Archaeology is the scientific study of important physical remnants of the cultural past for the purpose of better understanding human history.
In order to really comprehend what archaeology is all about, you must examine all of the key words in the definition and also note what the definition doesn't say. Archaeology requires a scientific approach, it deals with physical remnants, it studies the cultural past, and it is about understanding this past, not just describing it.
It does not say archaeology is about digging, although that is often an important archaeological activity. It does not say archaeology is only about artifacts, although those are the most common physical remains of the past. It does not say that archaeology only deals with the ancient past, although the older physical remnants are, the more interesting they usually become to most archaeologists and to the general public.
Scientific study means archaeology uses a rigorous, formal, systematic method. This method helps us to better find archaeological sites, properly analyze archaeological remains, better understand what we find, and adequately summarize what we have learned. Physical remnants include artifacts found on the surface and those excavated from below the surface, as well as ruined structures and recognizable human disturbances of the landscape (features) such as pits dug in the soil.
The cultural past involves only the time period of humans, which includes our distant ancestors of the genus Homo who began making stone tools in Africa over two million years ago. Because archaeologists only study the human past, we do not study dinosaurs. The last of the dinosaurs disappeared over 60 million years ago; paleontologists study dinosaurs.
Finally, archaeological analysis is not an end in itself, but must include public conclusions about the results of the study. Science must be broadly shared or it is of limited use.
There are no state-sponsored programs for public participation in doing archaeological fieldwork.
Most archaeological fieldwork in Minnesota is done by university field schools or private contract firms. These are not open to general public participation, although excavations may have an occasional open house for public viewing of a site.
The Minnesota Historical Society and the Office of the State Archaeologist have sponsored volunteer nights at the Fort Snelling History Center where you may be able to get hands-on experience looking at artifacts. To learn more, visit www.historicfortsnelling.org.
The U.S. Forest Service has a program called Passport in Time where members of the public can participate in fieldwork at one of Minnesota's two national forests (Chippewa and Superior). Learn more at www.passportintime.com.
The best overview of prehistoric archaeology in Minnesota is Guy Gibbon's Archaeology of Minnesota: The Prehistory of the Upper Mississippi River Region (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
An earlier publication by former State Archaeologist Elden Johnson entitled The Prehistoric Peoples of Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988) is also helpful.
Other books, publications and resources can be seen on our Books and Publications page.
Our Visiting Sites and Museums page has a list of museums and archaeological sites that have some archaeological interpretation and are publicly accessible. Most of these locations are run by the Minnesota Historical Society, the Department of Natural Resources, or the National Park Service.
Most archaeological excavations in Minnesota take place during the summer, but they are often in remote locations. University field schools and private contract excavation for environmental review purposes can often be visited, but you should obtain permission from the sponsor before visiting.
Because the Office of the State Archaeologist's (OSA) site files and database contain information about burial sites (restricted information under Minnesota Statutes 307.08, Subd. 11) and contain information about federal sites (restricted information under 16 USC 470hh), OSA files are not open to public browsing and private individuals cannot obtain a copy of the database.
In addition, the release of locational information about archaeological site locations on private lands can promote trespassing by artifact collectors or curiosity seekers. The state archaeologist will provide information to landowners upon request about sites on their property. Professional archaeologists and public agency officials are allowed access to the OSA site files for research and cultural resource management (CRM) purposes.
Only qualified archaeologists licensed by the state archaeologist and the Minnesota Historical Society can look for historic and archaeological material on non-federal public land. Non-federal public property includes the bottoms of lakes and streams, lands in state parks and state wildlife areas, and lands owned by local governments.
Only federally permitted archaeologists can look for historic and archaeological material on federal land. This includes the excavation and recovery of historical objects found by metal detecting. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Minnesota does not permit any use of metal detectors in state parks except by licensed archaeologists or other authorized personnel.
Artifacts found on federal property belong to the Federal government. Artifacts found on any non-federal public property belong to the State of Minnesota as administered by the state archaeologist.
Non-federal public property includes the bottoms of lakes and streams, lands in state parks and state wildlife areas, and lands owned by local governments. Artifacts found on private property belong to the landowner unless the landowner has signed an agreement to donate them to someone else.
You can get an artifact identified by sending a picture of the object to the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) or bringing it to our office. If you send a picture, be sure to include a scale (e.g., a ruler, a coin) so we can determine size. Also let us know where you found it.
If you want to show it to an OSA or Minnesota Historical Society archaeologist at our office, be sure to contact us prior to your visit to see if anyone is available. We have no expertise in non-North American artifacts and specialize only in those from the Upper Midwest. We do not provide monetary value estimates for artifacts.
The state archaeologist reviews development projects on non-federal public land, projects subject to Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs), and any project on non-federal public land or on private land that may threaten a historic burial site.
