We're all kind of smug about history and our generations place in it, but how about the “Mound Builders”? They were here before the rest of us. Most of us have driven by “The Grand Mound” located at the confluence of the Big Fork and Rainy Rivers without giving it much musing. The Grand Mound is the largest of five earthen monuments that are rooted in time, they are a sacred pillar of the peoples now gone who lived and honored their dead there. In 1970, The Minnesota Historical Society acquired the Mounds to protect and interpret early Native American cultures represented by fragmentary remains buried in the soil. The site contains visibly distinct layers of soil with man-made objects such as tools and clay pots separated by layers of flood-deposited river mud and silt.
In a historical civilization context, “Pre-contact” means before contact with Europeans or it can refer to something 500 to 10,000 years old. For far more than 5,000 years this riverbank location has served the physical and social needs of different cultures, one of its most obvious uses was ceremonial and what is unique today is that the sights and sounds are largely unchanged since people started burying their dead there more than 2,000 years ago. Think those folks 5,000 years ago knew that there were people who settled along the Rainy River about 4,000 to 4,500 years before them? The first people were big-game hunters who lived in small groups and moved often, they traveled extensively in pursuit of large animals that provided much of their sustenance. No traces have been found of these peoples at the Grand Mound site but investigations nearby have produced artifacts from this ancient time. The Grand Mound is the largest burial mound in Minnesota, it measures twenty-five feet in height and one-hundred by one-hundred forty feet at its base. So who’s in it? Some have suggested that there are not enough mounds to account for the total population and it appears that only the bones of some individuals were buried in the mounds, it is not known who was chosen or why. In earlier years when sites were disturbed they uncovered burials of all age groups and sexes so it is unlikely they were chosen for social status, it may have just depended on where they died. Since the Grand Mound has never been scientifically excavated the number of burials is unknown.
Archaeologists are educated prognosticators, they look for tantalizing clues that have survived the destruction of time and the whims of preservations. They look for subtle evidence of the past and ultimately use intuition and formulate well-earned educated guesses though advances in technology and technique including carbon dating have revealed more about the “old ones”. It has been professionally articulated that the pictures archaeologists draw of the past is at times only a shadowy outline of what went on, much may never be understood.
Of the almost 11,000 known mounds constructed in Minnesota only a small portion remain today. Although these sacred places are legally protected past activities like agriculture, road building and digging by amateur archaeologists and looters have destroyed thousands of them. In Minnesota no native burials on public or private land can be disturbed even by an archaeologist and includes graves on all public lands and even in your backyard. If burials are accidentally disturbed by construction or erosion archaeologists may briefly examine the bones and the goods associated with them and then must turn the material over to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council for reburial.
After some years of site closure due to financial kerfuffle’s within the State negotiations are now taking place to resurrect tours and further preserve The Grand Mounds. I have heard local opinions strongly expressed that if it had been near the Metro it never would have closed. Think there’s any validity to that? Drop by and say hello when it reopens, hang out and have a beverage or share a story with the “Old Ones”.