JETMORE — Before bulldozers moved mountains of dirt for the construction of HorseThief Reservoir, a gentler excavation took place.
Archaeologists arrived in April 2008 at the dam site — eight miles west of Jetmore in Hodgeman County — ahead of the heavy equipment.
The team led by Dr. Holly Jones, a professor at Missouri State University, spent three weeks with shovels and buckets, unearthing artifacts along Buckner Creek, dating back 1,000 years ago.
While some excavation had been done at the location more than 20 years ago, last year’s dig revealed significant amounts of new information and provided insight into the Native American culture dating back 1,000 years ago, Jones said.
According to cultural preservation laws established by the Army Corps of Engineers, before construction of the dam for the 440-acre recreational lake could begin, it had to be fully determined that there wouldn’t be any damage to archaeological resources on the land.
Surface was scratched
About 15 years ago, archaeologists from the State Historical Society dug around the centerline of the dam, and a second site upstream, and found evidence that warranted further investigation, said Ron Allen, Pawnee Watershed District manager.
“If it weren’t for the construction of Horse Thief Reservoir and cultural resource preservation laws, this site might have been lost to the meandering of Buckner Creek,” said Jones, whose team from Missouri State won the bid for the excavation project.
“The day they were digging, the wind was blowing like thunder about 50 mph,” Allen said. “There never has been a more miserable day.”
Jones agreed, recalling how the dirt was irritating their lungs and making some of the eight-person crew sick. They were forced to wear protective gear, including goggles and nose masks, as if working in a sandstorm in the Sahara Desert.
But they persevered, digging in the wind for several 10-hour days. Their effort was rewarded when they hit bone and shell.
“As we began to excavate below the surface, we found articulated bones of bison and deer with projectile points lying nearby and nearly whole pots in place, and you could imagine the people 1,000 years ago going about their daily activities,” she said.
As they progressed deeper, they unearthed projectiles, pottery shards and bone pendants, dating from the Middle Ceramic Period, Jones said.
While she doesn’t know what the people were called who lived there, radiocarbon dates the artifacts from 800 to 1,000 years ago. According to historians, during this period the people were developing year-round farmsteads.
“We gleaned a lot of information which is great for this part of the state,” Jones said. “There isn’t a lot of archaeology in this region. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the Middle Ceramic Period of western Kansas.”
From what they discovered, Jones could picture these people going about their lives. While she can’t be certain about the type of structure they might have lived in, she thought it was possibly a small pit house constructed by digging out a shallow basin, then using pliable wood or willows for support. The walls were made from nearby clays.
Diets consisted of bison and deer. And they also discovered evidence of early forms of horticulture, where they may have begun selecting particular grass seeds that would be eaten as part of their diet. However, she was disappointed they didn’t find any evidence of maize.
Jones will return to Jetmore on May 9, bringing along many of the artifacts unearthed at the site, including projectile points, pottery shards and bone tools.
She plans to share the insight she gained into the lifestyle of the early inhabitants of the Buckner and Pawnee valleys.