Butternut Lake - Passport in Time

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Butternut Lake

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin, 1997
by Kim L. Potaracke, Archaeological Technician, and Dianne Polaske, PIT Volunteer

With the ancient sound of loon tremolos and the occasional cries from eagles nesting near the site providing background “music,” FS archaeologists and experienced PIT volunteers began a three-week 1997 PIT project on the north shore of Butternut Lake on the Eagle River/ Florence Ranger District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet NF. It was the fourth year of working cooperatively with faculty and students from Nicolet College. The project focused on three archaeological sites. The sites of Hemlock Cathedral (a 6th–14th-century spring fishing camp) and Butternut Lake (17th century) had already been excavated, but we returned to obtain soil samples for paleobotanical and faunal analysis from previously excavated midden deposits at the sites. Mapping and test excavations were also conducted at the previously unexcavated Butternut Inlet site to obtain information that will help us to determine when the site was occupied and what its inhabitants ate.

FS employee Bill Reardon originally discovered the Butternut Inlet site in the 1980s when he noticed exposed materials that had been uncovered by a log skidder. Archaeologists surveyed the area and found items on the surface, including quartz projectile points and various types of grit-tempered pottery. Quartz flakes, a basalt tool, and pottery were observed when archaeologists returned to the site in 1997. Bill Reardon returned to help with his metal detector, which had been useful for locating copper artifacts at the Hemlock Cathedral site in 1991 and 1992.

Many of this year’s test units at Butternut Inlet were placed either directly over or adjacent to positive metal-detector signals. From the start, excavations yielded cord-impressed and incised pottery, faunal remains, and stone tools. As work progressed, we uncovered what may have been a midden or a feature associated with an ancient house floor. Within these deposits we found artifacts similar to those found in earlier levels, as well as a variety of copper items, including a punch or awl-like tool, a rolled spear point, a flat knife, and nuggets or waste from making tools. Excavations along the terrace on the north shore of the site revealed that although the area had been disturbed by logging, an extensive, undisturbed deposit remains and awaits further work. Radiocarbon dating will, we hope, give us a more-precise idea of when the site was occupied, but based on the materials recovered, Butternut In let appears to be a multicomponent site occupied at different times from A.D. 100 to 1400.

The principal investigator from the FS was Forest Archaeologist Mark E. Bruhy, who was joined by assistants Jennifer Eberlien, Kim Potaracke (PIT coordinator), and Cindi Stiles. For a second year we worked with Nicolet College instructor and paleoethnobotanist Dr. Katie Egan-Bruhy, who studies floral remains recovered from soil to determine information about past subsistence practices, environments, and landscapes. She also works with the museum archaeology program of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. It is through this partnership that Dr. Egan-Bruhy and her associates will be able to complete the flotation and analysis of 60–70 soil samples for floral remains and a cursory analysis of faunal remains. It will be possible to date carbonized (charred) remains that are in association with artifacts to help provide a time frame for occupation at the site.

During our three-week project, 46 volunteers/students donated 1,820 hours of their time, a $20,000 value. During the project, we had a six-day open house, and approximately 1,000 people visited. We never talked so much in our entire lives! Visitors came from as far away as England, but also hailed from 13 states in addition to Wisconsin. Sample comments include: “Loved it!” “We appreciated your friendliness and sharing of information. We learned a lot!” “I would like to volunteer.” “Wonderful project!” “Thanks for letting us look.” “It was great, impressed with the information. People were interested in telling us what they had found!” “Very Cool!” “Fascinating work, Thank you!” “People are great and explain everything. We really got educated, a real delight!” “Thanks for your interest in our sites. Great!” “Thanks to the Forest Service for opening this up to the public!”

Not only did the crew excavate for three weeks, they also helped to survey, take photos, guide the public, interpret the site, and clean, analyze, and package artifacts. A few are also helping with postfield activities such as drawing artifacts, inking maps for reports, and creating graphics and printing T-shirts for the crew.

We were very fortunate to have excellent district support. District Ranger Butch Fitzpatrick and Archaeological Paraprofessional Mike Andersen greeted the volunteers/ students during each week. During the open house, 50 forest employees came out to visit the excavation. With them was our new forest supervisor, Lynn Robert, and Natural Resources/Ecosytems Group Leader Geoff Chandler. Lynn, who had just moved from Washington State, was able to see how we did PIT in Wisconsin. We also enjoyed an informative talk by FS soil scientist Dave Hoppe, who discussed the glacial and soil-development history of the area, critical topics for those interested in the archaeology of the Great Lakes region.

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