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The Bryan Site         
Site Number(s):   21GD4, 21GD45  
County:   Goodhue, MN  
City Township:   Red Wing  
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1938 Aerial view of the Bryan Site
Aerial view in 1938. The 20 acre village site, is now almost entirely destroyed by gravel mining.



The Bryan site is significant to archaeological interpretations of the Red Wing Locality, because it can help answer questions about the nature and extent of cultural interaction of the area. Mississippian-like, Oneota, and other ceramic types intermingled at the site and suggest a blending of cultural traits.

 
 
See: Aerial photography at the Bryan site.


Background Research


In 1885, T.H. Lewis mapped more than 160 mounds at the site, which is located on a high, gravel terrace overlooking the Cannon River. Today the Bryan site can only be approached from land on one side, because the other sides slope down to the Cannon River floodplain.

 
 



There were many more mound groups in the area which have now been lost through plowing, construction and gravel mining activities. The village portion of the site was identified in 1951, when artifacts were discovered during a gravel mining operation at the site. L.A. Wilford conducted three other excavations at the site in the 1950s, but the gravel mine continued to expand during the 1960s and 1970s.


Bryan site map
Map of the Bryan site. Archaeologists were able to excavate less than 10 percent (1.6 acres) of the occupied area.

 
 



Although a large portion of the village site has been destroyed, individuals from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the University of Minnesota, and the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology returned to the Bryan site in the 1980s to conduct excavations. This site is the single largest source of information on cultural interaction between Mississippians and non-Mississippian local people.


Research Questions


Archaeologists always decide on a series of questions they want their research to help them answer. At the Bryan Site, clues to solve the following questions were sought:

  • What is the character and nature of the culture contact between Late Woodland, Oneota, and the Mississippian-related people at the Bryan Site?
  • What role did the introduction of maize horticulture play in regional Mississippian contact, and how did this system of production change between ca. 1000 and 1300 CE?
  • What is the character of the human-land relationships along this portion of the prairie-forest margin? Changes in the climate and/or landscapes are thought to have been key variables in the emergence and transformation of local cultures in the region. Can we prove this?
  • What role did the Red Wing Locality play in the broader system of Mississippian evolution and interaction in eastern North America? Of particular interest are the systems of long-distance trade and interaction along the Mississippi River and across the prairie-forest border.


Acquiring a License to Dig


Both federal and state law require that archaeologists have a license from the Office of the State Archaeologist before beginning to dig. In Minnesota, the Bryan Site was given Site Number(s) "21GD4" and "21GD45".
See: Doing Archaeology in Minnesota -- Laws


Digging into Minnesota's Past at the Bryan Site


A great deal of the Bryan site had already been destroyed by gravel quarrying by the early 1980s. Archaeologists were able to work in a small part of the original village in the northwestern part of the property, and discovered a wealth of evidence for Mississippian and Oneota culture on the bluff above the Cannon River.

Houses were clustered in different parts of the site. Most houses seem to have been surrounded by a circle of trash pits. The locations of pits can therefore be used to guess where other houses may have been.

 
 



Palisade at the Bryan Site
In 1983, archaeologists discovered this row of postmolds. The Bryan site was once surrounded by a palisade (log wall) that was probably 10-12 feet high.


The IMA 1983-1984 excavations at the Bryan site opened seventy 2 x 2 meter units, examined 557 features (pits, postmolds or other evidence of human activity at the site), discovered the remains of several structures and two sides of a log palisade, and recovered tens of thousands of pieces of cultural debris. The archaeologists used a variety of very precise techniques to gather as much data as possible, including water screening, and flotation, which helps scholars recover seeds and other tiny materials that would otherwise be lost.
 
 


Artists reconstruction
Artist's reconstruction of life at the Bryan site. (Goodhue County Historical Society)

This artist's reconstruction shows one possible interpretation of the Bryan site during its occupation. Although no evidence for it exists, many Middle Mississippian period villages had open plazas in the center of town and the Bryan site may have had one, too. Springs, at the base of the bluffs, provided drinking water. The floodplain below the site is rather narrow and good farmland in the floodplain was probably farther downstream. In the background, you can see the junction of the Cannon and Mississippi Rivers, where Lake Pepin was located 1,000 years ago.

 
 




The importance of maize and horticulture at Bryan is shown by the numerous bell-shaped storage pits, bison scapula hoes, deer mandible "sickles", and other maize-processing tools that were recovered.


Vertical profile of Feature 202
Vertical profile of Feature 202.

 
 



Metate in situ
Discovery of a metate (for grinding corn) at the Bryan site.


A unique type of feature termed "corn concentrations" was also identified during these excavations. These contain charcoal and large numbers of corn kernels and cobs; ash deposits and artifacts are rarely found in them. One hypothesis is that they are the bases of smudge pits used for hide smoking.
 
 



Pottery from the Bryan Site
Pottery from the Bryan site.


Mississippian pot from the Bryan Site
Some form of Mississippian influence is indicated at the Bryan site. The scroll decoration on the shoulder of this pot is similar to designs also found at Cahokia.


Excavation of a broken pot
Careful excavation of major finds, such as this broken pot, helped archaeologists reconstruct the daily lives of people who lived here in the 12th century CE.

 
 




After the Dig and Back at the Lab


Study of artifacts found at the Bryan site also showed connections with non-Mississippian cultures. Ceramics typical of northern Minnesota and plains groups were discovered here and demonstrate far-reaching trade connections.

 
 




Animals were an important source of raw materials; hides were used for clothing, coverings, storage containers and a host of other purposes. Many chipped stone end scrapers were found at the Bryan site. These tools were used for cleaning hides before they were smoked for preservation. Bone was also an important material used for tool making. Worked bone, antler and teeth found here resembled material from western plains sites, rather than Cahokia-area sites.



Artifacts recovered from the Bryan Site
Residents of the Bryan site used many different resources to construct tools and decorative material. Left to right: pipe, projectile point, bone awl, shell bead, shell bead. The bone awl was used for piercing leather and the shell beads were possibly used as ornamentation.


 
 


A recent study using high-precision radiocarbon dating indicates that the site was occupied from approximately CE 1000 to CE 1300, although the site was probably most populated between A.D. 1189 and 1220. See: A Pilot Study of high Precision Radiocarbon Dating at the Red Wing Locality by Clark A. Dobbs.


Conclusions


Archaeological evidence from the Bryan site has provided important information about life in the Red Wing Locality during the Mississippian period. Artifact types not native to southeastern Minnesota suggest trade with other cultures. Evidence of a palisade may represent competition for resources and conflict with other groups.

The Bryan site was a large, complex village and mound network. Radiocarbon dates suggest the Bryan site contains evidence of the most widespread period of Mississippian influence on life in the Red Wing region.

 
 


 

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Updated 30 June 1999