Iowa students move to new site for archaeology

Iowa City, Iowa (AP) May 2011

University of Iowa anthropologists and students will seek artifacts left by prehistoric American Indians at an Iowa City park.

The Iowa City Council gave approval for small-scale excavations in what is now Hickory Hill Park. The Office of the State Archaeologist will help with the excavation, which will run from May 16 to June 3, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

The work is part of the university’s annual field school. For decades it was conducted at Plum Grove Historic Site in Iowa City, but University of Iowa anthropology professor Margaret Beck says they decided to move to another spot this year.

The university team will follow the lead of Jack Musgrove of the State Department of History and Archives.

In 1960, Musgrove unearthed a number of prehistoric ceramic pieces. The collection has been held by the Office of the State Archaeologist since.

“There’s certainly stuff out there,” said Bill Whittaker of the Office of the State Archaeologist, which is housed at UI. “The question is whether we will find it because the park is pretty big. We’re going to spend a lot of time teaching students the basics. The point of a field school isn’t necessarily to find anything, it’s to give the students good experience and teach them about archaeology.”

The team of roughly 16 students plus instructors isn’t yet sure exactly where to dig.

Musgrove is said to have found the pottery pieces – dated to the Woodland Period, 500 B.C. to A.D. 1000 – along a creek behind a cemetery in what is now the western portion of the 185-acre park. But the exact location of Musgrove’s excavation is unknown, so the field study team will dig into the ground with augers to try to determine where to dig in earnest.

The field school was established in the 1970s and had traditionally been at Plum Grove in Iowa City, the former homestead of Iowa’s first territorial governor, Robert Lucas.

Beck said that Hickory Hill presented a nearby location that would yield a broad range of learning experiences.

Johnson County Historical Society curator Leigh Ann Randak said that in earlier decades of farming in the area, it wasn’t uncommon for a landowner to stumble across ancient artifacts in their fields. At her museum, for instance, is a collection of prehistoric tools from a local farm that date to the Paleo-Indian Period, or 13,000 B.C. to 7,900 B.C.

An organized dig at a site like Hickory Hill, however, could yield more information for researchers, Randak said.

“You can learn a little bit more because they’re able to keep track of where things were found and determine how deep and what the setting is,” Randak said. “The context is really important.”