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Unit 1: Set 3: Ancient Villages - Huff Archeological Studies

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While historians depend largely on written documents to determine how people lived in the past, the ancient people left us no paper documents. Therefore, it is the work of archeologists to investigate these sites and help us understand what life was like in he past.

In the early twentieth century, archeologists, both amateur and professional, carefully excavated sites ancient people occupied. Archeologists dug away the surface soil looking for objects such as tools or bones that indicate human occupation, construction details such as rocks or wooden beams, and holes in the ground that indicate the placement of palisade logs. At Huff, several houses were excavated in this way. Each object discovered in the excavation process is carefully noted for its size, type, and exact location.

Using the objects located at the site of an ancient village along with historical records gathered as early as 1738 by explorers, traders, and other visitors, archeologists are able to explain the lives of ancient peoples. The following questions and answers will help you understand this process.

  1. How do we know how many people lived at Huff Village?

Huff Village has 103 earth lodges. Archeologists estimate from the size of the house and the number of fire pits in the lodge that approximately 10 people lived in each house. Simple math gives us a population of about 1000 people.

  1. How do we know that Huff was occupied by ancestors of the modern-day Mandan?

Archeologists use a complex of information from other sites as well as the Huff site that includes house-style, pottery, and the Missouri River location as well as other points of comparison. The cultural similarities among the many villages of this region led in time to tribal identity.

  1. How do we know that Huff Village was protected by a palisade wall?

Excavations along the edge of the village conducted in 1960, inside the remains of the ditch, reveal a line of post holes. The posts were from 8 to 12 inches in diameter and spaced so that weapons could be utilized between the posts. The posthole line bulges out into bastions at 10 places allowing the village defenders protected access to attackers.

  1. How do we know that the people of Huff were gardeners?

Charred bits of vegetables left in fire pits are usually the only pieces of vegetable matter that remains. Archeologists have found pieces of charred corn of the northern flint type and pieces of charred cobs of popcorn. Other sites that were occupied later have revealed cache pits with bits of corn, beans or dried squash in them. Archeologists estimate that there are 1700 cache pits at Huff Village. Hoes made of bison scapula (shoulder blade) attached to a stout stick have also been found in ancient Mandan villages. Historical records indicate that gardens were 3 to 5 acres in size for each family.

  1. How do we know that the people of Huff hunted bison?

Bison bones (and the bones of other mammals and birds) have been found in Huff Village refuse pits. Marks on the bones indicate that the animals were butchered.

  1. How do we know that the people of Huff engaged in trade?

Shells such as Dentalium and Olivella from the coast of the Pacific Northwest have been found at Huff Village. The Mandan who lived at Huff could not have acquired these while hunting and gardening along the Missouri except by trade. Trade items also include stones not common in this region such as catlinite found in quarries in southwestern Minnesota. The Mandan traded with nomads who probably had acquired these goods from other peoples they had met. Nomads would have sought corn, beans, and squash which the Mandan produced in surplus. By 1738 when La Verendrye visited the Mandan at another village along the Missouri, he found that they had knowledge of Europeans who had settlements in North America.

  1. How do we know that Huff Village was occupied for only 20 years?

The houses and the ditch of Huff Village are easily viewed from the surface. There is no evidence that the residents of Huff built new houses on top of the originals so the village pattern of houses, storage pits, ceremonial plaza, and protective ditch and palisade is in pristine condition. We know that the houses were typically rebuilt every 10 to 12 years, so if no new houses were constructed over the old houses, the village must have relocated when the residents needed new resources for building. Their houses were constructed with 4,000 to 5,000 posts of hardwood trees which grow very slowly. Another 2500 posts were used in construction of the palisade wall. Therefore, it is likely that they used up the hardwood of appropriate size available in the immediate area and moved on to another location.

  1. Why is Huff Village an important site to study?

Because the village is so well preserved it has been a valuable site to study. Huff has been studied periodically since 1905 and each study has brought forth more information about the people who lived here.

Huff also contains evidence of change in house construction. One house is roughly square (rather than rectangular) with rounded corners. It has four main support posts forming a square in the center rather than a long ridge pole which was common in the other houses. This house can be interpreted as reflecting the beginning of a change from long-rectangular to a circular house form.

In 1999, archeologists began using two sophisticated remote sensing surveys to reveal new information about the village site. They found that the ceremonial plaza had very few storage pits or hearths suggesting that it was set aside for ceremonial purposes only. The surveys also found that most storage pits were constructed outside of the houses; archeologists used this data to estimate the storage capacity of the entire village for garden produce. The remote sensing surveys also indicated that there was little construction outside of the village palisade.

Another modern technology, radio carbon dating, has determined that Huff was occupied from AD 1443 to 1465.

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