Worth its Salt

HofmanJL_sm_0Belleville Telescope Wed, 10/23/2013


The University of Kansas, Department of Anthropology’s archaeological field school spent six weeks working in Republic County this summer, led by Dr. Jack Hofman (back row, left). —

During the three 10-day work sessions students camped at Rocky Pond in Belleville, at Republic working at the Pawnee Indian Village, and at the Tuthill or Seapo salt marsh near Talmo and Wayne. The students spend several days recording old mines and dugouts in the Minersville area. Hofman says the archaeological research is helping to document the ways that people of various cultures and traditions lived in prehistoric and in early historic times prior to the introduction of electricity and mechanized farming. Another concern of the research is to document climate change and weather patterns in the past. A key to the investigation of past climates is in the tree ring records, and the study of wood from early historic structures is important to this effort.

Archaeologist believes the history of Republic County may help map future of climate change.

At first glance, the Pawnee Indian Village Historic Site in northern Republic County, and the ghost town of Minersville in extreme southern Republic County appear to have little in common.

But one archaeologist at the University of Kansas believes those two sites and a wide swath of Republic County in between may hold answers to everything from pre-historic lifestyles on the Plains, to patterns of climate change in the future.

And the key that links them together is as common as the kitchen table: salt.

Jack L. Hofman, Ph.D, an associate professor in the anthropology department led a team of students to Republic County for six weeks this summer to continue excavating an earth lodge at Pawnee, as well as document mines and graves in a cemetery at Minersville.

The students were able to relocate and define the limits of the Minersville Cemetery where at least 19 people were buried between 1871 and 1893, Hofman says. Uncertainty and disagreement in written accounts as to the exact location of the Minersville Cemetery has existed for many years but is no longer in doubt.

But some of his theories about the secrets to be discovered in Republic County are not based on digs, but conversations he’s had with local farmers about the pre-historic artifacts they’ve found on the property as wide-flung as Narka and Mahaska into central and southern Republic County.

Clovis artifacts

It was more of an accident, really, Hofman says. We followed up on finds (of artifact collections by private individuals) that had been reported to us.

It started to dawn on Hofman that in might not be a coincidence that Republic County contains such a wealth of historical evidence.

Suddenly, we became interested in Republic County, because to find this many early finds of artifacts is extremely unusual.

Hofman says the artifacts are from the Clovis culture, a prehistoric people who roamed the Plains some 13,000 years ago.

There’s only 130 known collections in the state at this time, he said. If you spread that out over 105 counties, it’s not very many.

Republic County has a good seven or eight collections that are verified, including a nice site from the Lovewell Reservoir that washed out of the reservoir.

Salt is key

The large number of artifacts here led Hofman to question the location of the Salt Marsh in southern Republic County, and the part salt played in the lives of prehistoric cultures.

Salt marshes are a possible reason why animals came to this area, and why the people hunting the animals followed them, he said. When I started looking at the behaviors of people with salt as a draw, why they might like a particular area, then some things here seemed to make a lot more sense.

A number of tributaries throughout Republic County lead to the Salt Marsh, which may explain why prehistoric settlements existed throughout the county, Hofman says.

Climate change

Through the information they glean from archaeological digs at the earth lodge in Republic, Hofman says researchers can also tell the length of the growing seasons and the climate at the time the Pawnee made the Republic location a permanent settlement.

And that brings Hofman to another seemingly unrelated area of research: trying to document the limestone houses and buildings in Republic County before they’re demolished by landowners.

Some of those limestone houses he’s examined in the Cuba area have local timber in their construction, and the tree rings in that timber may hold a clue to climate change, both in the past and the future, Hofman says. His interest in Minersville developed from his interest in salt, and the interest in salt marshes led to an interest in climate, which brought him to tree rings.

The changes in the length of the growing season is one of the dramatic changes we’ve seen in the last 10,000 years, he says. What we lack in the Central Plains of Kansas and Nebraska are good records of the last 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 years.

Because the Salt Marsh hasn’t been useful for production agriculture, the geography still holds clues to those earlier times, he says. And tree rings in buildings more than a century old in Republic County, will reveal more information, he says.

We know that property owners often need to remove these structures because they’ve become a nuisance, and this is private property and we understand that, he says. We just want to look at them before they’re demolished to document any information we can find.

All connected

In a conversation with Hofman, he often sounds more like a geologist or ecologist than an archaeologist, traits he readily admits.

One tree ring that he discovered in a limestone rock house wall in Republic County contained 148 rings, he says. He believes that timber came from a standing oak some 200 years old.

From that very small sample we can tell things like changes in a growing season, a severe early frost, late frost, drought a record detailed well back into the 1700s. That information is critical for looking at broader issues of climate change.

In modern concerns, we want to know how rapidly the climate is changing, what has been the normal pattern instead of looking for answers far away, we can look right here. All of this has made me very interested in historical archaeology, he adds. We’re still recording Clovis points but what I’ve realized that I hadn’t realized before is that many of these buildings are truly endangered.

Even that realization has given Hofman a special appreciation for a more modern culture in Republic County: a place where immigrants from Czechoslovakia and Sweden and other countries have resided side by side.

I envision there will be a study by students on the difference in construction in Republic County. To look at the different ways Germans, Swedes, Czechs did those things.

Widespread interest

Hofman said a number of Republic County citizens have helped in the research and provided information both this summer, and in previous visits.

Some of those people include Annette Bredthauer, Darrell Birrell, Kent and Betty Bouray, Leland Bray, Mike Charles, Joe Chizek, Jennifer Craig, Monty Dahl, Brian Dorman, Harold Dowell, Todd Filipi, Richard Gould, Larry Hadachek, Mike Henry, David Heyka, Steve Howley, Dennis Jackson, Billie Jackson, Jerome Kieffer, Lori Kuhlmann, Stan Krohn, Sherrie Larson, James Levendofsky, Glen Lojka, Charlie Lundblade, Jack Morgan, Jake Myers, Joe Odette, Eddie and Barbara Popelka and sons and families, Richard and Nancy Sandell, Quinton Smith, Steve Spielmann, Billy Strnad, Jeff Strnad, Harold Sweet, Kent Swartz, Tana Trost, Conrad Trost, Justin Trost, Dennis and Carol Jean Urie, Roger Walls, and Larry and Pat Walter.

He also credited the late Jim Swiercinsky and Glenn Fisher of Belleville and Bill Graham of Narka for the information they were able to provide to the study prior to their deaths.

Many citizens in the area have supported the work of the archaeology students and we wish to thank all for your support, generosity, and interest in this work, he says. The communities of Belleville, Republic, Scandia, Cuba, Wayne, Talmo, and others throughout the county have been most welcoming and supportive.

To contact Hofman about collections of early artifacts or limestone house that may soon be demolished, email hofman@ku.edu.