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Kansas Archeology Basics

What is Archeology?

Archeology is the scientific study of cultures and people of the past. By examining the things those people left behind, archeologists attempt to determine what happened in the past. They do this by finding sites of past human activity, systematically excavating them, and carefully studying the recovered materials.

The Kansas Past

In the remote past, Kansas was covered by seas, and much of its present landscape derives from the rock formations that developed at that time. The area eventually evolved into a plains or prairie region, with forests confined mainly to stream courses. People first came to Kansas some 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, during the last of the Ice Age. Although the state was not glaciated at that time, the climate was cooler and less seasonal than today. Huge animals such as mammoth and mastodon roamed the area until a gradual warming trend brought an end to the Ice Age, and mass extinctions occurred around 10,000 years ago.

The Paleoindian Period
11,000 to 7,000 B.C.

The earliest inhabitants of Kansas were descended from Asian immigrants who entered North America by crossing into Alaska. No one knows the exact date of their arrival in Kansas, but it is certain that they were here some 11,000 years ago. These early groups are known as Paleoindians. Nomadic hunter-gathers, they hunted big game animals and supplemented their diet with berries, seeds, roots, small animals, clams, and other such foods. Paleoindians used spears tipped with large chipped stone projectile points. Points of this kind have been found in all parts of Kansas, indicating that Paleoindians were no strangers to the area.

The Archaic Period
7,000 B.C. to A.D. 1

During the early part of the Archaic, Kansas experienced a continuation of the warming trend that ended the Ice Age. The warming peaked around 7,000 years ago and greatly decreased the availability of big game animals. Indians adapted by shifting to the hunting of small game and increasing their use of plant foods. People became less nomadic, focusing more on local resources. Settlements became more permanent, and populations increased. Grinding slabs, used to grind seeds into meal, became a common feature of the Archaic household. As early as 5,5000 years ago, people began to experiment with the making of ceramic objects. Chipped stone tools came to be made in a variety of specialized shapes and sizes. The use of atlatls, or spear throwers, became common.

The Woodland Period
A.D. 1-1000

The Woodland period was marked by great changes in social systems, subsistence practices, and technology. One of the most notable changes involved the widespread making of pottery vessels. Chipped stone tools continued to be made in a variety of shapes and sizes, but projectile points became smaller as the bow and arrow began to replace the atlatl. Food came mainly from hunting and gathering. Toward the latter part of the Woodland period, agriculture began with the cultivation of local plants and the introduction of tropical cultigens such as corn. Other notable changes included an emphasis on ceremonial burial and the building of burial mounds, especially in the eastern and northern parts of the state. Many of the changes that occurred in Kansas were derived from the dynamic "Hopewell" cultures of the Eastern Woodlands. Hopewellian immigration into Kansas also apparently occurred, especially along the Missouri River.

The Village Gardener Period
A.D. 1000-1500

During this period most of the state's inhabitants shifted to a dual economy, based on bison hunting and the cultivation of corn, squash, and beans, supplemented by small-scale hunting and gathering of wild foods. Use of the bow and arrow became widespread, although the atlatl still saw limited use. Ceramic technology advanced, with changes in the clay and vessel form resulting in better pottery. Rectangular earthlodges became common in the northern part of Kansas. In the south houses were covered with thatched grass, often plastered with clay. Villages developed; settlements became larger and more permanent. Toward the end of this period, trade wit the Puebloan Indians of the Southwest increased dramatically.

The Protohistoric Period
A.D. 1500-1800

The Protohistoric refers to the period of time shortly before and after the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Sites of this period occasionally yield a few European-derived artifacts, and often contain evidence of trade with the Southwest. Many of the Protohistoric Indians sites in Kansas can be identified with historically known tribes such as the Pawnee, Kansa, Wichita, and Apache. Most of those groups lived by a combination of bison hunting and agriculture, although some groups were much more nomadic than others and less involved in agriculture. The Apache lived by the hunt when they were first encountered, ranging throughout western Kansas in quest of bison. One of the most notable Protohistoric sites in western Kansas is El Cuartelejo. The site contains the ruins of a small one-story stone and adobe building, apparently built by Puebloan refugees from New Mexico, marking the most northeasterly extent of Southwestern Puebloan culture.Another significant group of sites are the Wichita grass lodge villages of central Kansas, where fragments of chain mail armor from early Spanish explorers are occasionally found.

