With 1.75 million artifacts in the collection, it's no wonder there are items that many people have never seen.
Created by local American Indians more than 700 years ago, the Thunderbird pot is a large ceramic vessel about the size of a soccer ball. It's veined with faint cracks where it has been professionally pieced back together. Among its swirl of faded designs, the distinct drawing of a bird emerges to the foreground. "It's unusual because it's a figurative representation rather than an abstraction," notes Fleming.
The Thunderbird pot was unearthed during the 1960s from a pre-colonial American Indian village near Red Wing, Minn. It has lived in the museum's 10,000 square foot, climate controlled vault ever since. "I'd like to get this on the floor because it's such a great piece," Fleming said.
Like any museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota employs a small team of curators such as Fleming. Their jobs entail preserving, promoting and interpreting the 1.75 million artifacts in museum's sprawling collection, including the Thunderbird pot.
Unlike the typical museum, however, the museum's curators have an additional responsibility: They're supposed to help populate the galleries. That is, they conduct original research and fieldwork that eventually shows up in public exhibits.
The most significant contributions have been made by 79-year-old staff paleontologist Bruce Erickson. He started working at the museum in 1959, when the dinosaur collection was pretty paltry.
"They basically told him, 'Go out and get a dinosaur,'" said Fleming.
Within two years, Erickson had done just that -- he unearthed the museum's crowd-pleasing triceratops, still one of the largest and most complete specimens in the world, from northeastern Montana in 1961.
Erickson later discovered the museum's jaw-dropping diplodocus skull, now on display in the Dino and Fossil Gallery. More recently, he discovered the skeleton of a mammoth near Albert Lea, Minn., which visitors can see in the new Future Earth exhibit.
Fleming, 41, has made a few discoveries of his own. For example, he helped excavate and analyze the Cross Site, another pre-colonial American Indian settlement in Minnesota. A few of his findings are displayed in the Mississippi River Gallery.
A native of the Midwest, Fleming is particularly fascinated with sites such as these in the Mississippi River Valley.
That's why he prefers the Thunderbird pot over, say, ancient Peruvian textiles or Etruscan bronze.
In the pre-Colonial era, "the Red Wing area was a point of interaction," said Fleming. "It was intensely occupied, especially between 1100 and 1350."
Many of Fleming's predecessors shared his interest in the area. During the 1950s, in fact, researchers from the Science Museum were involved with excavating a Mississippi River site called Spring Lake. Knives, bottles and pipes -- these findings were collected but never analyzed by staff scientists. So Fleming and his team have finally started combing through the Spring Lake findings piece by piece.
So far, they've discovered that Spring Lake was settled for a longer period than originally thought. "The bow and arrow showed up in this area in about 700 AD or so," said Fleming.
Then again, Fleming has dated a few of the site's pottery fragments to the Oneota period, about 900 to 1600 AD.
When can the public finally meet with these discoveries from Spring Lake? Look for a new display in the Mississippi River Gallery sometime in the next year, said Fleming. Meanwhile, he has recorded his observations and insights on a special Spring Lake blog. Check it out at www.smm.org.
Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754