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Cleveland Museum of Natural History researchers uncovering prehistoric American Indian settlement in Huron County, 7/10/2009

HURON COUNTY -- The first clue that something unusual lay hidden beneath the old bean field didn't come from digging in the hard-packed dirt. Archaeology is still fundamentally about digging, but that would come later.

No, the earliest suggestion of something worth uncovering on this plateau above the Huron River were some dark electronic smudges on a piece of graph paper. To an untrained eye they looked like random squiggles -- a few dots, two stripes running roughly parallel to each other, and an oval outline shaped like a chicken egg.

The smudges piqued Brian Redmond's professional curiosity, though. They were a kind of map of the bean field's subsurface, traced by an instrument called a fluxgate gradiometer. American archaeologists have only recently begun to rely on the devices. Sweeping one a few inches above the ground produces a sort of magnetic fingerprint of subsurface soil that's been disturbed in some way, whether by digging or burning.

The patterns that the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's archaeology curator saw on the graph paper looked like the signatures of a large-scale ancient dwelling. The dots could be cooking or trash pits, the parallel lines a couple of filled-in ditches, and the oval possibly the remnants of a stockade.

Five weeks of digging this summer by professional and amateur archaeologists from the Cleveland museum and the Firelands Archaeological Research Center, guided by the magnetic readings, have confirmed the presence of a major occupation, and have begun to reveal some tantalizing details about the encampment and its inhabitants.

It's one of the earliest, largest and most sophisticated Native American settlements in northern Ohio, Redmond said.

Artifacts such as sherds of pottery and razor-sharp flint tools called bladelets indicate that three distinct prehistoric groups occupied the settlement off and on, beginning as early as 2,500 years ago, at the same time the Roman Republic was rising. They remained until shortly before European explorers arrived in the area in the 1600s. (Mulekites, Nephites, Lamanites,  Mulekites would be the earliest at 500 BC)

Evidence suggests the site may have, over time, served multiple purposes: a ceremonial spot, a wintering shelter, a defensible village and a trading hub. Its plentiful artifacts are in the same style as those made by the mound-building Hopewell people in southern and central Ohio, but it's not clear whether those items were imported, or crafted by locals imitating the Hopewell traditions.

There is even a hint that the Huron bluff's occupants practiced a kind of ancient archaeology themselves.

"There are all sorts of stories to tell about this site," Redmond said, on the next-to-last digging day of the season. "I'm amazed at what's here. I really think it was an important place."

The excavation is on a working Huron County farm whose owners gave the researchers complete access as long as they promised not to publicly disclose its exact location. Several generations of the farm family, as well as amateur collectors, have found prehistoric American Indian artifacts over the years while walking or plowing the fields.

The site is an ideal location for a settlement. It's a high, flat plateau. To the south, the land drops away to the Huron River. Deep ravines to the east and west helped form a three-sided promontory. The Native American inhabitants protected the fourth side by digging two parallel ditches, each about eight feet wide and 3 feet deep.

Sparked by accounts of the abundant artifacts locals had found there, Kent State University archaeologist Orrin Shane launched a series of digs beginning in 1968 that identified the remnants of those filled-in ditches.

Shane concluded they were dug by Native Americans who lived during the Early Woodland period, from 2,500 to 2,100 years ago. His excavations also turned up numerous stone tools and pottery fragments characteristic of the Middle Woodland period.

That indicated the site had been occupied as recently as 400 AD. But its purpose, its physical size and layout, and its ultimate duration remained unknown when Shane's excavations ended in the early 1970s.

Nearly 40 years later, Redmond arrived with new equipment and ample curiosity.

The design of the Middle Woodland implements Shane and his crew had found on the Huron River bluff was similar to that used by the Hopewell people, who built mysterious, elaborate mounds in southern Ohio.

There were pieces of ceramic vessels that had been decorated by pressing thin strands of cord into the wet clay. And there were distinctive spear tips and knives called bladelets, which Hopewell craftsmen made by heating and chipping a rosy-hued flint found only in a place called Flint Ridge, east of present-day Columbus.

