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Doing Archaeology in Minnesota









        Cultural Resource Management (CRM)
Legal Restrictions
Who Does Archaeology in Minnesota?
Changing Methods and New Tools
         Remote Sensing
         Radiocarbon Dating
         Urban Archaeology


People have been exploring Minnesota archaeology for nearly 150 years. When Euro-American immigrants first arrived in the upper Mississippi Valley, thousands of earthworks and habitation sites dotted the land. Native Americans revered these sites as sacred to the memories of their ancestors and incorporated them into their cultural landscapes. As the newcomers plowed fields, cut down forests, and built towns, cities, roadways, and dams, they profoundly altered the face of the country, and in the name of "progress" they also casually destroyed most of the signs and structures left by earlier peoples. But there has always been a persistent thread of curiosity about Minnesotans who lived here before the present time. When did they arrive? Where did they come from? What were their lifeways and beliefs? How did the land and the people on it change over the past ten thousand years?

A few dedicated early observers like Alfred J. Hill, Theodore H. Lewis, and Jacob V. Brower struggled to record what they observed on the Minnesota landscape before the evidence vanished, and the most important parts of their work were preserved in THE ABORIGINES OF MINNESOTA, a monumental volume compiled in 1911 by state geologist Newton H. Winchell. Modern archaeology began with the development of an anthropology department at the University of Minnesota in the 1920s, and for the next forty years scholars from the University conducted most of the research done in the state. Among them were Alfred E. Jenks, Lloyd A. Wilford, and Elden Johnson. In more recent years smaller institutions, like the Science Museum of Minnesota and various colleges and state universities have also done archaeological work at early Indian sites.

Historical archaeology had its beginnings in Minnesota during the 1930s with WPA projects designed to create jobs for the unemployed. The Minnesota Historical Society supervised several of these excavations.

With the emergence of the preservation movement in the 1960s, the Society's historic archaeology program expanded greatly. Most of it was aimed at the study and restoration of places like Fort Snelling and Grand Portage. In the 1970s the Historical Society also administered a four-year statewide survey of known and potential archaeological sites. Since the 1980s, however, budget cuts and new priorities have forced the University of Minnesota, the Historical Society, and other public research institutions to reduce or eliminate their archaeological programs, and the field has become dominated by private firms that work on contract with developers and government agencies to assure compliance with the laws regulating preservation of cultural resources.

See: A Brief History of Archaeology in Minnesota, by Clark A. Dobbs. For more current information, see Doing Archaeology -- CRM.

Legal Restrictions

Today even qualified professional scholars cannot just go out and do archaeology on public land. Laws have been enacted to protect the rights of Indian people and to prevent the wanton destruction of historic and cultural resources precious to future generations. In 1963 the Office of State Archaeologist (OSA) was created. It is charged with sponsoring, conducting and directing research into the prehistoric and historic archaeology of Minnesota; protecting and preserving archaeological sites and objects; disseminating archaeological information through the publication of reports and articles; identifying, authenticating and protecting human burial sites; reviewing and licensing archaeological fieldwork conducted within the state; and enforcing provisions of MN Statutes 138.31-138.42 and 307.08.

See: Doing Archaeology in Minnesota -- Laws

The OSA also maintains a database of the state's identified archaeological sites in collaboration with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Each site is assigned a state site number that is consistent with the Smithsonian system of site nomenclature used throughout the United States. An example is the Howard Lake site in Anoka County, which is designated 21AN0001. This number may be broken into three parts:

21 is the number used nationwide to refer to the state of Minnesota.
AN is the abbreviation used statewide to refer to Anoka County.
0001 indicates that the Howard Lake site was the first archaeological site in Anoka County to be recorded with state authorities. All references to the Howard Lake site include this number.

For further information on the database of archaeological sites, contact either the OSA or the SHPO.

Also in 1963, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) was established (MN Statutes Chapter 888, Sec. 2 (3:922)). The MIAC serves as the official liaison between the State of Minnesota and the eleven tribal Governments within the state. Minnesota was the first state in the nation to establish an Indian Affairs agency and provided a model for other states to follow. The MIAC and the OSA have legal responsibility to monitor and enforce laws that protect Indian human remains and associated burial items. The responsibilities under the law include rescue, identification, and reburial of human remains. The MIAC reviews archaeological license applications to conduct fieldwork to determine if a burial or cemeteries are within a proposed project area. The authority for the MIAC is contained in Minnesota Stature 138.31 "Field Archaeology Act."

