Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is a Native American site situated in the Mississippi Valley in southern South Dakota in the United States. During its occupation of around 100 years, it was a large, Middle Missouri-tradition village of approximately 80 huts on a bluff overlooking Firesteel Creek, protected in the southwest by a palisade ditch. Habitation dates to 1000 AD, an estimate achieved using radiocarbon dating, but initial excavations didn’t begin until 1910.
In 1928 Firesteel Creek was dammed to form Lake Mitchell, upon which the village now sits. The site has since been transformed into the Thomsen Centre Archeodome, which shelters the excavation floor from the strong prairie winds and protects the archaeologists from the fierce sun. The museum and visitors centre offer year-round public access to view archaeology. Furthermore, the site has recently been officially recognised as a National Landmark and National Register site. Each year students from the University of Exeter and Augustana College in the USA attend fieldschools at the site, which can be viewed by visitors.
During the summer of 2015, I was part of the team of student archaeologists who travelled to Mitchell from the UK for the excavation season. Archaeology in the USA usually operates the grid system of excavation, which is different to the linear trench style of UK archaeology. Grid squares were allocated to different teams of students who explored their area for the duration of the dig. I was fortunate to work on a relatively unexplored area of the site, which produced interesting features from the start. On Day 1, my team discovered a cache pit, used by the prehistoric villagers either for food storage or waste disposal. This was suggested by a lighter circle of earth within the darker grid square. We decided to excavate the pit by half-sectioning, that is, digging out half of the dirt from the fill leaving a wall in the middle, to explore the extent and nature of the feature. Eventually all of the fill was removed, with careful excavation of the walls of the bell-shaped pit to maintain its structural integrity. In its fully excavated state, our cache pit reached to a diameter and depth of 1.5m. This meant that excavation became more difficult towards the bottom, since only one person could fit inside the pit and was standing on what they were excavating. This definitely called for some good team work and hand-eye coordination! What’s more, the pit eventually took up nearly the entire grid square, which meant we were constantly skirting around the edges to avoid falling in!
Due to the fact that cache pits were actually used to store contemporary objects, they are often hotspots for interesting finds. In even the first few layers of dirt removed from our pit, we spotted many rim-sherds of prehistoric pottery. These particular pieces are useful for telling how vessels were designed, the pattern used and the different tempers and inclusions in the fabric of the pottery. Deeper, we unearthed charcoal and burnt corn cobs, which provided some insight into the diet and food processing of the prehistoric people, arrowheads and Bijou Hills quartzite stone tools, likely discarded when blunt or damaged. However, outside the pits, other exceptional finds included my discovery of the site’s first fully-intact pottery vessel, which could fit in the palm of your hand. When this popped out of the wall of the grid square, everyone became very excited and couldn’t wait to discover what it might have been used for. After the excavation residue analysis was carried out by the University of Exeter, with results expected soon.
The Mitchell site is scattered with similar cache pits, although that found during our season was the largest to date, with some of the most interesting finds. Other examples included one lined with an undetermined organic matter, possibly rushes, and a much smaller pit with charcoal contents. However, other features are also noted. Burnt rock middens (BRMs) and areas of bone-marrow extraction, noted as large masses of shattered animal bones, are dispersed across the site, associated with cooking practices.
Some of the main research aims are to track the domestication of maize across North America from its Meso-American origins. Examples of charred, preserved corn help this understanding as palaeobotanists (ancient plant specialists) can identify the genus and family of different varieties and differentiate between domesticated and wild varieties. Other areas of research include exploring trade connections between the Mitchell villagers of the Middle Missouri tradition and the nearby contemporary Mississippian and Plains Villagers. Examples of Mississippian-style artefacts such as a ‘Cahokia-style’ arrowhead were excavated during the 2015 season. Other trade links connected Mitchell to the Gulf of Mexico, as shown through shells unique to the Gulf Coast. This important trade was made possible by the river highways offered by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Evidence from the Mitchell site and ethnographic analogy suggest that the Mitchell villagers travelled along waterways in round, ‘bull’ boats to transport their wares.
During our time at the site, the local press expressed an interest in the ancient, preserved corn cobs and the intact pottery vessel, carrying out interviews with some of the students. National newspapers including the New York Times caught wind of the story, and produced their own articles to share the great work of the Mitchell students and staff. What’s more, my team’s cache pit was featured in the popular magazine Current World Archaeology.
On some days of the season, I worked in the lab processing finds. This meant cleaning small artefacts and cataloguing them for future research projects. One of my peers was writing her dissertation on cache pits, so was fortunate to study all the artefacts from all of Mitchell’s cache pit features to further understand their use among the villagers. Because the site is fully open to the public, with a walkway around the site floor allowing visitors to view live archaeology, we were able to explain our work in real-time. Some visitors asked lots of questions and in turn we got to learn about where they were from and what brought them to the site; many were road-tripping across the US, stopping at Mitchell on the way to major landmarks like Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, further West in South Dakota.
On other days the site offered community outreach ‘Archaeology Awareness’ days. These encouraged children to visit the site and participate in archaeological research and to learn about Native American culture. These events happen annually and are a great opportunity for young people to experience diversity in North America. Activities usually include atlatl (dart) throwing, pottery classes, a kid-friendly excavation and tours around the site. The Mitchell site staff are incredibly friendly and hardworking, which makes this event a success each year.
The site is open from 08.00 to 19.00 each day during peak summertime, and from 09.00 to 18.00 in Spring and Autumn. Archaeologists work from 08.00 to 16.00 daily in the summer. During the warmer months I would advise visiting early in the day, because the centre, although air-conditioned, can become very warm from the busy archaeologists work. A great place to start would be the museum building, where visitors can gain some background insight into the history of Mitchell and the main archaeological objectives of the excavations, for example understanding maize domestication and bone-grease extraction. There is a reconstructed earthen lodge of the Middle Missouri tradition, which children will find exciting to explore, and the museum boasts some of the most interesting artefacts from previous seasons of excavation. A flat pathway connects the museum and the Archeodome, where the actual digging takes place. Walkways circulate visitors above the excavation floor, but some small steps mean that these aren’t fully wheelchair accessible. Nevertheless, a good perspective of the site can be gained using the ramped areas and steps can be avoided. The lab can also be visited, where the friendly staff and students will share their first-hand experiences and answer questions. Outside the building, Firesteel Creek and the surrounding scenery offer beautiful panoramic views and a good spot to have a picnic lunch. The museum also has a wonderful Shoppe Antiquary stocking traditional Native American craft products and information about the Mitchell Site including academic and popular books.
Visiting MITCHELL PREHISTORIC INDIAN VILLAGE
Monday to Saturday: 9.00 to 18.00
Sundays: 10.00 to 18.00 (Closed Sundays in April and October)
June – August
Monday to Saturday: 8.00 to 19.00
Sundays: 10.00 to 18.00
November to March
Children under 5 Free
Students with valid ID $4
(Group tours available at discounted rates)
Address 3200 Indian Village Road, P.O. Box 621 Mitchell, South Dakota 57301