Volunteers help dig into the past near Westport

RURAL WESTPORT, S.D. (AP) – The banks of the Elm River are giving up their secrets, though not without prompting.

History and archaeology buffs are spending the week carefully peeling back the surface of small squares of land near the river as they learn more about the American Indians who inhabited the area 1,000 or so years ago.

Ray Pysarsky, a Timber Lake archaeologist, said the settlement could have been home to as many people as all of Brown County is now. That would be roughly 35,000. However, many of the details about the area have yet to be learned. That’s what this week’s work is all about.

Terry Yun, a retired Aberdeen area truck driver with an interest in archaeology, said the area shows signs of three past settlements:

• A tribe of Plains or Woodland American Indians from 900 to 1,200 years ago.

• An Archaic settlement 5,000 or more years ago.

• An outpost with ties to the Colin Campbell Trading Post, roughly 10 miles north, dating to the 1800s.

Evidence of the more recent tribe – pieces of pottery, buffalo and deer bones, projectile points and more – has been discovered from 12 to 70 centimeters (from 4 inches to more than 2 feet) below the surface, Pysarsky and Yun said. Below that are relics from the Archaic tribe.

Pysarsky said the artifacts seem to indicate that the most recent tribe in the area was a Woodlands tribe. Members would have come to South Dakota from Minnesota. Plains tribes would have likely migrated to Brown County from other parts of South Dakota, Pysarsky said.

Aside from artifacts, Pysarsky said diggers are looking for what he calls “features.” Those are discrepancies in soil that would indicate, for instance, where a fence post was in the ground.

Only three small areas – a couple of square meters (or roughly yards) at the most – are being dug up. Helpers carefully sift through soil using trowels, looking for artifacts. All three spots are in the midst of a field of more than 35 acres that’s in the Conservation Reserve Program, so the land hasn’t been disturbed.

“It’s a very promising site,” Yun said.

Pysarsky said the site was documented in 1977 by a man during a survey of the Elm River. It had been recorded much earlier – in the late 1800s – by a railroad worker who noticed burial mounds in the area, Pysarsky said.

It wasn’t until last year, though, that about 75 small test digs were done, some revealing artifacts, others not, Pysarsky said. The South Dakota Archaeological Society and the South Dakota Association of Professional Archaeologists are underwriting the project.

Spencer Opp of Aberdeen said he’s had an interest in American Indian artifacts since he was a child and his father found a stone used by a tribe that once settled near his Eureka home. He’s one of the people helping with the dig, and he said others are welcome to help, too. No experience is needed, only an interest in the past.

Artifacts found during the dig will belong to Leroy and Guyna Dehne, who own the property, Pysarsky said. But, he’s talking to Dacotah Prairie Museum officials in hopes of finalizing a future exhibit.

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