Anthropology 370

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Students and local volunteers sift for clues in the remains of a seven-foot mound built by Mississippian people. “I love training students, working with the public, interpreting data, and preparing exhibits all together,” says course leader Danielle Benden. “Research, service, and teaching are what UW–Madison stands for.”

Despite daily deluges, twelve students in this anthropology course spent most of June sifting and winnowing dirt in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, looking for house basins, stone tools, and pottery left by Mississippian civilization settlers who had arrived from Cahokia, a prehistoric site east of St. Louis.

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Excavated soil is sifted for ceramic shards and stone flakes. As a kid, volunteer Don Kowalsky, left, from nearby Arcadia, found Indian arrowheads. “This is as exciting as my first parachute jump,” he says. “When I dig, I might get lucky!”

Course leader Danielle Benden, an academic curator in anthropology, has devoted a decade to studying the site with her husband and fellow archaeologist Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt MA’82. They say the area’s flat-topped mounds were built about AD 1050.

Why did the Mississippians take pottery 550 miles upriver and depart just 50 years later? “The working hypothesis,” Benden says, “is that this was a small group setting up a religious mission, so most of what they used were special objects.”

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Local residents joined students for the dig. Left to right, Kowalsky, Benden, and volunteer Amanda McMahon pay careful attention to soil level and color, which show building locations.

Because the students were digging within a religious compound this year, they found fewer artifacts than previous classes. But Whitewater native Molly Mesner x’15 said she was enjoying the chase. “Archaeology is a hands-on science,” she says. “There are theories, but you have to get in the dirt, see it, and touch it.”

Published in the Fall 2014 issue

Tags: archaeology, Public service, Research, Science

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