“North Dakota Bones and the Temple of ‘Toom’”
Archaeologist Dennis Toom protects the region’s rich and hidden past from being forever lost to development
You might call University of North Dakota archaeologist Dennis Toom the Indiana Jones of the Upper Midwest, minus the swashbuckling adventurism of the Hollywood hero.
That’s not to suggest his work’s not exciting.
Toom, who’s been a member of the Department of Anthropology for the past 25 years, has spent the majority of that time investigating and sifting through some of the more significant archaeological locations across North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, and northeastern Wyoming.
He’s collected a treasure trove of artifacts that tell a story of America’s recent and prehistoric past. Boxes filled with finds are stacked in the lower reaches of UND’s Babcock Hall, waiting to be examined and catalogued.
“I just kind of fell into it,” said Toom, whose love of archaeology was sparked as a student at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “It all made sense to me, and it was easy for me.
“I’ve always wanted to know what went on here in the past.”
Toom first came to North Dakota in the 1980s to assist with archaeology work around the proposed Northern Border Pipeline Project, which originated in Canada and now runs west of Williston, N.D., southeast into Iowa.
In 1988, he joined the UND faculty as a research archaeologist, and has been hopping ever since.
Thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act and more specific language in the National Historic Preservation Act, whenever a federal project intends to move dirt or build something, a collateral damage study of archaeological and historic properties must be done.
That’s where Toom and his small team of investigators step in.
“Basically, you have to take care of natural resources as well as cultural resources,” he said.
A lot of Toom’s field work has centered on the village sites of the Indians of the Middle Missouri region in the Dakotas, along the Missouri River. The descendents of these people are known today as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.
In 2000-2001, while working on a project that would establish and restore part of the original palisade surrounding On-a-Slant Indian Village near Fort Abraham Lincoln, south of Mandan, N.D., one of Toom’s digs revealed a fortification ditch “packed full of artifacts.”
“This was all quite surprising to us,” Toom said. “We still have boxes full of artifacts from that one find.” Eventually, once inspected and cataloged, those artifacts will be sent to the North Dakota Heritage Center.
Toom said the highest density of prehistoric artifacts in North Dakota can be found along rivers, which were important for resources and travel.
“North Dakota has some very interesting and well preserved archaeology,” he said. “We are still a frontier state in a lot of ways.”
According to Toom, one well-documented North Dakota site is the ancient Knife River Flint Quarries where American Indians, long before western settlement of North America, mined flint that was excellent for tool making. The highly sought stone was traded across the continent, with Knife River flint being discovered as far away as Ohio. Knife River flint was the first North Dakota “export,” beginning over 10,000 years ago. The people who first mined the flint, the Paleo-Indians, were also the first inhabitants of North Dakota.
“These people were the first North Dakota explorers,” he said.
More recently, Toom and colleague Michael A. Jackson, an associate research archaeologist and a GIS specialist, were given a grant by the National Park Service to conduct precision mapping of President Theodore Roosevelt’s old Elkhorn Ranch site, along the Little Missouri River in the North Dakota Badlands, about 35 miles north of Medora, N.D. Roosevelt established the ranch when he was only 26.
Toom and students of the UND archaeological field school were able to document and precisely map the features of the former ranch yard, including the ranch house, blacksmith shop, barn, utility shed, and chicken coop.
Their findings were compiled and published in February 2010.
What’s amazing about Toom and his staff is that they receive very little, if any, internal funding to do business. Their shop is completely funded by grants and contracts from outside sources, such as government agencies and private industry.
“If we’re not doing projects, we’re not getting paid,” he said. Like any business, sometimes Toom is forced to be creative and innovative to get the job done when grant funding doesn’t necessarily cover the cost of the work.
Toom and his crew perform two or three major projects a year, in addition to a number of smaller ones.
They also inject an educational component into their work most years by conducting an archaeological field school, giving students hands-on experience at actual research sites. As many as 10 to 12 students, about half from UND, take part in the field schools each time, Toom said.