Posted by: Brian | June 15, 2012

No Negative Shovel Tests – Archaeology Field School at Lake Traverse

Kyle and Ian screening the beach sands for artifacts and bone.

My 2012 archaeology field school is off to a productive and fun start. Our first week we collaborated with Garret Knudsen of Summit Envirosolutions on a survey of Lake Traverse on the Minnesota/South Dakota border. The goals of the project include surveying new sites, examining some of the known sites, and assessing the erosional impacts  to those sites along the water’s edge. The Army Corp asked for this survey because they manage the water control dams on the Lake Traverse watershed. The raised water levels resulting from these dams are responsible for potentially significant damage to the cultural sites along the shores of Lake Traverse.

Highlights from our first day’s finds include grit tempered ceramic sherds, a beautiful KRF point, and an bison tooth fragment.

Kyle, Ian, and Sarah surveying beaches on Lake Traverse.

Our work included a survey crew led by Garrett traveling by boat around the lake. They stopped wherever they could see eroded shoreline. Once ashore they searched the exposed beaches and cut banks for artifacts and faunal remains. My crew tested the sites. Our goal was to confirm whether intact cultural deposits survived inland from the beach finds.

We focused much of our efforts on a particularly rich beach located in front of a low-lying shore of wild cane and cattails. We started our investigation of this site by shovel testing both the cane/cattail swamp and the nearby higher ground. Every single shovel test produced cultural materials – mostly large mammal bone but also a few flakes and the occasional ceramic sherd.

I told my students that I had never actually tested a cattail swamp before. I never had a reason, since people tend not to live in swamps. Obviously the Lake Traverse water level was higher as a result of the dams, so the cane/cattail lowland most likely was drier when occupied. Still I worried that storms could have redeposited some of the cultural materials from the beach up into the near shore environment. I was particularly interested to note that the artifacts and bone found in our shovel tests lacked the waterworn polish of our beach finds.

The shovel test results were intriguing, but we wanted a better look at the swamp

Anna, Kyle and improvised water screening

deposits so we opened up a 1×1 m test unit. My students paid the price for my decision. The wild cane block the breeze so they baked in the hot sun. The swampy soils were thick clay – impossible to dry screen so we waded into the water and improvised a water screen set up. Tough digging, tough screening, hot work. The 1×1 showed us that the deposits were intact and productive. Not surprisingly we found the same materials as on the beach – ceramics, lithics, and mammal bone – but in larger pieces. The mud made identification difficult, though, so we need to get into the lab before we can provide a full description of our finds.

On our last day at Lake Traverse I decided I wanted to have my students dig a negative shovel test. We’d dug a number of shovel tests some distance from our beach concentration, but hadn’t found the edge of the site. With an hour to go before we were to head home I sent a crew off to find where the site ended. They started about 100 m from our 1×1 m unit, dug a shovel test and found bone and lithics. They went another 100 m and found more stuff. Another 100 m and a third test produced the same results. I’m afraid I may have spoiled my field crew. The first week of their archaeology field school and they found stuff everywhere they dug. It’s been fun, but for their own good I’ll have to provide them a chance next week to dig some nothing.

Ian at the helm and Desiree trying to stay a little dry on the boat ride to the site.


  1. I just went on a survey where I REALLY did not want to find anything in my test pits. It’s an airport extension project and I sort of don’t want to have to go back for any mitigation. Of course I found an Early Kachemak smoke processing feature and an Ocean Bay red ochre floor in two different areas. But weirdly enough no artifacts. Patrick

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