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Power of old bones stops $10 million job

Power of old bones stops $10 million job

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STANTON — The power of old bones spoke earlier this month, when a $10 million construction project came to a five-day halt so the bones could be examined for archaeological importance.

The bones were uncovered when asphalt was peeled off the Mercer County Courthouse parking lot in Stanton to make way for a bigger building. Turns out they are a mix of bison bones and some bird bones, which might seem frivolous, except that the parking lot covers an Hidatsa village occupied over hundreds of years.

This is Stanton, after all, the epicenter of a string of earth lodge villages up and down the confluence of the Knife and Missouri rivers. Bones here mean something. Only one earth lodge depression from the Hidatsa Amahami village — once a lively place with at least 30 lodges and hundreds of Hidatsa living there — is preserved on the north courthouse lawn.

Now, it’s thought there might be one more, or at least evidence in the ground.

An archaeological team, led by Melinda McCarthy, a cultural resource specialist, is taking a deeper look at the parking lot. The county also will pay to have every bucket-load of dirt inspected for possible artifacts.

“We did budget for this. We knew about the village and possible artifacts,” said commission chairman Bill Tveit. The county has set aside $116,000 for the work.

The Amahami village was burned out by a Sioux war party in 1834, and its fragile remains didn’t have much chance when the town was founded just 50 years later. An old 1909 survey map still shows the depressions on the northeast side of Stanton, but many were destroyed by gravel mining in the ‘30s and impacted again when streets were laid down and the new courthouse was built in the ‘70s.

An overlay of that old survey map, the gravel pit perimeter and the existing courthouse outline shows that one more of the village earth lodges could have survived and been simply asphalted over.

McCarthy and her crew opened a small area there over the weekend and the news she brought to the county commission Wednesday wasn’t good, at least in terms of history.

McCarthy said the small excavation revealed more disturbance than expected, possibly because the gravel pit was larger than previously thought.

“We’ll start with the next two units, and, by then, we should be in the middle of the (possible earth lodge) feature,” she told the commission. “If we find it, no ground disturbance will happen without us.”

On the other hand, she said, if the team continues to uncover gravel mine activity, “it’ll go much faster.”

If any artifacts are found, the state and tribal historic preservation offices will be involved in their disposition. The work at the courthouse is part of a State Historic Preservation Office mitigation plan.

Fern Swenson, historic preservation officer, and Paul Picha, chief archaeologist for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, say the state’s interest is in preserving anything that’s uncovered and adding to the knowledge of the location.

“Because of all the disturbance, there’s a perception that nothing can remain. But we know some earth lodge village deposits are very deep,” Swenson said.

This will be the last chance to have a look for this earth lodge; the new courthouse will cover most of where it once was.

Travis Fuechtmann, a ContegrityGroup construction manager, said all the previous disturbance — including an old underground fuel tank and various utility lines — presented kind of a conundrum for dealing with the history and archaeology at the site.

“What to do with the unknown? We are finding ways to work together,” he said.

Meantime, all eyes are on McCarthy’s precisely measured work, in which every teaspoon of dirt is sifted and examined. She should know fairly soon if the earth lodge can still be detected. In the meantime, excavators are carefully tip-toeing around her team, staying well clear for now.

Fuechtmann said early spring weather compensates for the idle week and completion of the courthouse by fall of 2017 is well in hand.

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or

“Because of all the disturbance, there’s a perception that nothing can remain. But we know some earth lodge village deposits are very deep."

-- Fern Swenson, historic preservation officer for the State Historical Society of North Dakota

Fern Swenson

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