying to figure out: How does that transformation occur?" he said. "The style of life changes," and the nature of interaction among people.

Some of the same materials can be found at both small and large village sites, Schirmer noted. He's not certain if one group occupied the sites first or if both people lived in the area at the same time.

There also are many smaller sites separate from the villages.

"We're just finding them because we're looking for them," he said.

One of the tasks being undertaken during this year's field school, which runs May 17-June 18, will be surveying to pinpoint locations. The success of that operation depends a lot on local cooperation.

Some landowners are apprehensive about letting archeologists do surveys, Schirmer said, because they fear it will affect how they can use their land.

"It will not," he stressed. "It's still their land."

Surveyors are just trying to get a sense of the archeological landscape, Schirmer said.

"All we really want to know is where they were living, how many of them there were, and when they lived there."

The field school will have 11 registered students, most of them from MSU, Mankato, plus seven or eight volunteers from universities in Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee. They will work in the Red Wing area and possibly in Wisconsin. With time and permission, they may do some small excavations at village sites.

Headquarters for the field school is the Anderson Center, where the Archeological Field Research Lab is in the lower level of the education building. They'll work in the lab on rainy days.

Schirmer's Archeology Week talk is free and open to the public. For information, call (651) 388-2009.

Numerous other activities are planned statewide, beginning with the sixth annual Minnesota Archaeology Fair from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center at Fort Snelling State Park.

For details, go online to