Archaeology Field School in Trempealeau — The North Star Reports, sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal. By Lee Bongey

Flint-knapping with deer antler

(Flint-knapping with deer antler)

Archaeology Field School in Trempealeau — The North Star Reports, sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal. By Lee Bongey

Hello, my name is Lee and I am an Anthropology and Linguistics double major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I have just begun my third week of an archaeology field school in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. We have been excavating a Native American platform mound to learn about a group of people that archaeologists call Middle Mississippians. Middle Mississippian culture flourished in their home city of Cahokia (located by modern-day St. Louis, Missouri) from 1050-1250 C.E. Middle Mississippians traveled from Cahokia almost 530 miles up the Mississippi River to Trempealeau, so what we’re hoping to find out through the excavations in Trempealeau is why the Middle Mississippians came and why they left.

Pottery sherd

(Pottery sherd)

I have never been on an archaeology dig before, so it’s fascinating to see the procedures involved when excavating. We dig in a very systematic manner, squaring off areas to dig in and removing centimeters of soil at a time with a shovel or trowel. We then sift the dirt through sifting screens, so we can look for artifacts as the dirt passes through the wire mesh. While we often find more recent artifacts such as nails, glass, or animal bone, it’s always very rewarding to find a Native American artifact that is over one thousand years old. The kinds of artifacts we find are usually flakes that result from flint-knapping, which is a tool-making technique where you hit a rock in a certain way to break it to create the tool. We also find pottery sherds, tools, and burnt rock (which indicate that a hearth was there). We don’t find any human remains when we dig because the platform mound was not created for the purposes of burying the dead; rather it probably served as an elevated foundation for a temple or perhaps an elite ruler’s house. The platform mounds are created by dumping thousands of basketfuls of soil on top of each other.

Digging & Sifting

(Digging & Sifting)

Beyond the artifacts, a good deal of archaeology is based off of stratigraphy, or looking at soil layers, colors, and textures. By analyzing the soil’s coloration, you can see where a wall or house post used to be. I have had no formal experiences with archaeology prior to this field school, so I found all of this to be very interesting. It’s also different from my initial ideas as to what archaeology would be like. While I previously had notions of digging in a remote location unattached from society, in actuality our dig site is the middle of the town of Trempealeau in someone’s front yard. It often seems as though archaeology and ancient history are very detached from people today, so it’s fascinating to me that we could be living right on top of what used to be someone’s home.

I learn something new every day when we dig. So far, the excavations have been tiring, but incredible! I’m looking forward to more!

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to contribute to The North Star Reports — HLIANG@CSS.EDU

For all of the North Star Reports, see

The North Star Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also welcome Duluth East High School, Duluth Denfeld High School, and other schools around the world to the North Star Project. The North Star Project has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Student interns have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star Project students and teachers.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA

(c) 2013-present The Middle Ground Journal. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

32 responses to “Archaeology Field School in Trempealeau — The North Star Reports, sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal. By Lee Bongey

  1. Neil Vierzba

    I found it interesting about the process of digging up and finding things. I’m curious to see if you end up finding something. Never really knew the process of an archaeologist before. Great read.

  2. Jonia G.

    This was really fascinating to read – I especially enjoyed that the dig was occurring in the front yard of somebody’s house. I think it is true we often think of remote areas versus such a ‘common’ location. The process sounds simple yet intricate. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I loved your article because you sounded so passionate about the archaeological project you are working on. It was interesting to me that you were working in someones yard. It just goes to show that we live our daily lives on layers and layers of history. One never knows what might be buried in the back yard.

  4. Alayna McCawley

    This was a very interesting read for me because I have never known much about the process one goes through to uncover artifacts from such a long time ago. It seems like a tiring but rewarding experience! I can imagine the joy you would get when finding something so old and meaningful after searching for such a long time. I would be interested in knowing if you ever discover something astonishing!

  5. Mindy Aubin

    This was very interesting to read. I always though archeology was mostly around ancient places and like you said detached from people today so I found that interesting to read that you’re doing it right in someones front yard! Sounds really cool and fun.

