Northwoods Archaeology: Uncovering the Value of Everyday Lives in the Past

Feb 22, 2019

Archaeology in the Northwoods is different than it is downstate, and it can serve as a window into the everyday lives of former Northwoods residents.

As part of WXPR's We Live Up Here series, Ardis Berghoff has the story.

When most people think of archaeology, the discovery of ancient civilizations in places like Egypt, Greece or Peru come to mind. But archaeologists work in the Northwoods, too.

Snow covers the ground now, but archaeologists from the Wisconsin Historical Society will resume work on two projects in the Manitowish Waters area later this year. One involves wild-ricing sites that the Ojibwe established off-reservation in the late 19th and early 20th century.

John Broihahn is Wisconsin's state archaeologist.

“I think there was a general consensus that while reservations gave American Indian people places to live, they really didn’t give them a way to live and a way to make a living," he says. "So people continued to follow traditional pursuits like wild ricing and hunting and fishing off reservation, and these camps are evidence of that.”

Broihahn and the Wisconsin Historical Society are working with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Lac du Flambeau to document historic camps where the Ojibwe processed the wild rice they harvested along creeks and beside lakes. Those sites could be a thousand years old or from the 1950s and ‘60s. Some are near places where the Ojibwe still harvest wild rice today.

“We are working with a private land owner who identified a couple locations for us and said ‘I’ve observed some wild-ricing materials at this location. You might want to check there," he says. "And then based on that setting, then we picked out similar locations, similar land forms. We’re basically following the edge of the lake and the edge of the river back upstream to see where we find the last camp, or, is there some sort of geographic distribution of camps?”

They look for evidence of hearths, where the Ojibwe maintained the fires they used to process the rice. They also may find ricing pits and things the people cached there for the next season, including wash tubs for transporting rice up from the water and pans for parching it.

“What we’re doing at this point in time is we’re documenting everything we see. We take careful notes, measurements of the hearths and the ricing pits," says Broihahn. "We document what kind of materials are left on the surface. In most cases, we leave those items out there. We collect some items but not all of them.”

Some of the ricing camps are on public land, so Broihahn says they work with the managers of that land to make sure the sites are preserved for future generations.

Also near Manitowish Waters, Broihahn and the Manitowish Waters Historical Society are working on the site of a former Depression-Era camp established for the Civilian Conservation Corps, known as the CCC. In the 1930s, when jobs were hard to come by, the federal government sent young men to CCC camps like this one to give them wage-paying work on projects related to conservation and development of natural resources. Men at the CCC camp near Manitowish Waters worked on erosion control, tree planting, and the building of fire breaks and fire roads.

“At this point in time what you see out there are a series of foundations," says Broihahn. "There are some very good photographs of the camp and there are oral histories about what activities went on there.”

Broihahn notes that conducting archaeology in the Northwoods is very different for a couple of reasons.

“Downstate, areas are more frequently cultivated," he says. "So archaeology in those areas really involves walking a lot of cultivated fields, looking between corn rows, rows of beans and other row crops, for artifacts and other evidence of the past.”

In comparison, most of the Northwoods isn’t cultivated, so archaeologists are more likely to find artifacts intact.

“In some cases, all you need to do is walk over the ground’s surface to see and to find archaeological sites and historic sites," says Broihahn. "And then in other cases you have to employ small-scale excavations, which archaeologists call shovel tests. These are 1 to 2 feet in diameter, and we usually excavate those down into the sub-soil and then screen all of the dirt we take out through small mesh screen.”

Learning from these Northwoods sites is important. Even in this day and age, when we assume everything is recorded on digital devices and held in masses of big data, not everything is, especially the further back we go in time.

“That’s a hole that archaeology can fill," says Broihahn. "This look at people and their everyday lives, whether it’s a family moving into the cutover and trying to establish a homestead or if it’s a group of people 10,000 years ago looking for the appropriate stone to make new stone tools like spears and axes and stuff like that.”

So, what should you do if you find an archaeological artifact in the Northwoods? The state archaeology office encourages people to leave the artifact in place to preserve valuable context. Photograph it and record as much detail as you can. Then, if you wish, send that information to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Ardis Berghoff is a freelance writer and editor who lives in northwest Vilas County.

If you want to submit information about an archaeological artifact or a site you believe you have found in the Northwoods, contact the Wisconsin Historical Society at 608-264-6496 or go to https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS4048.

State archaeologist John Broihahn can be reached at john.broihahn@wisconsinhistory.org

Learn best practices for preserving artifacts on the Manitowish Waters Historical Society website: https://www.mwhistory.org/prehistory/best-practices-q-a/

Learn more about the Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Lac du Flambeau at https://www.ldftribe.com/departments/31/Tribal_Operations/Tribal_Historic_Preservation_Office.htm

This story was written by Ardis Berghoff and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Careless Morning by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.