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New well dig prompts archaeological survey at Sandy Lake

Published Oct. 6, 2017

With respect and preservation in mind, archaeology experts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, conducted an excavation at the site of a recently-defunct well at the Corps’ Sandy Lake Recreation Area Sept. 27.

“We’re here primarily so that we don’t inadvertently disturb human remains,” said Dr. Brad Perkl, district archaeologist[SLAB1] . “We’re also here to preserve and protect the archaeology of the area and see if anything is left.”

The excavation was prompted after the existing well – possibly in operation since the early 1900s – failed due to degradation of the pipe drawing water from 162 feet below the surface.

The Sandy Lake Recreation Area is a site rich with history – some of the tragic variety – dating back at least 6,000 years. Located at the outlet of Big Sandy Lake that feeds into the Mississippi River, the area was always prime location for life sustainability, as well as trade and travel. Much of the history can be traced back to the two Ojibwe bands that still call the land home – the Mille Lacs and Sandy Lake bands.

“This is their ancestral territory,” said Perkl.

Before the excavation began, Perkl and his team invited both bands to the site to perform ceremonies honoring those who have lived and died there.

“We want to cooperate and meet their expectations and be respectful,” said Perkl. “If we find something, we can document it and be respectful about it.”

Early on in the three-day dig, however, the team identified that everything they found in the 3-foot-by-6-foot area surrounding the well was out of context, meaning the soil was already disturbed, probably from when the well was upgraded in 1968.

Yet the team carried on with the slow dig, uncovering shards of glass, metal and even a Frisbee-sized piece of iron that may have been a well cap or cover.

“We are finding artifacts, but they are all out of context,” said Perkl. “Because of this, we are confident that the drilling of the new well here won’t disturb intact archaeological deposits.”

After the well went out in late summer – affecting late-season tenants using the more than 50 camp sites making up the Sandy Lake Recreation Area – the call for the archaeology team to conduct the dig was made before the contract went out for the drilling of a new well.

“We’ll have the old well sealed and tie the new well into the existing infrastructure,” said Perkl. “And we’ll make sure the contractor drills in the area we excavated.”

With everything on track, the water is set to be flowing well before the 2018 camping season kicks off.

The field team excavating the site included Perkl; Trevor Cyphers, a district biologist; Ryan Letterly, a field archaeologist with Florin Cultural Resources; three volunteers; and several staff members from the Sandy Lake Recreation Area and Northern Headwaters Section.