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MAILED: Oct. 30, 1997

EAU CLAIRE -- It may be easier for scientists to identify certain archeological sites in Wisconsin thanks to the efforts of a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geographer and his student research collaborators.

Dr. Garry Running and several students have been studying a pre-Columbian ridged field archeological site on the north side of Dells Pond in Eau Claire. Researchers are analyzing the geomorphologic data collected from the site to determine the benefits of a ridged field agriculture, and establishing criteria for identifying similar sites in Wisconsin.

"A lack of basic descriptive information about ridged fields in Wisconsin makes the task of preserving them all but impossible," Running said, noting that he hopes his research will help in the development of a plan to preserve such sites for the benefit of future generations.

Chippewa Valley lumber baron William Bartlett first reported the Dells Pond ridged field site to Charles E. Brown, the first Wisconsin state archaeologist, around the turn of the century, Running said, noting the site was probably occupied between 900 to 1,400 years. A ridge and furrow agricultural system like that at the Eau Claire site was used by Oneota people, a prehistoric Native American group known to have lived in the upper Midwest about that time.

"The site has a very long pedigree but no one has ever done much about studying it," Running said of the site, located on land owned by Northern States Power that has been protected from development. "We know it's not a pine plantation, and we know the ridges aren't road ruts. We know it's a genuine ridged field and our question is what did the people who built it get out of the ridge and furrow system.

"Ridged fields are found all over the Midwest and we wanted to know why. We want to get at why they bothered."

Senior elementary education major Bryce Kelley, Medford, initiated the project when he asked Running about Native American archeological sites in the area. Running suggested the site in Eau Claire, which is believed to be an Oneota site.

"It was an opportunity to study the life of the common person in our own backyard here in Eau Claire," Kelley said of his interest, noting that he hopes to use information he's gathered during the project in the classroom someday.

Initially, the project was to be a research paper for a geography class he took to fulfill his general education requirements, Kelley said. "I had never even heard of the Oneota culture and it really sparked an interest in me," he said. "It's weird being an education major and doing all this geography-archeological stuff but it's all information I'll be able to use in the classroom. I'm pretty excited about it."

Ridged fields in Wisconsin, and their use by Native Americans, are widely documented in accounts of early explorers and fur traders. The importance of the corn-squash-and-bean agriculture, and ridged field agriculture in particular, in the economic strategies of native groups throughout the Midwest is well known. The Oneota culture is an important component of the archaeological record throughout the upper Midwest. The Oneota were hunters and gatherers but also practiced sedentary agriculture. Despite its economic importance, their agricultural practices are not well understood and have received little scientific attention. It's known that they involve the preparation of ridged fields, a sophisticated but poorly understood cultivation technique.

"No ridged fields in the vicinity of Eau Claire County are known or have been studied," Running said. "Consequently, what ridged fields look like and how they vary from region to region, why they were prepared and how they improve site conditions for agriculture production, and who built them remain the subject of debate. The fact that they are the same age as Oneota village sites is at best circumstantial evidence that Oneota people built them."

While the ridged field is an archeological site, it doesn't contain the artifacts that most archeologists are prepared to deal with, Running said of why the site remained unexamined for the most part. The questions that can be addressed at such a site are more earth science related so physical geographers are of great use, he said.

Running learned of the site from Dr. Robert Barth, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at UW-Eau Claire. "Dr. Barth told me about the site, took us to it, and has been an important source of information regarding what archeologists know about Oneota people in general and especially here in the Chippewa Valley," Running said.

Students worked with Running to map out the area in centimeter detail. "Few researchers have ever recorded how wide and how high the ridges and furrow are," Running said. "So we mapped it."

Among the things that the researchers determined was that the ridges at the Eau Claire site are oriented north and south, Running said. "It gave them a longer growing season with the ridges," he said of the fields' creators. "And it was on the north side of the river so they'd get the reflection from the water. They got protection from the frost. That's why they did it."

In addition to learning about the agricultural benefits of the ridged and furrow system, the information can be used to help researchers better understand the social organization of families and communities during that period, Running said.

While the researchers suspect the area is an Oneota site, they can't be sure at this point, Kelley said. The information gathered will be compared to other sites known to be Oneota sites so similarities and differences between sites can be explored, he said, adding that the Oneota culture hadn't been studied until the last 20 to 25 years.

The research will help make it easier to identify other similar sites, Running said. "If you know what they look like, we will know what to look for," he said, noting that the ridged sites can be difficult to see.

Another question researchers tried to answer was whether there were changes in the soil based on the ridge and furrow system, Running said. The tests indicated that if there was a gain in soil fertility as a result of the ridges, those gains are no longer apparent, he said.

Running and his students are almost done with the field work but still have some lab work to complete. "My soils class is comparing and contrasting the human modified soils with the natural soils," he said.

Because of the archeological significance of the site, Running said researchers did their soil sampling while disturbing the site as little as was possible.

As it is, Kelley said, the site has been greatly diminished by the elements. "You can tell it's not in its original state," he said.

Kelley and Running will present the information in the spring at the Association of American Geographers national meeting in Boston.

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UWEC [Administrative Offices] [News Bureau]

Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
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(715) 836-4741
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Updated: Oct. 30, 1997