Augustana Anthropology Students Look at the Past as More Than Primitive

Anthropology students on site

Augustana students and peers from the University of Exeter dig for prehistoric artifacts at the Thomsen Center Archeodome in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Although it may not seem like it at first glance, archeologists working in Mitchell, South Dakota, will tell you the ancestors of this land were better adapted to the area than we are. They have uncovered a way of life set 1,000 years ago that shows great advancement through their excavation of a prehistoric Indian village at the Thomsen Center Archeodome.

Drs. Landon Karr and Adrien Hannus of Augustana's Anthropology department and Dr. Alan Outram of Exeter University in England have led an excavation of this site for 15 years. Anthropology students were introduced to the field study a few years later and the experience has been rich.

Four Augustana students are currently working at the Archeodome alongside 16 students from Exeter University and one student from Beloit University. The Archeodome serves as a protective building for a small section of the prehistoric Indian village.

The students participating in this summer field study work for a solid month, digging six days of the week and spending one in the lab. This is unlike many field studies in the world which spend only one day per week digging.

“There aren’t many people working on sites like this one,” Karr said.

Augustana senior Creighton Gerber explained how the group’s focus for this dig site differs from other prehistoric Indian villages because of where they are looking.

“What’s more important to us is what’s coming out at ground level,” he said.

Most Indian village dig sites in the United States have focused on what can be found in the remains of lodges, but the Thomsen Center Archeodome is looking at what can be found outside of those lodges: where the communal cooking was done, where village residents butchered the animals and where the food was stored.

“Usually, there is something fairly exciting [found] every day,” Gerber said.

The purpose of this is not only practical — many research papers have come from what is found at the Archeodome — but educational. Students learn excavating techniques that cannot be taught in the classroom. They also learn the differences in techniques from an American standard versus the English standard.

“This is a keystone experience for students,” Karr said. “There’s no way I could teach this in the classroom.”

Moreover, they learn how fragile this experience is. These students must proceed slowly and “do it in a controlled, scientific way in order to understand the past,”Karr said.

“As soon as you start exposing it, you’re destroying it,” said Tova Lisensky of Beloit University. “You have to document very precisely because once you take it out, there’s no going back. It’s done.”

Through all their fascinating finds, these students begin to understand how the supposed predecessors to the Mandan tribe lived and can appreciate it.

Their professor, Dr. Adrien Hannus, loves it.

“I’ve been trying to convey to students that these people were extraordinarily well adapted,” Hannus said. “They were better adapted to their environment then than we are to ours now.”

Hannus has has been the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village’s chief archeologist since 1983. He helped to develop all the exhibits in the museum and raised funds for the Thomsen Center Archeodome.

The Archeodome and museum are open for the public to visit these students and watch their progress in the summer.

Learn more about anthropology at Augustana.