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The Headless Bison Calf: An Archaeological Mystery [December 2004]
I was the last scientist to see the remains of the “Fingerson calf.” No one would have bet on what I discovered.
by David Mather


We first met about six years ago in a basement lab. I was a young archaeologist with a short attention span. The bison calf was in an old cardboard box, just bones now, and had been there for decades. If the calf was born alive, its very brief life was spent on the prairies of west-central Minnesota. It’s hard to say for sure when it died, although it was almost definitely within the last two thousand years. There are a number of mysteries concerning this little bison, not least of which is this: Where is its head?

Bison bones have been discovered at archaeological sites all over Minnesota, spanning the 10,000-year history of human presence here. Some sites contain the remains of dramatic bison hunts where dozens to hundreds of animals were killed and butchered. Other sites contain bones—cut, burned, broken, boiled, and dog-chewed—that are the food scraps found amid other evidence of daily village life. These artifacts help us visualize an unscarred landscape of rolling prairies and lakes where massive herds of bison once roamed. But a particularly potent image for me is the solitary burial of this headless calf. It was found in the early days of Minnesota archaeology, in a burial mound near Glenwood, overlooking the shore of Lake Minnewaska in Pope County.

The year was 1938, and Lloyd Wilford was leading a small crew of excavators. Wilford, who had recently earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, would go on to become the grandfather of Minnesota archaeology. In compiling the outline of Minnesota’s archaeological record, he trained generations of students at the University of Minnesota; his life’s work became the foundation upon which current research is still conducted.

The mound was located on land owned by a family named Fingerson. Wilford and his crew excavated a large circular area in the center of the earthwork, in which they found the skeleton of a bison calf, a pile of stones set on top of birch bark, and the powdery traces of decomposed wooden poles. The pole section with the largest diameter was found in an upright position at the mound center, with other sections laid out to the north and east. The stones were found to the east of the center. The bison calf’s body had been placed to the northwest. Its skeleton was found fully articulated, indicating that aside from its head, the calf’s body was clearly buried intact. Bundles of human remains, some colored with red ochre, and one cremation were found in and around the poles, the cairn, and the skeleton of the calf.

Two small pottery shards and a few stone chips were found during the excavation. None were of a style that indicated a particular time or place, leaving the age and history of the mound uncertain. Mounds were built for more than two thousand years, by a number of American Indian cultures, and for a variety of purposes that fall under two common themes. They tended to be built for religious reasons and at times of the year when large numbers of people congregated in one place for an extended stay—which was generally in the spring or early summer.

The Fingerson Mound is one of more than eleven thousand that have been recorded in Minnesota (it is assumed that many more were never documented). Based on his findings from other mounds that shared a similar manner of human burial and general lack of associated artifacts, Wilford theorized that it was built during a time that archaeologists now call the Late Woodland period, ranging from approximately 500 A.D. until the time of local European contact in the late 1600s.

It was sixty years after Wilford’s excavation, in 1998, that I met the Fingerson calf for the first time. Much had changed in Minnesota archaeology. For one thing, we no longer seek out burial mounds for research excavations. State laws passed in the 1970s protect burial sites of all types from archaeologists as well as from bulldozers. Archaeological research related to mounds is now done in consultation with American Indian communities, with a goal of protecting cemetery sites rather than digging them up. The findings from past studies by Wilford and others now help archaeologists to recognize mounds and other grave sites with minimal disturbance, so that they can be preserved in place, with the same legal protection as modern cemeteries.

The state mandate, together with a federal law passed in 1990, created a boon for Minnesota archaeology. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act meant that many of the state’s early digs would receive increased scrutiny: It gave museums a deadline by which they were to consult with Indian tribes regarding human remains and sacred objects in their collections. If a connection was established to a federally recognized tribe, then the disposition of the remains and objects is decided by the tribe.

The process elicited a wide range of responses from archaeologists and American Indians, with some archaeologists protesting the “loss to science” in repatriating such artifacts. In my experience, though, quite the opposite is true. By the late 1990s, the Fingerson bison calf had been lying in a storage box for sixty years. In fact, most archaeological materials that came under review because of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act were being studied and documented for the first time. So my study of the calf occurred at a crossroads in Minnesota archaeology, amid a flurry of laboratory research.

