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February 2007 Headlines
1| There's just one word for UND's new Student Wellness Center: "Wow!"
2| An ancient path to better living
3| The art of "effortless balance"
4| Home-grown health professionals: Practicing where the heart is
5| Integrated Studies connects life and learning
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7| Temperature data from boreholes paint a picture of climate change
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10| Archaeologists sift for clues to Mandan culture and history
11| Through agreements and exchanges, UND expands its international presence, opportunities for students
12| Instant business: Students get three hours to turn $5 into a profit
13| Marriage and compromise inspire a first-time theatrical production
14| UND earns national rankings

Dennis Toom (white hat) and his students have been excavating sites at the On-A-Slant Indian Village, near present-day Mandan, N.D., since 1999.  The work has concentrated on areas where the village’s inhabitants had erected fortifications.

Archaeologists sift for clues to Mandan culture and history

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.

“1700 was really when they were at their peak,” Toom said. The Hudson Bay Company’s burgeoning fur trade allowed the Mandans to be the middle traders in a massive industry, and facilitated their entrance into the world economy.

To protect the wealth the tribe amassed, On-A-Slant Village was fortified with a ditch and palisade, a high fence-like structure that allowed the villages to fend off attackers.  “That was the currency in those days,” Toom said, referring to the Mandans’ stored food supplies and trade goods.  “They had a lot to protect.”

                                                            The excavations focused on the series of fortification ditches, yielding boxes of debris to sift through.

“We have to sort through a grocery-sized bag of sand-sized particles to find small glass beads,” Toom said.

The final technical report for the project will be completed early next year, Toom said.  It will be a springboard for further publications and research, as well as meeting a legal requirement.

Dennis Toom examines a Mandan pottery fragment.


The project was authorized through the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966, which states that all land development involving federal funding or regulation must first be evaluated archaeologically.  Anthropology Research, a division of the Department of Anthropology, conducts such studies.  They do not receive funds from the University, but exist through monies they receive by evaluating land slated for federally funded or regulated development.

“The reason we’re really here is because of the (Historical Preservation) Act,” Toom said, adding that UND’s university-based program is one of a dwindling number in the country.  Archaeological evaluations are often done through private consulting firms these days.

“The federal dollars are really shrinking,” Toom said.  “If the federal government isn’t going to fund it, it’s not going to get funded.  We don’t produce a product we can sell.”

Still, he believes archaeology is vital to understanding ourselves by looking at past cultures:  “Why did they succeed, why did they fail?  These are lessons we can all learn.”
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