  6. Kyle Hellmann

    When thinking of archaeology, I thought of the same thing; that it involves going into the deep wilderness and being away from society to find ancient artifacts. We were both wrong. Thank you for sharing your story!

  7. Amy North

    It was really interesting to read and learn about archeological digs. I didn’t know much about archeology and was surprised to read that you were digging in someone’s front yard. It sounds like a really cool experience.

  8. Rachel Rees

    This article was extremely interesting to me, as I have been fascinated with archaeology ever since I visited the Mammoth dig site when I was younger. I learned a lot about the process of digging from this article. Thanks for sharing and good luck with the rest of your digs.

  9. Jenna M

    This was a really interesting article and it sounds like you have a fun job! I find it so fascinating that we can dig up old artifacts from the past and interpret them to understand the past.

  10. Cali Stabe

    Going on a dig like this would be awesome. I also thought that digging would be in a remote place outside of society, it amazed me that you were digging in someones front yard! This sounds like an amazing job.

  11. Chelsea Bastyr

    Wow I really enjoyed this article! I’ve only seen in movies the way archaeologists dig and I, too thought that they dig in very remote places with nobody around. It’s very interesting the way you said that we may be living right on top of so much history that is unknown. I would love to go somewhere and learn the basics of digging because I bet it is extremely interesting and very exciting when artifacts are found! That’s awesome that you are following a dream and having so much fun with it! Good luck in your future!

  12. Miranda King

    It was cool to read about the process of the dig. I never thought about how intricate the process would be. Having to dig in very small amounts at a time would be very time consuming I’m sure but also preserve the artifacts being found.

  13. Maija

    I pictured digging would take place in a far off place, detached from society so it was cool to see that they did this in someone’s front yard. Also there I found it interesting that they could tell where a wall was based on the color of the soil.

  14. Katie Hass

    I think the idea of going to a dig would be so fascinating! To think that there are places so close to home that have buried history when we usually think of archaeological digs happening somewhere far away. The process you described of the sifting and searching for any little piece of, well, anything you can find is really neat. There’s a lot to be learned from history and I think that these digs are a great way to learn more about a time long past.

  15. Mickie Keuning

    When you said we could living on someone’s former home, it kind of blew my mind thinking about the past and how things have changed. I don’t know much about archeology so the facts I learned through this article were interesting!

  16. Kaitlyn Young

    I appreciate that you explained what you were doing for the readers that don’t have any knowledge of archeology. It’s very helpful and descriptive, allowing me to actually picture what you were doing. When you mentioned that we could be living on top of history, it really made me stop and think. What is under my feet when I’m walking around in my yard? What would I find if I did some investigation? It’s a strange yet exciting thing to think about. Great article!

  17. Morgan Young

    I have always wanted to work in the paleontology field, but I don’t think I could handle all the digging! This came to mind when you mentioned the digging and stratigraphy. It’s interesting how certain majors have to learn things from other fields in order to be knowledgeable about their field. Great article!

  18. Emily Schiro

    This was a really interesting read! I don’t know much about archeology and this article gives great detail about what you do for it. It has to be rewarding to find artifacts during your digs. Hopefully you keep finding more!

  19. Mackenzie Sherrill

    This article was awesome to read! Archeology has always seemed very interesting in my opinion, but just have never looked into it much. I was surprised to see that a school in this area of study was located in the Upper Mid-West and was available to students. I can’t imagine the feeling of digging up pieces of history that have never been seen before!

  20. Karn Pederstuen

    I found your article both informative and interesting to read, especially since I don’t know much information about archaeology. I shared your perception of archaeology digs occurring in a remote area separated from modern society, but it was interesting to hear that this isn’t the case.

  21. Evangelista Chicheko

    Thank you so much for sharing your post. I do not know much about archaeology but after reading your post, I have been enlightened and I think I will have to do more research and learn more.

  22. Tommy Traaholt

    Very cool article! i am not too familiar with archaeology, and it was neat to read and learn a little about it. I think it is definitely a unique field to join, and it seems like you really love it. Keep up the good work!

