Village Life

What was life in an ancient village like? Archaeologists can reconstruct village life from the evidence left behind: houses, fireplaces, storage pits, and other features.


For most of the past, people lived in small family groups and moved seasonally to the best hunting and gathering areas.

After 1200 AD, when the people became farmers, they lived in larger communities. We have found evidence of longhouses built between 1300 and 1600 AD. An extended family may have lived in each house, with several houses present at a site. Each longhouse might have been 50-100 feet long.

Thatch is bundles of reeds or grasses. It was used to cover the walls and roofs of houses, as bedding, and to line storage pits. Masses of it, such as this sample, have been found charred and preserved in refuse pits.

The Sanford Archaeological District is in southern La Crosse, near the Gundersen/Lutheran Medical Center. Beneath the modern houses in an eight-block area, there are the remains of an Oneota village that was here from about 1300 - 1600 AD. The Gundersen site was excavated in 1991, providing us with a glimpse of the past.
Cross-section of two postmolds or dark stains in the ground where posts have decayed
This site plan shows lines of postholes. They mark the outlines of several structures. Not all were occupied at the same time. The village may have had 50-100 people.
This bundle of charred thatch was found at an Oneota site


Around the Hearth

A family's many domestic activities would have clustered around the hearth. This fireplace was often a bed of limestone rocks filled with charcoal from past fires.

We don't have many tools that tell us exactly how people used to prepare their food. The food was probably prepared and cooked in the clay pots that we find. Some of these still have the residue of burned food on the outside or inside, remnants of a meal. Oneota sites have grinding stones that were used for corn, and probably also for nuts and other foods. Only a few artifacts such as a shell and a clay spoon have ever been recovered. Probably the other kinds of tools that were used for preparing and eating food were made out of wood or bone that has not preserved.

Cross-section through a stone-lined hearth filled with ash, animal bones, charcoal and artifacts disposed in the fire
This mussel shell has a carefully worked margin. It could have been used as a spoon, or used to make decorations on pottery, or perhaps for other purposes.
Clay spoon
A mano (smaller stone) and metate (larger stone) were used to grind corn