The "Big House" at Whistling Elk Village (39HU242): Geophysical Findings and Archaeological Truths

By Toom, Dennis L.; Kvamme, Kenneth L. | Plains Anthropologist, February 2002 | Go to article overview

The "Big House" at Whistling Elk Village (39HU242): Geophysical Findings and Archaeological Truths


Toom, Dennis L., Kvamme, Kenneth L., Plains Anthropologist


ABSTRACT

Magnetic gradiometry and electrical resistivity surveys carried out at the site of Whistling Elk (39HU242), a fortified earthlodge settlement of the Plains Village tradition, Initial Coalescent variant (ca AD 1300), unambiguously defined numerous features including fortification ditches, bastion loops, and houses. One anomaly group was particularly noteworthy because it suggested an unusually large house measuring approximately 100 m^sup 2^, 3-4 times larger than houses known through excavation or other ones apparent in the geophysical evidence at the site. Its shape and interior features were uncharacteristically well defined, despite nearly a meter of overburden. Test excavations were conducted to verify the nature of the anomalies and to acquire evidence about the function of this structure. Three hypotheses are examined concerning this "Big House": it was a ceremonial lodge, a communal lodge, or a high-status dwelling. Owing to the discovery of numerous domestic artifacts and food remains on its floor, the last two hypotheses gain favor.

Keywords: Initial Coalescent Variant; Ceremonial House; Communal House; Geophysical Methods

In July 1998 the archaeological field school of the Department of Anthropology, University of North Dakota (UND), Grand Forks, conducted ground-truthing excavations at Whistling Elk Village (39HU242) on the Missouri River in the Lake Sharpe Project Area, adjacent to Lake Sharpe, in Hughes County, South Dakota. Whistling Elk is a fortified earthlodge settlement of the Plains Village tradition, Initial Coalescent variant (Steinacher 1984). Occupation of the site has been radiocarbon dated at ca. A.D. 1300 (Toom 1992:214-217), at the beginning of the variant spanning ca. A.D. 1300-1500.

The excavations conducted in the summer of 1998 were supervised by Toom as a ground frothing exercise in support of archaeo-geophysical mapping of subsurface archaeological features directed by Kvamme. The results of the geophysical work at Whistling Elk have been presented elsewhere (Kvamme 1999, 2001). This paper focuses on one particularly significant finding: a "Big House" in the northern part of the village designated House 98, from the year of its detection and initial excavation. It also emphasizes two growing truths in Plains archaeology: (1) geophysical survey results can provide an efficient and cost-effective means for placing excavations at the exact locus of significant archaeological features, and (2) geophysical imagery can yield detailed primary information about a settlement's internal structure and organization.

Whistling Elk is an ideal candidate for archaeogeophysical mapping because its village features are rather deeply buried, at surface depths of anywhere from about 70-100 cm, well below the depth of plowing, and because no indications of the village are visible on the surface owing to past cultivation. Essentially, we knew there was a large fortified earthlodge village at this location but, aside from some indications of the fortification line and a few other curious anomalies in aerial photographs, we had little idea as to its internal makeup because any surface expression it may once have had has been completely obliterated. Archaeo-geophysical mapping is, therefore, the best way to obtain information on the layout, or plan, of the site.

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

The primary objective of the work reported here was the ground truthing, by excavation, of suspected subsurface archaeological features whose signatures were detected by archaeo-geophysical survey techniques. The methods applied at the site by Kvamme in 1998 included (1) electrical resistivity, (2) magnetic gradiometry, and (3) electromagnetic conductivity. Ground penetrating radar was used at the site in 1999, but in areas not relevant to this report. All techniques yielded positive results and produced interpretable site maps showing the locations of major archaeological features (Kvamme 2001), but the conductivity and the radar data are not considered here.

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