Uncovering the past at Chimney Rock

Talon O'Connor, left, reads the measurements from a test hole to Nolan Johnson at a site near Chimney Rock Historic Site.

BAYARD — Makenzie Coufal lifts a pile of dirt out of the ground with his shovel and places the dirt into a screen for Brian Goodrich to sift through. Nolan Johnson and Talon O’Connor measure and record the results from another test hole. As archaeologists for the state of Nebraska, the men are working near Chimney Rock National Historic Site, searching for any evidence of previous occupation.

After the Nebraska State Historical Foundation purchased the land between Chimney Rock and the visitors center, archaeologists were asked to come out and survey the 400 acres of land.

“It’s never been looked at before to see what is out here,” Johnson said. “We knew there was a farmstead out here from maps and historical photos, but not much else.”

The archaeologists spent most of the week at Chimney Rock using GPS to mark larger pieces of things, such as the foundation to the farmstead, and the location of smaller things, like flakes from stone tools. The smaller items were collected to take back to Lincoln after the location was noted.

The Nebraska State Historical Foundation is still exploring the option of a potential trail that leads closer to Chimney Rock, but needs to know what is on the land, where it is located and if a trail for visitors is even possible to be completed safely.

“A trail would take dirt work and if you do that over significant archaeology, that’s bad,” Johnson said. “Our job is to find out what is here and where and to tell them what to go around.”

There is not a lot of American Indian items and Johnson and his team were surprised at the things they did find.

“This area is a long way from permanent water,” Johnson said. “What we found was north (of the river) and on the flood plain.”

After finding a broken hide scraper and stone drill, which was used for leatherworking, on the surface, the men dug several holes to determine if there was any other evidence left behind. The holes are an informal test to see if there is anything buried in the ground. It was a long shot for anything to be in the ground because the soil is gone.

“Anything that is left is probably close to the surface,” Johnson said. “The visibility isn’t good in most places because the grass is so thick.”

The two tools they found do not reveal anything new to the archaeologists. It is already known that tribes were in the area making stone tools, hide scrapers and drills.

“Unfortunately, we can’t tell what tribe or group, we just know they are there,” Johnson said. “If we found an arrow point or ceramics, it could tell us more.”

The few artifacts they did find were in tracks were there was bare dirt from vehicles, on a slop erosional face and dirt piles. The dirt piles, which are the result of a variety of animals in the area, bring things up to the surface.

“A lot of stuff we see is from walking around and dirt piles where the grass isn’t as thick,” Johnson said.

The archaeologists spent Wednesday mapping and photographing and old farmstead north east of the base of Chimney Rock. They concrete foundation was still in place. He found a photograph of a sod house and barn on the site dated at 1908. Another 1930s map shows a farmstead at the same location. A topographical map from about 1970 shows the farmstead is gone.

“There was a concrete foundation, so at some juncture, they upgraded the structure,” Johnson said.

The archaeologists did not have time during this trip to determine whether the sod house was still there or if it was removed.

When he returns to Lincoln, Johnson hopes to look at the homestead records in the hopes that he can find out who lived on the property.

“You can almost guarantee this was after the Kincaid Act because this area is not conducive to regular farming,” Johnson said.

Johnson doesn’t consider anything found at Chimney Rock to be a fruitless endeavor. With more than 11,000 sites in Nebraska, everything found is beneficial.

“It’s great to know where it is because we record everything in our database in Lincoln,” Johnson said. “Sometime in the future, people may want to know about occupation in the area and they can just go look.”

inorth@starherald.com

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