The northeastern protruding terrace at the Ranelius site was the area most heavily excavated 1955. This was the area of the site where the large, rock-line fire pits were found, discussed in our earlier blog “Features at Ranelius.”
There were several reasons why Leland Cooper and Elden Johnson were interested in this part of the terrace.
This aerial photograph of the Ranelius site was taken from the northwest in 1956. The excavation trenches are visible at the northeastern part of the terrace.
They knew there was a site on the terrace because artifacts had been found along the beach below. Also, it was a level, well drained, and protected terrace near freshwater springs. Therefore, it seemed a likely location for a settlement.
Cooper had some interest in the remains of an old settler house about 100 feet south of the terrace edge. Their Trench 10 was put through the area where the house once stood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their finds of historic period artifacts included white-ware ceramics, iron nails with square heads, a pocket knife, and a label from a tobacco tin.
These are selected historic artifacts are from Trench 10 at Ranelius. The item at the top of the picture is a white-ware plate, partly reassembled from fragments. The two objects on the bottom right are square cut nails and the artifact on the bottom left is a label from a tobacco tin stamped LORILLARD .
Above is a picture of a flask-shaped spirit bottle and a table knife from the area around the historic house excavation at Ranelius.
These selected artifacts were found on the surface near Trench 10. In the picture, clockwise from upper left, is a pocket knife, bottle neck, clay pipe stem, clay pipe bowl with black slip.
The feature that probably received the most attention in 1955, however, was a nearby series of ruts arranged in a circular pattern.
The picture above is a view of circular ditch-like features exposed on the surface. The circular feature appeared to be a total of about 40 feet in diameter. The ruts were about 6 inches to 10 inches wide and 1 inch deep. The soils beneath the circular ruts were darker in color, which was present down to about 7 to 8 inches below the surface. The areas between the ruts were described as yellow sand.
The dark areas in the picture above are the ditches filled with dark organic humus. The light area in between is the yellowish, sandy sub-soil that is typical of this part of the terrace.
Even though many of the crew’s notes describe this feature as a spiral, it is actually more accurate to describe this feature as a series of concentric circles. The title of this blog post, “The Spiral at Ranelius,” just seemed to have a better ring to it than “The Series of Concentric Circles at Ranelius.” Aside from being an unusual, surface-visible feature, the nature of this circle remains unclear. It should be noted that due to errors in word-of-mouth accounts over the years, the circular ditches at Ranelius has been referred to in recent literature as “a spiral mound”. This is one of the problems that occur when reports are not written for excavations.
The map above shows the area excavated and the location of the circular feature. The lines of the feature that are outside of the excavated area were inferred by Cooper.
Though there are pre-contact artifacts in the area, it should not be automatically assumed that the concentric circles were also from pre-contact times. The pre-contact artifacts from this area were from soils between and below the darker soil of these ruts. As mentioned in one of our earlier blogs, the crew’s notes only record technical information about where they dug and what they found. The notes do not record what they were thinking and why they did things a certain way. So, often we are left to speculate about their intentions. What we do know is that about half way through the summer, Leland Cooper left the excavation, Elden Johnson took over, and the crew stopped excavating the circular feature to focus their attention on the stone-lined features on the east side of the terrace. By this time, over half of the circle had been exposed, much of it excavated, and there are almost no records of any interpretation about the nature of this feature.
When we arrived at Ranelius this summer, we tried to spot any remaining parts of the circle and any evidence of where the old excavation units would have been. The soil at this part of the Ranelius site is extremely sandy and, after fifty years, all visible evidence of the units and the circle had completely disappeared. Though we never witnessed the strange feature personally, the fast pace of erosion at this part of the site brought to our attention an important question. If all surface evidence of the excavation units had disappeared after 50 years, then what are the chances that a circular feature that could be seen on the surface in 1955 would have been ancient? Our current thinking is that this was a feature from historic times – probably not dating from before the 19th century. There were historic-period artifacts found near and within the circle. We know there was a small historic settlement nearby. As one field volunteer pointed out to us, horses are known to walk in circles when tied to a post, creating similar circular ruts. Could this feature be where the people from the historic house, just south of the circle, tied their horse? It is almost impossible to be absolutely certain of the true nature of the circle with the limited information that remains, but it seems very unlikely that it is product of any pre-contact activity.
Archaeologists all over the world are confronted with the problem of changing landscapes. We can never take for granted that the landscape we are working in is the same as when a site was inhabited hundreds or thousands of years ago. The landscape of the Spring Lake area has changed in a particularly dramatic fashion, primarily because of the installation of the Hastings Dam in the 1930s. Acquisition of land by Dakota County Parks has also altered the vegetation. However, in this case, the naturalists of Dakota County Parks have been working to bring the vegetation of Spring Lake Park Reserve back to its original, pre-settlement (by Euro-Americans), forested state.
Archaeologists regularly consult historic maps, early survey notes, aerial photographs, and other historic sources to try to understand what the landscape of the site under study was like during the periods of occupation.
This digital rendering shows the landscape of the Ranelius site. The area of the Ranelius site is outlined in red. The site is located on a high terrace that directly overlooks modern-day Spring Lake. The terrace is backed, to the south, by a tall glacial ridge and surrounded by a deep gully. Originally, the site would have overlooked not open water, as it does today, but a wide marsh. The Bremer site, another settlement occupied at about the same time is located to the east on a similar terrace, separated by a wide gully.
This map was created by the Mississippi River Commission (MRC) in the 1890s. The MRC maps of the Mississippi River are a valuable resource for archaeologists working in the Mississippi Valley because they show the landscape and vegetation of the valley prior to damming. At this time, Spring Lake was still a very small lake, separated from the main channel of the Mississippi and surrounded by marshland. However, Spring Lake didn’t exist at all until the 1850s. Sometime in the 1850s, the tributary stream south of the main channel was dammed at its mouth to power a small mill. This mill dam is what created historic Spring Lake. Before that, the whole area was a very big marsh fed by numerous natural springs.
We also know from historic sources that the island area between the main channel of the Mississippi and the small tributary, part of which can be seen at the top of this image, was an important gathering place for American Indian communities in the area. This island, and many others, are now under the water of modern-day Spring Lake.
This aerial photo of the Spring Lake area was taken in 1927, three years before the Hastings Dam was constructed. You can see that at that time Spring Lake was still only a small lake surrounded by marshlands to the south of the main channel of the Mississippi River. The entire area was inundated by water from the Mississippi when the Hastings Dam was completed. This has caused considerable damage to archaeological sites in the region over the years, and is what prompted the Science Museum to initiate salvage investigations into several sites during the 1950s.
This photo shows the Ranelius site (outlined in red) from the air in 1953, one year before the Science Museum began its excavations of the northeast portion of the site. At the time the site had been cleared for pasture, so it had a prairie-like landscape.
Here is the area of the Ranelius site in an aerial photo taken in 2008. Note how the area is heavily forested now. Dakota County Parks manages the Spring Lake Park reserve as a natural area.
Archaeologists are not just looking for artifacts during excavations. They are also looking for changes in the soil or remains of structures that resulted from human behaviors. These are known as features. Some examples of features are hearth areas, storage pits, refuse pits, or house floors.