Sucker Lake Archaeological Excavation and Laboratory
Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota, 2003-2004
by Andrea LeVasseur, FS Archaeologist
Sucker Lakes is composed of three lake basins oriented north-south and connected by narrow channels. The Sucker Lakes site is located on the west side of the channel separating the northern and middle lakes. It was first recorded in 1979 and was relocated in 1995 during reconnaissance survey of the area prior to a planned timber harvest. Thirty-seven positive shovel tests along the shoreline recovered Brainerd, Blackduck, and Sandy Lake ceramics, lithics, and faunal remains. In 2003 and 2004, FS archaeologists, students from the Cass Lake Alternative Learning Center, and PIT volunteers evaluated the site for NRHP eligibility.
The cultural occupation soils were very dark, making features that included soil discolorations and charcoal extremely difficult to see. As a result, artifact concentrations were the predominant feature indicator. One interesting feature included 31 racket-to-baseball-sized rocks. The cobbles were not modified, and show no battering from use as hammer stones. The rocks were compressed into a single area, suggesting that they had been in some kind of container, such as a bag or basket that has long since rotted away. Evidently someone collected these to use for some task, but never fulfilled their plan.
A large bone with cut marks was found. Made of the long bone of a large mammal (e.g., wapiti or moose), it shows several cut marks perpendicular to the axis of the bone and has a spiral fracture, indicating that it was deliberately broken by humans. A second bone object displays a possible spiral fracture. Another small bone fragment had a shallow hole in it that does not penetrate completely through the bone. A single large mammal tooth with the root still attached was found. It appears to be the left premolar of an adult moose.
Two objects were found that may be tools used to smooth or decorate pottery. These were a rounded piece of basalt with a flattened profile and a flat, paddle-like object of wood.
Seven units contained objects associated with red ochre or hematite, which was commonly used as coloring. Three of these appeared to be chunks of raw red sandstone or hematite that, after mixing with grease and other ingredients, would form a kind of paint. Also found were one granite cobble, two granite spalled fragments, and a siltstone fragment, with what appears to be red coloring on the exterior.
The site was littered with broken and worn-out tools. Fourteen projectile points were recovered. Seven were triangular, one corner notched, two side notched, and the remaining were fragments. There were also five bifaces, 13 scrapers, three retouched flakes, and six utilized flakes. One ground stone tool resembling a mano was recovered. It has a flattened and polished surface that appears to result from abrasion. Perhaps it was used to grind manomen (wild rice), grains, or nuts.
Ceramics are the predominant artifact category, with a total of 13,008 sherds recovered. The ceramics present fall into four broad ware categories: Brainerd, Blackduck, Late Blackduck/Rainy River Composite-like, and Sandy Lake. One vessel of Sandy Lake form bears a rare and distinctive Oneota/Mississippian trailed decorative motif informally called “Sandyota” (from the blend of Sandy Lake and Oneota characteristics.)
Analysis of horizontal distribution of ceramics indicates that the Sucker Lake site has potential for allowing comparisons of different cultural components by location. The excavations of 2003 and 2004 were separated by about 80 m. The western 2003 excavation contained Brainerd and Sandy Lake wares, but no Blackduck wares, whereas the eastern 2004 excavation area was dominated by Blackduck and the later affiliated wares and Sandy Lake with very little Brainerd present.
Ceramics may offer insight into the identity of groups of people who chose to live at the site. Although the cultural affiliation of those who used Brainerd wares is unknown, they appear to have been the earliest inhabitants of the site. Elsewhere in the Mississippi Headwaters the time depth for Brainerd (aka Elk Lake) culture has been shown to be as much as 1,700–3,000 years b.p. Blackduck develops as early as a.d. 800 and lasts to about a.d. 1100 or later, and seems likely to represent a proto-Algonkian affiliation that may be antecedent to cultures such as the Cree and Ojibwe. Sandy Lake ware appears about a.d. 1100–1650, has clear cultural connections to the south, and appears to represent affiliation with Dakota (Sioux) peoples.
The Sucker Lakes site appears to be eligible for listing in the NRHP. Shovel testing indicates that the site is much larger than expected, and includes the large hill north of the 2003–2004 excavations. The fact that organic materials such as wood and bone have been preserved adds to the significance of the site by increasing the variety and information value of its data. Datable cultural features may also be present. Testing recovered concentrations of artifacts and horizontal ceramic distributions, and more discrete activity areas may be discernable with a larger sample size. The size and complexity of the site indicate it has the potential to contribute knowledge about poorly known contexts in northern Minnesota such as Brainerd, Blackduck, and Sandy Lake Oneota/Mississipian influence is also present in the “Sandyota” ware, whose appearance in the Mississippi headwaters is rare and poorly understood.
Thanks to the efforts of volunteers, the information value of this site has been recognized. With dedicated stewardship, it will continue to provide insights into the past for future generations.