The Remains of the Day

CHRISTINA HARRISON SETS her spade into the ground at a sharp angle, pushes, and lifts. A load of dirt drops onto a frame strung with wire mesh. She shakes the sieve until all that remains on top are what look like a few odd-shaped pebbles. Harrison picks one out and holds it up. It takes a closer look, but then you see it: Under the caked dirt, the pebble's surface is crisscrossed by lines of tiny bumps. It's not something nature made.

We're on a hill overlooking the Twin Cities' latest boom town, near Elm Creek in Maple Grove. Just east of our hill, five-bedroom houses stand shoulder to shoulder on sodless lots. To the west, bulldozers are at work in newly platted subdivisions that await two-income families seeking peace, quiet, and good freeway access. But up here, it's quiet. And if you position yourself just right, the view down the creek is still about what it might have been a couple of thousand years ago.

That's when another group of families set up camp here. There may have been three or four, a dozen, or more. The river ran shallow and thick with wild rice. Someone dug a fire pit, over which the grain would be scorched and readied for hulling. Someone else--perhaps on the same day, perhaps a few hundred years later--dropped a pot and when it broke, kicked the pieces down the hill. They lay undisturbed until Harrison came around. She's a freelance archeologist, under contract with the city of Maple Grove to dig up the past for posterity's sake.

Harrison works methodically. She's marked off a 3-by-3 pit and divided it into quarters. She scrapes, lifts, drops, sifts, three inches of soil at a time, each containing the mementos of a different era. The top layer yields a lot of pottery shards, some with the characteristic "woodland period" decorations made by pushing cords into wet clay. Further down the soil is studded with sharp-edged chunks of rock, the chips that came off during the making of stone hammers, axes, arrowheads. At the bottom is a circle of rocks blackened by fire. The whole pit, barely 15 inches deep, may span 8,000 years.

This is not an unusual site. Harrison has done excavations all over Minnesota, and most every spot--as long as it's good for camping and near a body of water--yields hundreds of generations' worth of history. Mostly it's unglamorous stuff. "What you find around a village site," Harrison says, "is going to be there because people didn't want to carry it with them. It's whatever was broken or useless or left over. It just so happens that I think other people's garbage is quite fascinating."

Sitting at the kitchen table at her South Minneapolis house, Harrison shows me a piece of brown stone that glows almost amber against the light. That's Knife River flint, found only in a few spots in North Dakota. It came from one of the lower layers at the Maple Grove site, the ones dating back to 3,000 B.C. or before. Elsewhere in Minnesota, archeologists have found obsidian from Yellowstone and flints from Ohio. The skeleton of a young woman who landed at the bottom of glacial Rainy Lake 6,000 years ago bore a necklace with a Gulf of Mexico shell.

Experts refer to this as evidence of a far-flung "lithic exchange," a trade in raw materials and products that spanned the continent. They don't do much to help you picture all that could mean. Would you give a Gulf shell as a wedding gift? How far would you go for a Knife River arrowhead? If you had an obsidian knife, would you flaunt it or hide it?

None of those questions are for Harrison to answer. She's a practical archeologist; in police terms--and archeology more than any other science resembles detective work--she'd be the field cop, dusting for fingerprints and rounding up bits of evidence. Each chip of stone and pottery is kept in a plastic bag carefully marked with location and depth. Later, Harrison will clean the pieces with running water and a soft toothbrush, noting the type of material and any special markings. Some of the pottery may have remnants of charred food; an arrowhead may retain a coating of animal protein, blood from the animal in which it once stuck. Those things can be radiocarbon-dated and further analyzed, yielding some hint at what people hunted, skinned, ate, and threw away.

Beyond that, Harrison is careful "not to let my imagination run wild." She doesn't, she says, generally picture the people who once lived on her sites; no odd feeling of another presence, no sudden looking up to see who else might be near. But there are times when she'll lift a stone hammerhead from the dirt, feel its weight, and know that "I'm probably the first person to hold this since the person who last used it in their daily life. That's when I do feel some sort of connection."

A native of Sweden, Harrison's no stranger to that feeling. Growing up in Europe, it was hard not to realize that any square inch of soil had been sat on, walked on, plowed, or soaked in blood at some point or another. "What people don't realize," she muses, "is that here, it's not that much different. It's just not that obvious. Native people consumed less, and they left less garbage behind. But it's there."

Not all of Harrison's clients are thrilled to find that out. Very few have asked to keep the artifacts she unearths, though they're technically their property. Some are intrigued at first, then lose interest; some get downright uneasy. "People like to think that they're the first to live in a place," she says.

Besides, there are practical considerations. Most of Harrison's digs are prompted by development plans; federal and state laws require archeological investigations on public and some private lands ahead of things like road-building or wetland-filling. But no law demands that archeological sites, once found, be protected. (Burial sites are the exception; they may not be dug up or disturbed in any way.) Once the dig is done and the paperwork complete, it's up to landowners to decide what to do about the history in their backyards. Usually, that happens when the bulldozers are already waiting to move in. "And down time for something like that," Harrison notes, "can be very expensive." CP

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