The Fingerson calf was part of this repatriation process because it was found in a burial mound. Most of the attention in such cases fell on human remains. Other objects discovered in mounds were generally examined to confirm that they were burial offerings—objects intended to be with the people buried in the mound. Wilford’s research linked the Fingerson mound generally to the Dakota, establishing a path for consultation and repatriation.

Both then and now, the calf was interpreted as an integral part of the mound construction ceremony for several reasons, the most obvious ones being the lack of its head and its age. This was not just any little bison. Also important was its location within the mound. A number of earthworks excavated by Wilford had bison remains placed to the northwest of the mound center, suggesting a broader tradition beyond this one mound. This is the only case known, however, where the bison was a calf, and the only one with a missing head. It seemed likely that the head was removed as part of the religious and funerary rites conducted when the mound was built, but the reason why was far from clear.

The Fingerson bison calf captured my imagination, and I undertook a brief study of its skeleton before it was repatriated. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the calf would connect itself to many other aspects of my archaeological work. Even though it was (and is) a side project, my attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the calf provoked questions that have continued to keep pace with my other research. A cynical person might say that I had simply found that the calf offered a great excuse to procrastinate on other projects, and perhaps that’s true to a certain extent. Yet it also led me down paths that I might not have otherwise encountered, and it was my other work that always benefited. Even as I began to see how the calf was connected to so much, I also came to realize that there is so much else to this story that I will never know.

When I examined the calf skeleton, I found some intriguing details that supported Wilford’s interpretation that the entire body of the animal (except for its head) was buried in the mound. One fragment of the axis (the second vertebra of the neck) was present, but there was no trace of the atlas (the topmost vertebra, which supports the head). Presumably, the atlas had been removed with the head, and the axis damaged in the process. All of the other vertebrae and bones of the body were present; nearly all were intact and well-preserved. No cut marks were visible on any of the bones, indicating that the rest of the body had not been butchered.

Archaeologists identify ancient fragments of bone by comparing them with modern skeletons. In this manner, the bones of the Fingerson calf were identified as a bison during Wilford’s original analysis. I hoped to learn more and was fortunate to be granted access to the reference collections at museums and research institutions around the Upper Midwest. My search ended at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, where I was able to compare the Fingerson calf with the skeletons from a number of bison calves of various ages. The closest match was an unborn but fully developed calf, suggesting that at the time of death, the Fingerson calf was either soon to be born, or perhaps just born. The comparative skeleton in Springfield included the skull, which emphasized the tender age of the Fingerson calf. Adult bison are huge, powerful animals, but this little bean was tiny, with nubs of horns the size of a pencil eraser. Bison calves are born in late spring to early summer, so if the death of the calf and the construction of the mound were concurrent events (which seems reasonable given that the entire body of the calf was buried in the mound), then it’s likely that the mound’s construction and its accompanying ceremonies occurred in May or June.

As expected in a young animal, the ends of its bones (the epiphyses) were not attached to the shafts. The bones of all mammals grow in this way, fusing together by the time the animal is fully grown. (We humans experience the process as “growing pains.”) Therefore, the skeletons of baby mammals are quite distinct from those of juveniles and adults of the same species—at birth they are still geared for gestation and the birthing process.

In 1999, shortly after I made my study, the Fingerson calf was reburied, along with the human remains from the mound. Prior to the repatriation, I requested permission from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to retain one calcaneus, or ankle bone, of the calf in order to one day provide a radiocarbon date. This technique, a byproduct of atomic research during World War II, did not exist at the time that Wilford’s crew excavated the mound. They had estimated the age of the Fingerson Mound through comparison with other known archaeological sites; now, however, this bone from the Fingerson calf could provide a more precise date.

