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Archaeological Excavation at the River Resort Site Bagley, Wisconsin

by:  Thomas C. Pleger, Adjunct Archaeologist, Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

This web page summarizes the results of archaeological excavations at the River Resort Site (47-Gt-601) in the Village of Bagley, Grant County, Wisconsin (Figure 1). The project was undertaken in preparation for a proposed water treatment system that was partially funded by the Farmers Home Administration Rural Development Program.

Project location map; Bagley 7.5' Quadrangle.

Figure 1.  Project location map; Bagley 7.5' Quadrangle.

The site was discovered in April 1997, during a surface survey whereby prehistoric artifacts were recovered from eroded surfaces and from a series of test-pits excavated by shovel. This survey located artifacts along a river terrace that is now part of the River of Lakes Resort Area.

Enhanced photograph of Unit O (west wall profile) showing the relationship of the soils and cultural stratigraphy.

Figure 2.  Enhanced photograph of Unit O (west wall profile) showing the relationship of the soils and cultural stratigraphy.

After the discovery of the site, MVAC archaeologists returned in late April 1997 and conducted test excavations which resulted in the identification of a series of artifact bearing layers that were still intact and in chronological order. This type of layering is referred to as a culturally stratified deposit and is of great significance since each episode of human habitation is contained within separate layers and can be distinguished from older and younger occupations (Figure 2). Test units revealed artifacts related to prehistoric Native American habitation from both Woodland (500 B.C. - A.D. 1000) and Middle/Late Archaic (4000-1000 B.C.) occupations. Due to the fact that intact sites of this antiquity are extremely rare in Wisconsin, and that little is known about Middle Woodland and Middle/Late Archaic lifeways, the site was considered to be significant in terms of its potential to yield additional archaeological information about Wisconsinís prehistoric occupants.

Since much of the River Resort site was going to be destroyed as a result of construction associated with the sewer project, it was decided that a portion of the impacted area would be excavated in order to recover a representative sample of the information that would otherwise have been lost. Excavations were undertaken by the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center (MVAC) under contract with Blackhawk Engineering during the Summer of 1997 (Figure 3).

Block excavations at the River Resort Site.

Figure 3.  Block Excavations at the River Resort Site.

Prior to excavation, the original sewer route plans were modified so as to minimize site impact. This resulted in avoidance of the densest areas of the site and allowed for a portion of the site to be preserved. Archaeological excavations were limited to specific areas of direct sewer route construction. Three specific areas were targeted for investigation: 1) the Packer Drive area; 2) the Mississippi Drive area; and, 3) the Skid Row area. Excavations resulted in the recovery of Woodland and Archaic artifacts and the identification of several trash pits (features). Three Woodland features and two Archaic features were excavated.

Map of the Mississippi Drive Area.

Figure 4.  Map of the Mississippi Drive Area.

The Mississippi Drive area (Figure 4) produced a series of prehistoric deposits including the only shell-tempered pottery from 47-Gt-601. These pottery sherds consisted of tiny fragments of smooth surfaced, undecorated, shell-tempered sherds that appear to be from the body of one or two vessels. The sherds were recovered from a layer located immediately below the present day surface. This material suggests the presence of, or interaction with, Oneota/Mississippian populations; however, no other Oneota or Mississippian diagnostics were recovered.

Microblade tools and Snyder Point (lower right).

Figure 5.  Microblade tools and Snyder point (lower right).

Woodland materials were recovered in the upper 50 centimeters in all three areas. Pottery consisted of Prairie Ware (Early Woodland), Lane Farm Cord-impressed (early Late Woodland), and Madison Cord-impressed (Late Woodland) ceramics. Several dentate-stamped Middle Woodland - Trempealeau phase sherds, a series of micro-blade tools, and a Middle Woodland Snyders point were also recovered (Figure 5). Artifacts related to the Woodland occupations consisted of Prairie du Chien and Galena chert debitage, retouched flakes, bifaces, biface fragments, and pottery sherds(Figure 6). In all areas of excavation, Woodland artifacts were concentrated in the A horizon and the upper half of the underlying B horizon (Figure 2).



Late Woodland - Madison Cord-impressed pottery
Late woodland - Madison Cord-impressed 

Figure 6.  Woodland artifacts from the Mississippi Drive Area.

