A 1,500-plus-year-old pottery sherd and arrowhead pieces, also thousands of years old, were among artifacts found in a phase III archaeological survey and dig on Fort McCoy's South Post in June and July.
After more than 30 years of phase I and phase II archaeological work at Fort McCoy, the dig was the first extensive phase III archaeological at the installation, said Alexander Woods, Ph.D., an archaeologist with Colorado State University's Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands under contract with Fort McCoy and the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division Natural Resources Branch (NRB) Cultural Resources project manager.�
Up until 2016, only phase I and phase II archaeological work was completed at Fort McCoy. Woods said there are a big differences among phases.
"A phase I dig is where you are basically putting in little post holes and trying to determine if an archaeological site is present," Woods said. "During a phase II you are trying to determine if a known site might be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. You also dig square units, but you'll do them with a shovel ... and are in and out fairly quickly.
"With a phase III (dig), artifacts are getting dug by hand and mapped with a laser to record exactly where the artifact was found," Woods said. "There's also a lot more precision to the digging, and it takes longer. ... It's a much more highly detailed bit of work."
Heather Walder, Ph.D., also an archaeologist with CSU working at Fort McCoy, said from the age of the artifacts that came from the dig and from information their team has pieced together, it's likely that people have resided on Fort McCoy lands for a long time.
"What we can say is there have been people living here continuously for approximately the last 3,000 years," Walder said. "A lot of what we see here is likely from ancestors of members of the Ho-Chunk Nation."
When doing this extensive of an archaeological survey at Fort McCoy, the archaeological team - which included more than 20 people at times - compares artifacts to those known to be from certain archaeological time periods. For North America, those time periods include Paleo-Indian, pre-8000 before Common Era, or BCE; Archaic, 8000-1000 BCE; Woodland, 1000 BCE to 1000 Common Era, or CE; and Mississippian, 800-1600 CE.
"We've found artifacts from the late Archaic period as well as early and late Woodland and Historic periods," Walder said.
"Once you have the introduction of pottery, for example, that's sort of the start of the Woodland Period," Woods said. "The Durst points we found here are from the late Archaic, and some of the Madison Triangular points (we found) were from the late Woodland Period."
Many of the thousands of artifacts found during the dig were marked and plotted, Woods said. Also, ground-penetrating radar was used at times to help locate promising dig areas.
"This dig helped us understand bigger questions we had from earlier surveys," Woods said. "This wasn't an earth-shattering site in terms of the sheer number of artifacts, but it was a nice dig site (on South Post).
"What we kept asking ourselves as we went through this was, 'What is the best benefit to science by us digging at this site?'" he said. "We want to learn more about what happens to artifacts after they are buried and how they were buried, for example."
Woods said finding a significant artifact, such as an ancient arrowhead, is exhilarating.
"When you find something like that, it is pretty fun," Woods said. "I'm a stone-tool guy, too, so I know that making arrowheads is a creative process but also involves a lot of problem solving. It's kind of like solving a Rubik's Cube, and you can see all the mistakes.
"When I pick up something like (an ancient arrowhead), and you can see where they made one, two, or three mistakes, and then they succeeded and finally fixed the problem, it's the kind of look-back for an archaeologist like me where I can see what frustration went into making that arrowhead just right," Woods said. "Some of the older arrowheads we find on Fort McCoy might have been used to hunt big game like mammoths or bison many years ago."
Walder and Woods both said doing a dig is the "fun part" of being an archaeologist, but it's not when the real work gets done.
"After a dig, there are months of research and lab work that have to be done to determine just exactly what kind of artifacts we have," Woods said.
Walder added, "This (dig) was the fun part, but this is not the majority of what our work entails. We have lots to do now to learn about the significance of the dig site and what happened there."
The archaeology efforts at Fort McCoy are governed by federal regulations and the National Historic Preservation Act, said Mark McCarty, chief of the NRB. Federal law requires the Army to protect historic properties under its control and to consider the effects of Army actions on those properties. The law further defines the need to find historic properties, including archaeological sites, and determine their importance.
Artifacts found are catalogued and sent to the archaeological team's lab. From there, most of the artifacts are curated with the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Woods said a future display of artifacts found at the phase III dig site will be presented at the Monroe County History Room in Sparta, Wis., at a later date.
"It will be a chance for the public to see what we learned about Wisconsin's distant past and more," Woods said.