A few years passed by first, however, with other projects and other concerns. An archaeological find at Mille Lacs had inspired me to jump back into graduate school—while also continuing to work full time. Then, in 2000, a friend asked me to present a paper on the Fingerson Mound at a conference in St. Paul. He was aiming to explore connections between that mound and the Sonota Complex, an archaeological culture of sorts, identified at sites in central North and South Dakota on the basis of elaborate ceremonies involving bison. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to participate at that time. I was scrambling to prepare for a research trip to Sweden, and trying to work in a much-needed visit to my girlfriend (now wife) at her dig in Ireland. Meanwhile, my schedule of field projects in Minnesota was stretching out to the end of the year. But the mystery of the calf drew me back in, and preparing for the presentation provided an excuse to get a radiocarbon date for the calf bone.

First, though, I needed funding, and in this case, my jammed schedule was actually a benefit. Lacking the time to search for grants, I decided simply to ask for help, and was rewarded with kindness. The cost of the radiocarbon testing was split by the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology (a nonprofit in St. Paul that is now sadly defunct) and Loucks Associates, the Maple Grove consulting firm that I worked for at the time. I submitted the sample in the fall of 2000, and wouldn’t get the results until just a few days before the conference, but I wasn’t expecting any surprises. The Sonota Complex dates from about 100 B.C. to 600 A.D., and it seemed reasonable to expect that the Fingerson calf would be from that same era, or at least close to it.

After sending off the sample, I returned to a heavy fall field season at Mille Lacs, as we raced to finish several projects before the ground froze. It turned out to be the year I learned to love winter archaeology. The landscape opened as the leaves fell, revealing subtle hints of the recent past: logging camps and trails, old birch trees stripped of their bark, homestead sites and their storage pits. At the same time, an excavation in Onamia ranged across more than two thousand years of human history, from the oldest pottery known in the region (around 500 B.C.) to the founding of the town in the early 1900s.

The bombshell dropped during a short break from that project, just days before the start of the conference. I checked in at my office and, standing there at the receptionist’s desk, tore open the envelope from the radiocarbon lab. The report stated that the calf was about 150 years old. More precisely, and factoring in the margin of error, they concluded with a ninety-five percent probability that the bison calf died between 1670 and 1960 A.D.

First came confusion (what happened? what?), followed quickly by disappointment (the sample must have been contaminated), but soon, intrigue (hold on, what if it’s right?). I had begun simply by looking at the headless skeleton of a bison calf, but a door opened with the new date. The result moved the entire mound from the remote past to a relatively recent and pivotal period in history, during which the land of Minnesota changed dramatically.

Age is generally considered a virtue in archaeology—so many of our studies aim to discover the first something-or-
other or the origins of that thingamajig. But there is another side of archaeology that searches for insights to the simple beauty of everyday life. Archaeologists focusing on recent history (say, the last three hundred years) are well-versed in the limitations of written documents. Artifacts, on the other hand, regardless of their age, can take us through the heavy curtain of history to connect with an individual person—as with an ancient fingerprint preserved in the wall of a fired clay pot, or a child’s toy from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or the animal bones, seeds, and shards that combine to recreate a meal. The age of the oldest mounds in Minnesota is well-known to be about 500 B.C. The recent date given to the bison calf bone, however, knocked our legs out at the other end of the timeline, suggesting just how long the mound-building tradition may have persisted—which is why my dismay transformed into a growing excitement.

Under the broad brush of archaeological time, indigenous clay pots and stone tools seem to disappear immediately after the introduction of European trade goods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The possibilities raised by this radiocarbon date reminded me that culture is too complex to be painted with such a broad brush, and that artifacts and archaeological typologies do not equate with belief and ritual, or the actions of individual people. If correct, the date seemed to show the continuity of ancient cultural traditions well into the historic period, against all the odds presented by disease, warfare, exile, and systematic transformation of the land by white settlement.

