By Colin Kapelovitz
Despite archaeology’s popular portrayal in movies, UND research archaeologist Dennis Toom says it isn’t like the Indiana Jones atmosphere of the public imagination.
“People think of it as a treasure hunt, finding that one significant artifact,” he said. “It’s not about that. It’s about how people lived their daily lives. How they got their groceries.”
Toom, who has been involved with archaeology since the 1970s, is heading the last stages of a North Dakota archaeological dig that began in 1999. Commissioned by the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, the dig is exploring the impact of federally funded renovations the Foundation would like to make to the area, as well as to learn more about the Mandan culture.
Toom and other archaeologists, including many students, have been excavating and sorting material from the On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village near present-day Mandan, N.D.
On-A-Slant Village was built around 1600, when Mandan Indians moved into the area from other villages. The village was disbanded in 1781 when the first of a series of smallpox epidemics decimated the Mandans.
“Before the epidemic, they were the dominant military power in the area,” Toom said. “After the epidemic, they lost, say, 75 percent of their population. They were then at the mercy of the surrounding nomadic Indians.”
After the huge population losses, the Mandans joined with the Hidatsa tribe at the Knife River Indian villages, mainly to protect themselves from the raids of the nomadic Sioux tribes. Until that time, a number of large Mandan villages prospered in the Missouri River Valley. The Mandans of the On-A-Slant Village traded with nomadic tribes for furs and then traded for European manufactured goods.