CEDAR RAPIDS — Nine thousand years ago, a group of men sat around a fire in what now is the NewBo neighborhood and repaired their hunting spears.
That’s what the evidence — ancient soil, spearheads and flint and charcoal fragments — tells research archaeologist David Benn. As one of the team members from Bear Creek Archaeology, he helped uncover the prehistoric remnants of human activity during an archaeological dig at the corner of Second Street SE and 11th Avenue SE.
The dig site was a 200-square-meter hole in the middle of a city parking lot, where for six weeks a team of archaeologists painstakingly scraped the soil, searching for chip stone — flakes of chert, or silica-rich rock sometimes called flint — used to make spearheads. They found hundreds of pieces, as well as a handful of intact spearpoints. Those elicited great excitement.
“Men were making stone tools here,” Benn said. “This stuff is really distinctive.”
The dig was related to levee work planned as part of the city’s flood control system.
“We have to have environmental clearance before we get federal funding,” said Rob Davis, flood control system program manager with the city of Cedar Rapids. “We wanted to clear the corridors (along the river) and have them ready to go when funding becomes available.”
The city is working with the Army Corps of Engineers, which did a study of the riverbanks in 2011 and reported there could be historically significant artifacts in the area. The city then hired Cresco-based Bear Creek Archaeology to do further studies. The archaeology work in the NewBo lot cost $300,000.
This isn’t the first work Bear Creek has done in the city since 2011. They did a geological map of the valley around the river, which has moved back and forth over the area throughout time, and drilled exploratory holes throughout the footprint.
Last year, they excavated a site behind the African American Museum of Iowa, where they found arrows, pottery and other artifacts from about 2,200 years ago.
In the new site, their drilling found “postglacial soil,” from around 10,000 B.C., Benn said. They dug a test hole and turned up an ancient projectile point, from a time when humans were first settling this part of North America.
“We said, ‘Wow, this is a really old point, 9 to 10,000 years old. That’s getting back into early stages of human occupation,’” Benn said. “We’re just learning about how North America got populated.”
He thinks this was a camping site for hunters, because the team found no tools used by women, and because of the large amount of projectile point fragments. There also were charcoal fragments, indicating a fire the men sat around.
A find of this age, the early archaic period, and this well preserved, is “extremely rare,” Benn said. “It’s very unusual to find a site like this.”
The remnants of their lives have been waiting under the soil all this time.
“This is the lifeway of hunters and gatherers,” Benn said.
The team also took soil samples for further study. Benn said isotope analysis can provide information about everything from climate change to when prairie began growing in the area.
The excavation work wrapped up July 27, and Bear Creek’s team now will catalog the findings for analysis before returning the artifacts to the city.
Davis said after the city receives the artifacts and the report on their analysis, it will put out a request for proposals for them to be displayed, likely at a local museum.
“This is not something we want to see put in a box in a storage room,” he said.
Rather, he wants everyone to be able to appreciate what this find means.
“Particularly along the banks of the river, it just reinforces that’s where settlements occur, whether they be prehistoric or more recent,” he said. “It’s a reminder we weren’t the first ones here, and there’s a rich history here.”
An earlier dig in the same parking lot turned up artifacts from much more recent history; the team excavated privies from Bohemian immigrants and other residents of the neighborhood in the 1800s.
“Most people are shocked when they learn there are things like this under parking lots,” Benn said. “But there are archaeological sites everywhere. You can learn about human beings both prehistoric and historic in places like this. It just takes a little more work.”
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