It is important to remember that a single radiocarbon date does not prove anything. It is always preferable to get a series of dates from different samples and to compare the results. Unfortunately, this was not an option with the bison calf and the mound, since there was only one sample. It’s not unusual to reject a date if it conflicts with other lines of evidence. At first glance, this would be done with the date from the bone of the Fingerson calf. Looking again at Wilford’s report, however, there was no independent evidence that actually contradicted the result, and previously overlooked details began to whisper that the date might be correct. I had assumed, along with other archaeologists, that this was a Late Woodland mound, and had therefore glossed over the wood and birchbark as simply remarkable preservation (though such artifacts have been discovered in ancient mounds as well). With this puzzle in mind, I set out to examine Wilford’s unpublished field notes and photographs for additional information and clues that could explain the date.

Working from what little is known about the mound, we can reduce the radiocarbon age range back a bit from 1960. The mound was excavated in 1938, for instance, so obviously it is older than that. More importantly, the accounts of the Fingerson family demonstrate that it was present on their land in the “pioneer days” of the mid-nineteenth century. This implies that it was built sometime before 1850.

Wilford believed that the calf was placed in the mound during its construction, as did the other excavators. Other bison bones, including articulated limbs, were found in the mound (although they apparently were not collected). Joseph Nicollet observed that bison hunting by the Dakota in western Minnesota was common in the early nineteenth century. But by the 1850s, the Dakota were largely confined to a reservation along the Minnesota River, well to the south of the Fingerson Mound. The last wild bison in Minnesota were seen in the Red River Valley in the 1880s.

George Sletten, one of Wilford’s students, made a record in his field notes that is particularly relevant to the radiocarbon date. “According to statements made by the Fingersons,” he wrote, “the mound was of interest to the Indians, who came back to the spot a number of times after they had been moved to the reservation to look after the mound. They also, at one time, built and kept in repair a rail fence around the mound.” This argues that the mound as a whole was an important place within living memory at that time, and highlights the sad irony that it was excavated such a short time later. These historical circumstances suggest that the mound may have been constructed in the early 1800s.

While archaeologists generally think of burial mounds as a trait of the “prehistoric” period, it should not be surprising that a tradition spanning more than two millennia did not end so abruptly. After all, past research at Mille Lacs has shown that Dakota people were still building mounds at the same time the French were trading for fur in the late 1600s. We know that because “historic” artifacts—French trade goods—were found in association with “prehistoric” pottery. The Fingerson Mound differs in that no historic objects were present. In fact, few artifacts of any kind were found. If European goods were placed in mounds in the late 1600s, it seems likely that they would be more common over a century and a half later, by the early 1800s. Their absence suggests that there was a deliberate rejection, and that the ceremonies represented in the structure of the mound were those of notably traditional people.

Given the radiocarbon date and the apparent importance the mound had for the Dakota, I looked to written accounts of Sioux religion for clues about the bison calf and other elements of the mound. Historical descriptions of the Sun Dance, recorded nearly a century ago by Lakota elder Short Bull, yielded another surprise: “A consecrated buffalo calf skin is hung as a flap over the entrance to the sacred lodge as an act toward the Buffalo God who prevails in the formal camp for the Sun Dance. This skin is taken and hung upon the sacred pole during the dance.” In later years the calf skin was represented by a red cloth, since a bison calf is red for the first six months of its life.

As a ceremony of world renewal and self-sacrifice, the Sun Dance is a historic part of numerous Great Plains Indian cultures, in which some participants pierce their flesh with sharp objects that are attached with leather thongs to a sacred cottonwood tree. The wooden poles in the Fingerson Mound offer further evidence of a link between the mound and a ceremony similar to the Sun Dance. Could the upright pole segment at the mound center be the base of the sacred cottonwood at the center of the Sun Dance circle, later buried within the mound? Lakota artist Arthur Amiotte writes that “the sacred tree is the Axis Mundi, the Tree of Life, the center of the universe. It is ritually and then literally killed in preparation for the Sun Dance.” If the Sun Dance is indeed connected to the Fingerson Mound, then the bison calf was also killed to provide the skin for the ceremony; these elements were later buried in the mound with the remains of the deceased. This interpretation could explain the calf’s missing head: perhaps it had remained attached to the skin and was placed at the top of the sacred tree.