  23. Zach Friederichs

    Reading this article has made a little jealous and makes me wish I had such a cool opportunity during my undergraduate studies. Archaeology seems to be quite meticulous work but very rewarding once you come across an old artifact that could potentially open the doors to a variety historical events.

  24. Samantha Roettger

    I like that you address the idea that we could be presently living on top of past homes. I never have realized that archaeologists actually dig in developed places. I have always pictured dig sites in the middle of no where or some Indiana Jones like men digging around in Europe or more desert places of the globe. Us, in Minnesota could actually be living on top of Native American homes and that’s really cool!

  25. Eleni Birhane

    I have never really known much about archaeology. I always thought it was pretty amazing that we could learn so much about the past just by looking at old artifacts or fossils. The things we have discovered about pre-history through archeology are incredible. I can see that it has to be done very meticulously, which is understandable of course since everything is fragile and rare. I applaud archeologists (and students like yourself) for all the work they put in for all our purpose. I also enjoyed your comment on how we have homes in places where other people used to call home. Even though our world is massive, we do only have one of it.

  26. Matt Breeze

    I have never studies archaeology, but this article makes me want to go on a dig sometime. I like that you bring up that many people think of ancient history as detached from the modern world. The reality as you discuss is that ancient history and the modern world are right on top of each other, literally. The layers of history are much like the layers of dirt that you talk about. Each layer is built on the one below it and can say a lot about that particular time or people.

  27. McKenzie Ketcher

    What really caught my attention was the fact the site was in the middle of the town. This just comes to show how interconnected we are with our ancestors. There is history all around us, and having the site in the middle of the town really is a reality check for some people about how in touch we actually are with history. It is an amazing phenomenon. The pictures also added a nice visual touch to show the readers what exactly the interesting process looked like.

  28. Thomas Landgren

    What really interested me was the amount of time that would go into the process of digging up these sites. Also the fact that it was in the middle of the town in someones front yard just surprised me, like you i thought digs usually occurred far away from civilization. This just shows how connected our world and the world of the past still are, in a way of building cities and towns. What has been the most interesting thing you guys found during your dig?

  29. Andrew Bailey

    Hello Lee, truly fascinating to read about the work that you are doing. I have never been exposed to an archaeology dig myself, but it is something I would like to explore for the future. I wonder if they have amateur digs that civilians can go on?… I will have to look into it. I can only imagine how rewarding it feels when you find a historic artifact. Also, so cool to know that many dig sites are located close to people’s homes. I wonder what, if anything, I may have in my local neighborhood in Wisconsin (Appleton area)!

  30. Shelby Olson

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I hadn’t known much about archaeology before reading your article, and also thought that it mainly consisted of digging in remote locations. The only time I had previously heard about archaeology dig sites being located in cities was from when I was studying Mexico City. The city is filled with ancient ruins due to the fact that the current day city was built on top of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Reading your article has definitely prompted me to look more in to archaeology since it can show such an important part of past civilizations.

    • DyAnna Grondahl


      Thank you for sharing. This sounds like an immensely interesting experience. I appreciate your point about our detachment from archaeology. Initially when I read the title of your article I said to myself “Trempealeau, where is that?!” as if you were going to some far away place. You can imagine my eyes rolling as I realized it was in Wisconsin. Come to think of it, whenever I imagine archaeology, I think of distant deserts and in the US Southwest, Mexico, and Northern Africa – of course this is an incredibly limited idea of archaeology. It is quite interesting to think about what might be right under our feet once one takes a moment to think about how widely archaeology can be studied.

  31. Natalie A Johnson

    Hi Lee, very interesting article to read. It sounds like an amazing experience, even though it was not exactly what you were expecting. I thought you made an awesome connection that where you were digging could’ve been someone’s home. When reading chapter 3 in Worlds Together Worlds Apart, author Tignor mentions the many artifacts dug up form the territories from 2000-1200 BCE. Another interesting connection is the artifacts found underwater. There was a ship that sank off the southern coast of Anatolia around 1325 BCE that many underwater divers were discovering just like you (Tignor 110).

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