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UA Researcher Finds Vast American Indian Settlement

Mon, Oct 28, 2002

Traditional View Of Plains Civilization, Warfare Altered By Discovery

By Allison Hogge

Special To The Morning News/


FAYETTEVILLE -- Using geophysical technologies to view features buried beneath the soil, a University of Arkansas archaeologist has mapped an American Indian settlement that challenges the current understanding of Great Plains prehistory.

For two weeks this past summer, Ken Kvamme, associate professor of anthropology, applied ground penetrating radar, electrical resistivity and magnetometry readings to the Double Ditch State Historic Site in North Dakota -- long believed to be the location of an 18th-century Mandan village.

What Kvamme found beneath the soil not only pushed the date of the village back three centuries, it also extended the boundaries of the site to reveal one of the largest native settlements west of the Mississippi River.

It also suggested forms of defensive warfare never before associated with Great Plains tribes.

Kvamme presented his findings last week at the Plains Anthropological Society meeting in Oklahoma City.

"Double Ditch is a fairly shallow site, so close to the surface that you can actually see some of the house depressions where the Mandan earth lodges sat and the line of the two fortification ditches that surrounded the village," Kvamme said.

"But what we found with the geophysical instruments were two completely hidden fortification ditches way out beyond the original two. It nearly doubles the size of the village."

Built as a defensive measure against invaders, the fortification ditches originally would have been 1 to 2.5 meters deep and nearly 2 meters wide, with a palisade constructed on the inside edge.

According to Kvamme, the newly discovered ditches enclose an area of about 7.5 hectares, representing a substantial engineering feat.

"We know of ongoing hostility between the Mandan and the Sioux or Dakota in historic times, but to consider the tremendous amount of energy it would have taken to dig these fortifications around such a large area -- it clearly tells us these people lived in fear during the prehistoric era," he said.

What Kvamme considers most curious about the new fortification ditches -- and what he expects to cause a stir among his colleagues -- is not just the area they enclose.

Rather, it's the placement of the ditches in relation to various midden mounds along the periphery of the site.

His geophysical maps reveal that the ditches follow the line of the middens around the village, suggesting that these earth-covered mounds of refuse may have played a role in the ancestral Mandans' defensive tactics.

"The mounds could have been used as observation platforms, but the steep sides along the fortification ditch suggest that they may have served as something like ramparts," Kvamme explained.

"Use of ramparts is totally unknown in Great Plains prehistory. They're considered a European innovation in this region."

If Kvamme's theory proves correct, the midden mounds at Double Ditch may constitute the first evidence of ramparts in Great Plains warfare -- a significant innovation, considering that the form of those middens suggest they predate European contact with the New World.

With the help of archaeologist Stanley Ahler of the Paleo Cultural Research Group, Kvamme has collected significant evidence that the village at Double Ditch may date back as early as the 1400s. After Kvamme mapped the new fortification ditches with electrical resistivity and magnetometry, Ahler's team excavated portions of the site.

They found potsherds, characteristic of 15th-century pottery, in the outermost ditches.

Furthermore, in surveying a greater area of the site, Kvamme's maps revealed bastions along the exterior ditch -- a common defense feature employed by prehistoric occupants of the 1400s.

His readings also showed the outline of rectangular houses mixed among the circular earth lodges. It is believed that the ancestral Mandan typically built rectangular lodges in the 15th century, switching to the circular shape later in prehistory.

Kvamme and Ahler intend to perform radiocarbon dating to provide a more exact time frame for the village.

Considering the size of the site, the number of houses and food storage pits it contained and the chronology of the village, a new picture of Double Ditch has emerged as a major North American settlement.

Although a detailed study has not yet been conducted, the site may have supported as many as 3,000 people, with a record of continuous occupation spanning three centuries, Kvamme conjectured.

"To say the least, it's uncommon for a Plains tribe to be settled in one area for such a long time. Even before we found the outer ditches, Double Ditch was one of the biggest Great Plains villages we knew about," he said.

Amidst all the speculation about the size of the village, its occupants and their enemies, Kvamme states one thing for certain: "The site needs a new name. With at least four defensive ditches now discovered, Double Ditch is something of an understatement."

Webwatch: For more information about Kvamme's projects, visit his Web site at

To learn more about geophysical technologies and their use in the United States, visit the North American Database of Archeological Geophysics at -- a site designed and maintained by Kvamme and originally funded by the National Park Service.

posted by Ishgood at Native News Online

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