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The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site, Iowa


[Photo] West Oak Forest Earthlodge - property within the Archeological Resources of Initial Variant of the Middle Missouri Tradition in Iowa MPS
Photograph by William Whittaker
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

The Find: In 2009 local archeologist Dennis Miller notified William Whittaker and Adam Newman  of the Iowa Office of State Archeologists (OSA) of the location of a possible earthlodge with an obvious surface depression.  Miller accompanied the OSA crew to the site. The depression was about 20 feet in diameter, and a maximum of 24 inches lower in elevation compared to the surrounding terrain. The site may have been originally spotted by archeologist Ellison Orr in 1938 and referred to as “House R” in his notes. The Iowa Site File (ISF), the official archive of site information from across Iowa, established in 1959 at the Office of the State Archeologist at the University of Iowa, had an ISF form on Orr’s “House R”, filled out in 1991 by archeologist William Billeck. Unable to field verify the site, Billeck recommended that the site be field checked to verify its location and condition.

In 2010 Whittaker and Newman did that. Using Orr’s notes from 1938, Whittaker and Newman also used Global Positioning System (GPS) technology in an attempt to confirm Orr’s location of the site he named “House R”. The surface depression was actually 30 miles north of Orr’s finding; the 2009 excavations confirmed the depression was an earthlodge site. They named this site the West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site. Whittaker’s and Newman’s  testing successfully showed that the site retains an extremely high level of historic and archeological integrity, with a well-preserved Nebraska phase of the Central Plains tradition earthlodge present.

 


Kimball Village - property within the Archeological Resources of Initial Variant of the Middle Missouri Tradition in Iowa MPS
Photograph by William Whittaker
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office


Importance of the West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site: The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site, found in the Iowa landform region known as the Loess Hills, is one of only 29 high integrity Nebraska phase of the Central Plains Tradition earthlodge sites east of the Mississippi River. The Central Plains Tradition comprises a number of broadly similar archeological manifestations of Native American earthlodge-dwelling hunters and farmers living in what are today Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa during the 10th through 14th centuries A.D.  The sites are typically comprised of semi-subterranean residential earthlodge structures with extended entryways. Earthlodges were houses constructed of four central support posts surrounded by shorter, closely spaced, outer wall posts, with wattle and daub walls and roof.

The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site is historically significant on the national level for the scientific data it has provided and the in-ground data it still contains in the areas of Precontact (Prehistoric) Archeology (here defined as the time before written history assisted in an understanding of the past and applying to the mid-continent American Indians), Native American Ethnic Heritage, Community Planning and Development, and Economics.  Only five of the high integrity earthlodge sites still exhibit a noticeable surface depression, which is caused by the natural decay and caving-in of late precontact earthlodges. The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site, with its surface depression, contains essential information about the varied lifeways of the ancestral Plains Indians on the eve of Euro-American contact.  The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site embodies all of the distinctive characteristics of early indigenous farmers, settlements, and material culture that typify sites of the Nebraska phase of the Central Plains Tradition.

 


[Photo] West Oak Forest Earthlodge - property within the Archeological Resources of Initial Variant of the Middle Missouri Tradition in Iowa MPS
Photograph by William Whittaker
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

Description of the Earthlodge: A variety of archeological techniques were used to study site integrity.  The dimensions of the main part of the earthlodge are roughly 26 x 29 feet (excluding the entryway), with an entrance passage that points south.  There were distinct soil strata in various degrees of compactness, color, and texture, signifying depositional episodes, some relating to the collapse of the house, and others from lower levels that may represent incidental fill deposits by the site’s occupants, including the lodge floor, and possibly storage pits or other activity areas.  The artifact count from the site was 231 items.  Ceramic sherds (pieces of broken ceramics) accounted for six of these artifacts.  All ceramics were found in depths in excess of 51 inches. Flaking debris, the waste from manufacturing chipped stone tools, was common.

Earthlodges near West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site generally are square shaped with round corners with a dome-like roof appearance and an elongated entryway, although several rectangular lodges have been identified. The shape of this lodge conforms to the known shapes of other local lodges; it has nearly a square shape with rounded corners and an elongated south-facing entryway. The size of earthlodges varies greatly suggesting a variety of household sizes. Nebraska phase peoples grew domesticated crops, gathered wild plants, hunted game, and participated in a complex trade network. The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site has yielded artifacts that reflect all these activities: maize (corn) was definitely present, as were animal remains. Cherts from stone manufacture may reflect a trade influence.

There was no indication of occupation of the site by earlier or later groups.  All evidence demonstrates the site has a single Nebraska phase component, dating sometime between A.D. 1250 and 1400.  Single component archeological sites, like West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site, possess high degrees of significance for understanding past lifeways, because artifacts and associations are not mixed with those of earlier or later occupations.  Archeological investigations at the West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site reveal that less than one percent of the site has been disturbed. Archeological investigations have immense potential to yield significant new data about a host of issues relating to local late precontact history, regional issues of Nebraska phase cultures and national trends regarding the Central Plains Tradition. The West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 11, 2010.

--Above extracted from the National Register Form prepared by Cynthia L. Peterson and William E. Whittaker, archeologists, Office of the State Archeologist, University of Iowa

Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

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