For further information contact the MIAC.

Who Does Archaeology in Minnesota?

To become a professional archaeologist in the upper Midwest most people start with a college degree in anthropology. For most licensed work, advanced degrees, such as an M.A. or M.S. are required and, in some cases, even a Ph.D. is needed. For both prehistoric and historic archaeology additional experience in specialized fields is required under the standards of the Secretary of the Interior. [Link to the Secretary of the Interior's proposed Historic Preservation Professional Qualification Standards at

For example, for historic archaeology, training in fields such as historical geography, architectural history, or others is requested. Advanced training in these disciplines give the background knowledge required, but field work and lab analysis use techniques or methods that can only be learned by hands-on training under the supervision of experienced archaeologists. The fundamental training is generally given in summer field schools and laboratory courses offered for college credit. Additional experience is gained through employment in the field or in laboratory settings. Museums and other organizations, such as the IMA, give equivalent training to volunteers.

In Minnesota, as elsewhere, there are also avocational archaeologists. Some of these people work closely with professionals, helping to ensure that sites are preserved and information carefully recorded. Dedicated volunteers of this kind contribute work and knowledge of immense value to archaeology in Minnesota.

Collectors are mainly interested in acquiring objects for their personal collections, often because of life-long interest or because of monetary value. These individuals acquire "relics" through a number of methods. Some purchase items through the antiquities market. Other inherit or trade collections from their families - many farmers collected the "relics" that turned up in their fields as the sod was turned over. It is common to hear of old boxes in farmers' barns filled with projectile points that have been found over the years. Some collectors traveled to Native American communities to purchase items. Many of these antiquities are now changing hands on the open market.

Unfortunately the lucrative nature of the antiquities market has created a dangerous situation for our shared cultural past. The search for "relics" continues to endanger and even destroy many archaeological sites. People who destroy protected sites are known as "pot hunters" or "looters." These people dig in, and desecrate, protected sites on public lands in search of items to sell on the market. Some go so far as to use metal detectors and bulldozers. When working on private lands with the permission of the landowners, their activity is legal, but it nevertheless destroys precious evidence of the past, for once a site is disturbed, much of its value for research is gone. Thus future generations are deprived of a part of their cultural heritage.

See: Doing Archaeology in Minnesota -- Organizations; -- CRM

Changing Methods and New Tools

Archaeologists understand that the privilege of excavating a site is a one-time opportunity to gather evidence of the past. Once excavated, a site is destroyed, and the context cannot be re-examined. Excavation must be thorough and meticulous. Archaeologists must gather all evidence present, sherds, flakes, seeds, charcoal, not simply whole pots or projectile points. For this, ever improving methods and tools are necessary.

Scientific and technological advances in recent decades have given archaeologists a great number of new tools to work with. These draw upon knowledge and training from a variety of fields. Therefore serious archaeological research is no longer conducted by a few anthropologists. Most of it is done by interdisciplinary teams that include specialists in fields like climatology, geology, and paleobotany.

In the past archaeological sites have been studied and presented as collections of artifacts, structures, and materials. Modern geophysical methods like soil magnetics, resistivity, and ground penetrating radar allow archaeologists to examine how sites were created, modified, and utilized, using information that would only rarely be obvious during traditional excavation and is often not even visible to the human eye. Remote sensing technology combined with new computing methods now allows sites to be interpreted in ways that were impossible before.

Other new techniques include the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to explain and predict the occurrence of sites and their relationship to each other, the study of phytoliths to extend the knowledge of prehistoric plant use, and improvements in the accuracy of radiocarbon and other forms of dating. Changing views of the past have also brought new questions and new fields of study, such as industrial and urban archaeology.

See: Doing Archaeology in Minnesota -- Remote Sensing -- Phytoliths -- Radiocarbon Dating -- Urban Archaeology



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Updated 29 Jun 1999