The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) reviews undertakings sponsored by federal agencies with regard to funding, lands, or licenses. SHPO can be contacted using the contact info below:
State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society
Administration Building, Suite 203
50 Sherburne Ave
St. Paul, MN 55155
The state archaeologist generally will not recommend a particular contract archaeologist or firm, although he can comment on qualifications, past performance, and possible availability of particular contractors.
The Heritage Preservation Department at the Minnesota Historical Society maintains a list of contractors who have expressed an interest in doing archaeological work for hire. You can see this list at preservationdirectory.mnhs.org.
The only type of archaeological site strictly protected on non-federal land in Minnesota is a burial site. Burial sites on public or private land cannot be disturbed without the consent of appropriate authorities.
Significant archaeological sites on non-federal public land are protected under Minnesota Statutes 138.40; significant sites are those site determined to be eligible for or listed in the state or federal historic registers. Non-burial archaeological sites are not protected from harm on private lands in Minnesota even if they are listed in the state or federal historic registers, although they may be subject to a Minnesota Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) if local permits are needed, to review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act if they are a federal undertaking, or the subject of an injunction under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MS 116b).
Minnesota law forbids unauthorized disturbance of burials and burial grounds (Minnesota Statutes 307.08).
The State Archaeologist is designated to "authenticate" historic burials (greater than 50 years old) found outside of recorded cemeteries. Recorded means there is no official record of the cemetery in the County Recorder's office. If you notice the possible disturbance of human remains, call local law enforcement first and the state archaeologist second. If you think a possible burial ground may be threatened by development or other action, contact the state archaeologist.
Under Minnesota law, only the State Archaeologist can authenticate a historic burial in Minnesota (Minnesota Statutes 307.08).
Authentication consists of three steps:
You can see the state archaeologist's procedures for burial authentication on our Burial Sites Protection page.
Under Minnesota law, the cost of "authentication, recording, surveying, marking, identifying, analyzing, rescuing, and reburying" historic burials on private land is the responsibility of the state, but there is no designated fund for this (Minnesota Statutes 307.08 Subd. 5).
The state archaeologist is responsible for authentication, but there are times when the state archaeologist may not be immediately available to do a non-emergency authentication or the authentication may involve techniques beyond the normal abilities of the state archaeologist to accomplish (e.g., use of remote sensing, large area lacking detailed burial location information with no surface evidence for burials).
The state archaeologist can recommend the use of approved archaeological contractors to assist with authentication, but the landowner or developer would be responsible for these costs. With regard to "surveying," the state archaeologist is not a qualified land surveyor so any burial ground boundary designated and marked in the field by the state archaeologist should be followed by an official land survey and deed recording/platting with the landowner responsible for the cost for the land survey.
Under Minnesota law, you need the permission of the landowner and an "appropriate authority" to disturb or move a historic burial (Minnesota Statutes 307.08).
In the case of authenticated Indian burials, only the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) along with the landowner can approve any disturbance within a designated burial ground. For unrecorded (no official local government designation) and historic (over 50 years) burials of non-Indian affiliation, the state archaeologist is considered an appropriate authority, but the state archaeologist generally will not approve moving a burial unless:
No ground disturbing activities are permitted at suspected burial sites without the consent of the state archaeologist.
Under Minnesota law, "disturb means any activity that significantly harms the physical integrity or setting of a human burial or human burial ground" (Minnesota Statutes 307.08 Subd. 13).
Disturbances include any form of digging including planting trees, the placement of structures (e.g., yard barns), or removing significant vegetation (e.g., cutting down trees) within a designated burial ground. You must have the approval of appropriate authorities to do any form of disturbance within a burial ground.
The state archaeologist maintains a database of historic cemetery and burial ground locations in Minnesota, but does not have specific information regarding who is buried in a particular cemetery. Contact the Minnesota Genealogical Society for this information.
Under Minnesota law, county boards may appropriate funds for the improvement or maintenance of abandoned cemeteries (Minnesota Statutes 306.243); township boards may maintain cemeteries that have been neglected for at least 10 years (Minnesota Statutes 306.245).
Abandoned cemeteries are cemeteries where the association having charge of the cemetery has disbanded or a neglected cemetery containing the remains of pre-1875 residents or veterans of the Civil War or previous wars. If the cemetery has not been officially recorded and there is no active management organization, the state archaeologist can authorize clean-up activities providing the landowner has given permission.
The runestone is a large rock with Scandinavian runic inscriptions supposedly found on a farm near Kensington in Douglas County in 1898. The runic date listed on the stone is 1362. The Runestone itself has been studied by many experts of various disciplines. Most professional runic scholars and professional historians here and abroad agree that the Runestone was probably not carved in 1362 and was most likely the product of late 19th century Scandinavian settlers in western Minnesota.
The Runestone discovery site (now a county park) and other purported Medieval Norse sites in Minnesota -- as well as artifacts from these sites -- have been the subject of multiple archaeological examinations, but there is no archaeological evidence for a Medieval Norse presence in Minnesota.