Wisconsin Pit Opens a Wide Window on Early Midwestern Culture Archaeologists Also Discover Links between Two Prehistoric Peoples

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Some 170 years before Alexander the Great set out to conquer Asia Minor, a now-nameless native half a world away rested a thick clay pot on the ground and walked from a gathering along the Mississippi River into oblivion.

Nearly 2,500 years later, anthropologist Jim Stoltman gently picks up a piece of the pot from a lab table filled with unearthed artifacts.

The segment, plus features in its original resting place, he says, suggest that what researchers have held to be two prehistoric North American cultures may in fact have been one. The same pit yielded a major burial find belonging to a culture that flourished in the Midwest from 200 BC to AD 500, known as the Hopewell culture. The find, he continues, not only implies that researchers may have underestimated the Hopewell population's size. It also could open a window a bit wider on how the culture was organized. Of most immediate interest may be the Hopewell discovery. Dr. Stoltman, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has found "a very large piece of the puzzle" as archaeologists and historians try to piece together a picture of the Hopewell's impact on the upper Midwest, says Robert Birmingham, Wisconsin's state archaeologist. The culture draws its name from a farm in Ohio where the first Hopewell burial mound was studied. Ultimately, researchers would find related sites in states from New York to Michigan to Kansas. Apparently rooted in the Illinois Valley, the culture's trade links extended from the Rockies to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Stoltman says he went out into the field hoping to find a Hopewell village - a missing link for Hopewell sites in Wisconsin. Finding a village is no small feat, Mr. Birmingham adds, since finds so far suggest small scattered farming hamlets of a few families, rather than larger villages associated with more modern groupings of native Americans. Step 1 was to look for habitable sites that have remained relatively undisturbed. Stoltman came across a low ridge along the Mississippi where erosion and local wildlife had turned up bits of artifacts. "Groundhogs are helpful prospectors," he chuckles. By the end of last year's digging season - seven years and some 64 cubic meters of dirt after he'd begun - "we finally knew what we had, a major burial site" from the Hopewell period, he says. …