January 25th, 2013

history

Archaeology at Ft. Blue Mounds

Last week I went a lecture at the Wisconsin Historical Museum about an archaeological project at the site of Fort Blue Mounds, a Black Hawk War-era fort located west and a bit south of Madison. I took notes during the talk with the intent of talking about it in the end-of-the-week accomplishments post or in a post of its own, but instead they sat undisturbed in my blog posts folder until last night.

It was an interesting project. The Wisconsin Historical Society owned the land on which the fort was thought to have stood — they didn't know the precise location — but they'd never done anything with the property except put up a sign. But when developers started buying up nearby land, they decided they should try to figure exactly where the fort had been, so they could obtain whatever additional land was necessary to preserve the entire site. They had cause to believe that the fort was too large to have been contained entirely on the quarter of an acre of land they owned.

But it turned out that man whose personal papers were the primary source for information about the fort had wildly overestimated its size, and in fact the fort had in fact stood entirely on the land owned by the state. Unfortunately, they didn't determine that until they had wasted a lot of time digging well beyond where the fort had been. But eventually they figured it all out and now they have managed to locate exactly where the fort was and delineate its borders.

They also found a big defensive ditch — like a moat, but not filled with water — that their primary source hadn't bothered to mention in his papers. And the garbage they found in that ditch contained artifacts from well after the Black Hawk War, suggesting that the fort had continued being used even after it ceased to serve any military purpose, which again was something their primary source hadn't mentioned. A useful lesson for historians: don't base all your information on a single source!

Another interesting thing about the project is that it was almost all done by volunteers working on weekends. The Historical Society wasn't in a position to spend a lot of money on the project; for one thing, they just don't have a lot of money, and moreover they thought they might have to buy up a lot of land, the value of which was increasing thanks to the nearby development. Luckily for them, much of what goes on in archaeological digs is simple grunt work that pretty much anyone can be trained to do — something I know from personal experience, having spent part of the summers of 1979 and 1980 at an archaeology camp in Kampsville, Illinois. And if a fifth grader can do it …

Anyway, the point is, they used volunteers and they did a great job. Another useful lesson, perhaps, though I suppose the professional archaeologists out there might disagree.