While Hopewell-style remnants aren't unheard of in northern Ohio, just a handful typically turn up at any one site. But the Huron River promontory had hundreds of the hallmark "high culture" objects. Only one other northern Ohio location - a place called the Esch Mounds several miles downriver -- has produced a similar abundance.

"This place is kind of a weird outlier of Hopewell artifacts that seem to be out of place in northern Ohio," Redmond said.

One potential explanation is that southern Ohio Hopewell groups - who operated extensive Eastern trading networks exchanging raw materials such as shells from the Gulf Coast and mica from the Appalachians - established a trading base in northern Ohio and brought along their tools and tool-making skills.

Another possibility: Local people, because of some connection with or exposure to the Hopewell, began copying their cultural styles.

"Maybe this is the spreading of some belief system that involves the making of bladelets, or the use of this very colorful Flint Ridge flint," Redmond said. "I think religion is probably the best analog. It's something like Roman Catholicism. It covers the world. You speak different languages and live in different places . . . but they all go to Mass on Sundays."

Finding some of the huge, idiosyncratic, earthworks that Hopewell people are known for might bolster the case for immigration over imitation, but researchers so far have discovered none at the Huron bluff site.

Shane encountered an apocryphal tale that in the 1920s the land's owner used the dirt from a large mound to fill in a ravine, and in the process uncovered some artifacts and a dark patch in the soil that may have marked a crypt. Whatever evidence was reburied and lost.

The recent magnetic scan of the site showed a large blip that could be the mound's remains - or it could also be the signature of a lightning strike. For now, it's inaccessible beneath a field of growing corn.

The scan and subsequent digging did reveal more about the settlement's extent, both in physical space and time.

The egg-shaped oval was indeed the remains of a protected enclosure, tucked in the northeast corner of the promontory. It was ringed by a trench about three feet deep. The trench was lined on both sides by wooden posts that, judging by the size and depth of the stains their decay left in the dirt, could have stretched 8 feet high.  (The Book of Mormon states that the posts were to the height of a man)

When Redmond, field supervisor Brian Scanlan and their crew of mostly volunteer workers dug into the filled-in trench, they found pieces of the thick, flat-bottomed pottery characteristic of Early Woodland settlements.

As time passed and later Native American people occupied the site, they spread outside the original oval fenced enclosure, judging by the fire and trash pits scattered across the bluff.

One spot that appeared at first to be a large trash pit proved to be a dwelling. There was evidence of a hearth, and supports for benches on which several people might have slept. About 60 posts surrounded the structure - possibly saplings that could be bent down and covered with woven mats to form a weather barrier.

"Think of this as an igloo, not out of ice or snow, but very much that same shape," said Scanlan.

On the dwelling's floor, the archaeologists found three special objects the inhabitants left behind, possibly as a spirit offering. There was an awl, or puncturing tool, formed from a deer's shoulder blade; a freshwater shell pendant carved into the shape of a bear claw; and a flint projectile point.

The flint point was very old and worn, as if it had been handled often. It was probably 1,500 to 2,000 years older than the dwelling itself, which was occupied during the Late Prehistoric period. "Maybe it was something these natives picked up and carried with them, understanding it came from their ancestors," Scanlan said.

The researchers intend to return next summer, looking for more houses and possibly mounds. "There's a lot more we can do here," Redmond said.


Marvin Fong/The Plain DealerArchaeologist and field supervisor Brian Scanlan, seated, takes notes and creates a map of the subsurface "feature" that Larry Gordon is measuring. Features are dark patches of soil that may represent old ditches or trash pits where artifacts may be buried. The maps record the type of soil and other contextual information.

Video Part I: Cleveland Museum of Natural History staff and volunteers perform an excavation at an Indian settlement that could date back as far as 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.

Video Part II: Watch as Cleveland Museum of Natural History staff and volunteers search for artifacts.