LEHIGH – Participants paddled through time Saturday afternoon during an “Archeology on the River” event organized by Webster County Conservation.
The educational group float focused on the geological and cultural history of the Des Moines River Valley as the mass of kayaks and canoes meandered along from the Deception Hollow Wildlife Area south of Lehigh to the Boone Forks Wildlife Area access point in Hamilton County. The event drew 35 people who were led by in their river adventure by Mark Anderson, an archeologist with the Office of the State Archeologist.
“Our land use is such that we are losing archeological resources fast,” he said, “which is why education and outreach such as this is so important.”
The days of surprise discoveries and big digs are fast slipping away, Anderson said. People may still find arrowheads in fields, but often they are mixed together and out of context, providing no real insight into the people who crafted and used them. The work he typically does now are surveys and assessments to determine the archeological importance of areas impacted by proposed construction, bridge and road projects.
With this limited scope of discovery, private landowners have become key in finding and preserving sites of importance.
“Landowners are our front line of stewardship,” Anderson said. “They know their property and what is on it. The public also is a fabulous safekeeper, sharing what they find and alerting us to any new sites.”
The Des Moines River Valley shows evidence of Paleoindian sites from 13,000 years ago to all kinds of more recent historic sites, he said. However, the different sites are not necessarily so easy to spot from the river. Most Paleoindian and Archaic period sites are upland because at the time that those people were establishing themselves, the river filled the valley. Still, being relatively close to the water was essential to aid in mobility.
“Waterways were prehistoric highways,” Anderson said. “They facilitated transportation and were even used in the winter by walking them once they had frozen over.”
Geographic evidence of glaciers and the ice age are easily viewed in the river’s surrounding bluffs and riverbanks, though, since the river was the main drainage of the last large ice events in Iowa.
The Paleoindian period, Anderson explained, is the time period where humans were thought to have crossed over to North America from Asia using the Bering land bridge. They were nomadic hunters of animals such as mammoth, mastodon and caribou. Evidence of people of the Paleoindian period being active in Iowa is often reportedly found near areas where rivers and tributaries come together.
The archaic period was between 8,000 to 3,000 years ago and is really when people spread out across the entire landscape, Anderson said. They were hunters and gatherers who also developed and implemented tools, such as axes. The Woodland period was around 2,800 years ago. The people of the period established a coordinated, widespread trade network and built the burial mounds in Dolliver Memorial State Park.