Three Woodland features were identified as originating from the base of the A horizon. Feature 3 (Packer Drive area) and feature 7 (Skid Row area) are interpreted as small circular refuse pits. Feature 3 consisted of a basin-shaped pit. The shape of feature 7 was difficult to precisely define. Feature 5 (Mississippi Drive Area) consisted of a large circular basin-shaped shallow pit (Figure 7). Other than a series of nondescript grit-tempered pottery sherds, no diagnostic artifacts were recovered from the Woodland features. A single radiocarbon date from feature 5 produced a date of: 2020 BP + / - 40 BP (BP = Before Present), suggesting an early Middle Woodland cultural affiliation.

Plan and profile view of Feature 5 seen here as a dark stain in the unit floor and lower profile wall.

Figure 7.  Plan and profile view of Feature 5 - seen here as a dark stain in the unit floor and lower profile wall.

Archaic artifacts were also identified in all three areas; however, the densest concentration of intact deposits occurred in the Mississippi Drive area. The Mississippi Drive area produced an isolated pre-pottery layer most heavily concentrated in the lower third of the B horizon and within the B to C horizon transition (Figure 2). In some instances, the Archaic materials continued down into the upper 10-15 cm of the C horizon sediments.

Archaic points - Durst

Archaic point - Raddatz

Figure 8.  Archaic points from the Bagley excavations.

Non-feature, diagnostic artifacts, from this deposit consist of a single Late Archaic Durst Stemmed biface base and a Middle Archaic, Raddatz point (Figure 8). The Mississippi Drive area also produced a pre-pottery (presumably Archaic) layer of heat-fractured debitage and biface fragments manufactured from Galena cherts. This deposit occurred at a depth of 60-90 centimeters below ground surface and is interpreted as the discarded debris from heat-treating activities (Figure 9). Heat-treating is a technique that was often done by prehistoric stone tool makers to remove excess moisture in the stone prior to flaking. Heat-treating allows the stone to flake better and often causes the material to appear more lustrous and darker in color.

Heat shattered Galena chert biface fragments from the Mississippi Drive Area.

Figure 9.  Heat shattered Galena chert biface fragments from the Mississippi Drive Area.

Two Archaic features were identified in the Mississippi Drive area (Figure 4). Feature 4 consisted of a small deep basin shaped pit that originated within the lower half of the B horizon. It contained heat-fractured debitage, a broken side or corner-notched projectile point, several tiny nodules of red ocher, and several tiny fragments of calcined bone. Although the base of the projectile point is missing, the general morphology suggests a Late/Middle Archaic cultural affiliation (Figure 10). A radiocarbon date of 3030 + / - 60 BP was obtained from feature 4. Based upon the radiocarbon date and the broken Archaic point, feature 4 is interpreted as a Late Archaic refuse pit.

Feature 4 showing projectile point in-situ.

Figure 10.  Feature 4 showing projectile point in-situ.  Photo of projectile point and retouched flake from Feature 4

Close-up of projectile point in-situ

Photo of projectile point and retouched flake from Feature 4.

Feature 6 (Figure 2) was located immediately west of feature 4 (Figure 4). It also originated in the lower portion of the B horizon and was similar in size and shape. Artifacts included debitage, a stage II biface base, a utilized flake, and a large stage I cleaver-like biface. A charcoal sample was submitted for radiocarbon dating and a date of 6040 BP + / - 60 BP was obtained. No diagnostic artifacts were recovered and the date must be accepted at face value. Feature 6 is interpreted as a Middle Archaic refuse pit.

Although no dense Woodland deposits were encountered during excavation and diagnostic artifacts are minimal, excavations revealed three Woodland features along with a series of mixed and minimally stratified cultural deposits. These deposits include Early, Middle and Late Woodland materials. Unfortunately, no Middle Woodland, Trempealeau phase or Lane Farm Cord-impressed materials were recovered in isolated context. A single date from feature 5 confirms an early Middle Woodland occupation.

In both the Mississippi Drive and Skid Row areas, pre-pottery deposits were encountered beneath the Woodland materials. Radiocarbon data from two excavated features suggests that at least two Archaic components are represented; a Late Archaic occupation and an earlier Middle Archaic occupation.

The River Resort site (47-Gt-601) is a significant archaeological site. Archaeological investigations revealed a series of artifact rich layers indicating that the area has been used by prehistoric Native Americans for at least 6,000 years. A cooperative effort was made by the Village of Bagley, Blackhawk Engineering, the Farmers Home Administration Rural Development Program, the State Historic Preservation Office of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at UW-La Crosse to rescue and preserve a portion of the archaeological information that would have otherwise been destroyed. This information has provided additional insights into the prehistory of the Upper Mississippi Valley and has contributed to a better understanding of prehistoric lifeways in this region. All artifacts and records will be curated at the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Centerís Archaeological Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse.

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Photos courtesy of Tom Pleger

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.