The Historic Period
A.D. 1541 to the Modern Day

In Kansas the Historic period began in 1541 with the arrival of Coronado and his band of Spanish explorers. The French were next, some 200 years later, entering the state from the east and forming an alliance with the Kansa, or Kaw, Indians. The fur trade grew greatly during this period. Americans began arriving in the early 1800s, but settlement did not proceed in force until Kansas was made a territory in 1854. During the preceding 30 years Kansas was officially regarded as "Indian Territory." Various eastern Indian tribes-the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and others-immigrated to reservations established as a result of the Indian removal policy. Nearly all of those tribes later moved to Oklahoma. Kansas became a state in 1861; Euro-American settlement increased drastically after the Civil War. The Historic period saw the construction of military forts in various parts of Kansas. During the 1870s the cattle business boomed, and the "cowboy era" arrived as railroads were built into the state.

Archeological Opportunities

Archeologists are employed as teachers and researchers at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, and the Kansas State Historical Society. All of these institutions maintain laboratories and curation facilities to process and house artifacts and records. The Historical Society functions as the main records depository, acts as a clearinghouse for information, develops educational programming, and serves as the investigative arm of the Unmarked Burial Sites Board. The Society's Historic Preservation Office administers programs designed to promote the preservation of archeological sites and historic structures. The Director of the Society serves as the State Historic Preservation Officer and as chairman of the Kansas Antiquities Commission, an association of professional archeologists.

Many people are interested in archeology and want to contribute to it. Several of the universities offer summer field schools for their students. The Kansas Archeology Training Program, sponsored by the Historical Society and the Kansas Anthropological Association (KAA), was designed to educate avocational or "amateur" archeologists and other concerned citizens and involve them in Society-directed research. Each year the training program offers KAA members a chance to participate in archeological survey or controlled excavation of a Kansas archeological site, process the recovered materials in a field lab, and take classes on a variety of topics. The KAA is a statewide organization of amateur and professional archeologists, many of them organized into regional chapters. Other such organizations include the Archaeological Association of South Central Kansas, which is affiliated with Wichita State University, and the Kansas City Archaeological Society. All of these groups have regular meetings, often with speakers. For further information, contact the Public Archeologist at the Kansas State Historical Society.

Virginia Wulfkuhle, Public Archeologist
6425 SW 6th Avenue
Topeka KS 66615-1099
785-272-8681 ext.266

Places to Visit

Kansas Museum of History - Topeka, Kansas

Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology - Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas

Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site - near Belleville, Kansas

El Cuartelejo - Scott Lake State Park, near Scott City, Kansas

Roniger Museum - Cottonwood Falls, Kansas

Coronado-Quivira Museum - near Lyons, Kansas

Fort Hays State Historic Site - Hays, Kansas

Fort Scott National Historic Site - Fort Scott, Kansas

Fort Larned National Historic Site - near Larned, Kansas

Suggested Reading

Hoard, Robert J. and William E. Banks (Editors). Kansas Archaeology. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2006.

O'Brien, Patricia. Archeology in Kansas. Public Education Series No. 9. Museum of Natural History. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas, 1984.

O'Neill, Brian. Kansas Rock Art. Topeka, Kansas: Kansas State Historical Society, 1981. (This book is out of print but is available in pdf format by clicking on the title.)

Reynolds, John D. and William B. Lees. The Archeological Heritage of Kansas: A Synopsis of the Kansas Preservation Plan. Edited by Robert J. Hoard and Virginia Wulfkuhle. Kansas State Historical Society, 2004.

Thies, Randall. "Earth, Wind and Fire." Kansas Heritage (Spring 1997): 4-8.

Wedel, Waldo R. An Introduction to Kansas Archeology. Bulletin No 174. Washington, DC: Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1959. (This book is out of print but should be obtainable through interlibrary loan.)

Wedel, Waldo R. Central Plains Prehistory. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.