Northern Headwaters Region on Minnesota Map
Institute for Minnesota Archaeology logo From Site to Story logo

Northern Headwaters Region








Third River Bridge West Site   
Site Number(s):   21IC46  
County:   Itasca, MN  
City Township:   Unorganized Territory  
Image Archive:    (big thumbnails)     (medium)     (small)       


The Third River Bridge West site was recognized during a U.S. Forest Service survey of cultural resources in the area of a proposed bridge replacement.


The site appears to have been used as a fishing station for hundreds of years. The faunal (animal) assemblage is large and consists primarily of fish skeletal remains. Fish were important resources for their meat, which could be dried or smoked, and for their oil, used to soften buckskin. Analysis of the fish remains indicates that the site was occupied primarily during the spring spawning run, a time when fish would be plentiful in the Third River.

 Aerial view of the Third River Bridge Site looking north.
Aerial view of the Third River Bridge Site looking north.


Preliminary Research

The University of Minnesota and the Forest Service had previously surveyed the entire Third River Bridge site, but early investigations of the western portion of the site produced no significant archaeological evidence.


In conjunction with the bridge replacement, the area was surveyed again in 1983, and formal excavations took place on the western and eastern sections of the site. Artifacts were recovered from shovel tests on the western side of the channel and further soil coring confirmed that intact deposits were present in the area.

Mechanical stripping of fill at the Third River Bridge West site.
Mechanical stripping of fill at the Third River Bridge West site.

Research Questions

Questions guiding the new research were:

  • What was the function of the site?
  • During which season was it occupied?
  • Which cultural traditions were associated with the site?

Decision to Dig

In the summer of 1983, a license was issued and formal excavations were conducted on both the western and eastern parts of the site. Excavation blocks were placed within areas that bridge construction would most affect and at places of highest artifact density. Test units were excavated in square meter quadrants to identify possible cultural features and artifact patterns.


Location of features
Location of features at the Third River Bridge West site.

Forest Service Paraprofessionals and YCC Worker at Site Excavations
Forest Service paraprofessionals and members of the Older American and Youth Conservation Corps joined professional archaeologists on the project.

Excavation and Data Collection

Initial testing suggested that the site was occupied during the later part of the Woodland period and that the people used Blackduck ware and Sandy Lake ware ceramics.


Excavation unit
Excavation unit at the Third River Bridge West site.

Water screening
Many artifacts were recovered by water screening the soil.


The most remarkable feature discovered on the site was named Feature F. It was a slightly oval, shallow pit, completely filled with a solid layer of fish remains. Most of the contents of this feature were removed without screening, because there was no soil mixed in with the fish remains.


Feature F, showing layers of fish bone
Feature F, showing layer of fish bone in the excavation unit wall.

Profile of Feature F
Profile of Feature F. The fish remains were covered with a 1- to 2-cm layer of soil which contained no artifacts.


The overall site faunal assemblage was clearly dominated by fish, primarily white suckers. This, along with the large concentration of fish remains found in Feature F, clearly suggests that the site was occupied during the spring months, when fish of various species ascend the Third River in large numbers to spawn. People drawn to the Third River Bridge West site by the spawning runs could have harvested fish by netting, spearing, clubbing, or even by hand.


Antler points
These antler points may have functioned as fish spear or harpoon tips.

Stone tools
These stone tools were probably used for on-site fish processing.


Cultural artifacts found at the site may have been used in both catching and processing fish.


The archaeologists also excavated a large number of ceramic sherds. This assemblage was dominated by Blackduck ware, a ceramic type characteristic of the late Woodland cultural period in Minnesota. Also present was Sandy Lake ware, another type associated with the late Woodland period.

Decorated Sandy Lake rim.
Decorated Sandy Lake rim.


Representative Blackduck rims from group 1
Representative Blackduck Rims from Group 1.

Blackduck vessel from Feature C
Blackduck Vessel from Feature C


Laboratory Analysis

Many of the pottery fragments still have cooking residue on them. This is evidence for the preparation and processing of food and makes it possible to study the time period at which the vessel was used. Radiometric dates from this residue, as well as from charcoal found at the site, placed the site's occupation between 600 and 1400 AD (from 1,400 to 600 years ago).

Analysis of the large number of fish skeletal remains, as seen in Feature F, along with the comparatively small number of other animal remains at the site, indicates that fishing was a primary function of the site. Fish remains were predominately white sucker, a fish which spawns in the spring, therefore the site was most likely used during the spring season.

Interpretations and Conclusions


Unsorted material recovered from water screening
Unsorted material recovered from water screening.

The Third River Bridge West site appears to have been a fishing station used by late Woodland peoples for hundreds of years. Because this is one of the few fishery sites known outside of those on the Great Lakes, it is important for better understanding the story and lifeways of Woodland people around the headwaters of the Mississippi River.


Sources Stories Credits Search Contents Links
Northern Headwaters Twin Cities Metro Area Red Wing Locality

From Site to Story web address
© 1999 The Institute for Minnesota Archaeology
Email us:
Updated 06 Jul 1999