The Sun Dance is a complex, symbolic, and profound series of rituals that has its own religious significance. But was it once also connected in some way with mound-building and funerary ceremonies? Robert Hall argues in An Archaeology of the Soul that world-renewal rituals were combined with mound construction for thousands of years. He writes that it was only after white settlement, when mounds were seemingly no longer built, that the Sun Dance and other ceremonies emerged as separate traditions.

In My People, the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear describes a Sun Dance in the 1880s in which participants, representing the dead, laid on beds of sage in the ceremonial area. In the contemporary practice of the Sun Dance, Beatrice Medicine writes that “those who have lost a relative during the previous year are fed a ritual meal and thereby reincorporated into the ordinary activities of Lakota society.” These descriptions suggest symbolic connections between the Sun Dance and former funerary practices, possibly held over from older versions of the ceremony. This particular question aside, it is clear that the Sun Dance has changed in various ways—in large part because it was once prohibited by the U.S. government. Traditions such as the Sun Dance had to be preserved in hiding from the late 1800s until the 1930s, a span of more than fifty years. The religious ceremonies of all peoples change and evolve over time, and the same should be expected for the Sun Dance. But this extended period when it was forced underground undoubtedly had a strong impact. Historian Mari Sandoz describes the Sun Dance as “a modified combination of several old, old ceremonials.”

Some archaeologists view artifacts and other information in a clinical way: If we study them with scientific precision we will find the “truth,” or at least empirical data upon which to base further research. Others see the archaeological record as a mirror in which the archaeologist sees him- or herself, and thereby can unconsciously skew the findings to tell a desired story. The reality of archaeological practice is probably somewhere in between. Scientific method is the foundation of modern archaeological research, which no archaeologist would willfully ignore. On the other hand, our interpretations of the archaeological record are inevitably filtered through the lens of our own knowledge and experiences. That was as true of Wilford as it is for me, and for everyone else. Wilford helped construct the archaeological world that I work in every day, whereas my knowledge about the Sun Dance is limited to the writings of others. A practitioner of the Sun Dance may find my interpretation absurd (or maybe not). Some archaeologists do, and that’s fine—this is a field that advances through debate, independent evaluation of evidence, and revision of interpretations based on new findings.

Actually, when I say “revision,” I’m being an optimist. This is the first interpretation of the Fingerson Mound, for all its flaws, and I would gladly welcome another. Archaeologists must be humble when we look at the available information about Minnesota’s past—data is so scarce that even after a century of research we are generally limited to description (as Wilford and his crew were), not interpretation. In the end, there is no way to definitively say that the Fingerson Mound is the archaeological remains of a Sun Dance. The available evidence certainly leaves much room for debate, and there’s so much more that we simply don’t know. As a suggestion, however, it holds out an intriguing possibility that reminds us of the complexity of mound-building and the ceremonies that accompanied it. It also best fits the known pieces of the puzzle and the historical context—the wooden poles, the visits by the Dakota, the headless calf—as I see them, and so it seems appropriate to link a burial mound to religious ideas. After all, ancient earthworks are not just piles of dirt any more than a cathedral is just a building. The mounds were constructed in a deliberate and symbolic way, as resting places for deceased loved ones, and also much more.

Imagine removing the topsoil from your entire lawn without metal tools or machines. Then imagine building and shaping a mound one basketload of soil at a time. That kind of work is not to be undertaken lightly. The Fingerson Mound was sixty feet in diameter and seven and a half feet tall, one of tens of thousands created throughout the region. A tiny fraction of them have been excavated by archaeologists. The vast majority have been bulldozed or plowed away.

I am grateful for what I’ve learned since I first encountered the bones of that bison calf in a cardboard box, though I regret that the mound was disturbed. If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is to cherish the unknown. Despite the drastic remaking of the landscape during last century or so, much of Minnesota’s cultural and natural heritage remains, albeit in a fragile state. The Fingerson calf reminds us of what we have lost, such as Minnesota’s bison herds, and could point to the continuity of cultural traditions in the face of adversity. Not all development is bad, of course, and we can’t stop the future any more than we can change history. But as an elder once told me, “These things can co-exist.” The modern world is a more meaningful place when it’s rooted in that which has come before.

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