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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

MSU Professor Returns to Previous Site to Continue Digging

Jack Ray
Center for Archaeology Research at Missouri State University

After running out of funds for a dig, Jack Ray is returning to the same sight two years later to see how much farther he can go. Ray, a research archaeologist with the Center for Archaeology Research at Missouri State University, has taught on and off for 33 years at MSU and teaches a field school in archaeology every summer.

The project in west central Missouri’s Saline County originally began in 2013. Ray surveyed 320 acres of land while searching for different dig sites and identified a few that had potential. One site in particular stood out to Ray. It’s known as the Sugar Potato Site.

“And it looked so promising that I went back two years later in 2015 and did some limited test excavations at this site and found some very neat stuff and we were able to find stuff that hadn’t been found before,” Ray said.

The site is what’s known as an alluvial fan. This fan or cone-shaped landform occurs when sediment builds up at the mouth of a creek. This happens when there is a lot of rain and silt erodes off higher ground.

These formations can occur quickly, says Ray. In the case of the upper half of the alluvial fan in Van Meter State Park, it grew 10 feet in 2,000 years.

“You can get very rapid buildup which is good for archaeology cause you can separate one group of Indians living on a landform from another from younger and younger and younger,” Ray said.

Ray’s original dig reached a depth of about nine and a half feet and he found four different lithic workshops at the site. The site showed evidence of where  Native Americans were mining stone tools like arrowheads, spear points, knifes, and scrapers.

Credit Jack Ray / Center for Archaeology Research at Missouri State University
Center for Archaeology Research at Missouri State University

According to Ray, the lithic workshops are the first discovery of their kind in Missouri.

“We were able to determine the uppermost workshop was associated with the Oneota Indians, about 500 years ago. Then the next workshop below that was associated with a group called Steed-Kisker interestingly enough out of the Kansas City area about a 1,000 years ago, they were there quarrying chert,” Ray said.

And the timeline goes back even further.

“Then 1,500 years ago we have evidence that late Woodland folks were quarrying chert and then even deeper at the very bottom the Middle Woodland Indians were quarrying chert about 2,000 years ago,” Ray added.  

One of the things that make this site different, says Ray, is the lithic workshops were found near different quarry sites. Native Americans would quarry out chert, a type of rock, and bring it out onto the alluvial fan. They would then take these large chunks of chert called flake blanks and break them down into workable pieces to be used to make stone tools.

Flake blanks are pieces of rock that are broken down to make tools.

Ray said at other sites you usually find smaller pieces of chert that are byproducts of stone tools. Those indicate the tools were in the middle to late stages of development. Ray said the large flake blanks at the Van Meter State Park site indicate that Native Americans tribes living here were in the early stages of stone tool developing.

“Because it’s next to a quarry site where they’re mining into the ridge slopes and they’re bringing out these cobbles and they’re breaking them apart with large hammer stones to get these large flake blanks which they then take elsewhere to finish into stone tools,” Ray said.

The large flake blanks discovery is indicative of a promising dig site, says Ray.

For the return trip to Van Meter State Park he’ll be enlisting the help of some of his students. When projects like these come up Ray says he usually hires students to help or they can participate in a dig as a part of a class project. Ray says that these projects, especially the current one, give students an opportunity to gain field experience. 

Credit Jack Ray / Center for Archaeology Research at Missouri State University
Center for Archaeology Research at Missouri State University

“It’s not very often you get to dig as deep as four, four and a half, five meters or you know 15 feet below the ground surface so it’s quite a learning experience and several students here at Missouri state get to do just that,” Ray said.

A crowdfunding campaign has been set up to help fund the dig. The final day you can donate Saturday, Nov 11.

The current project at Van Meter State Project started Monday, Oct. 23 and is scheduled to conclude Friday, Nov. 3.