At a glance, it’s nothing flashy — just a scrap of pottery that could pass for a stone to the untrained eye.
But for the diggers who unearthed the oval shard — or “sherd,” in archaeological speak — discovering the ceramic piece was like finding a diamond in the dust.
“It’s almost like a small time machine,” said John Vadnais, of Shoreview. “You can go back in the past. It’s kind of like being there.”
The scrap is tiny, no bigger than a dime, but it could be left over from 500 to 2,000 years ago, when American Indians first used it for cooking. It’s one of three artifacts found so far this summer during community digs in Ramsey County.
For Vadnais and volunteers from the North Lake Owasso Neighborhood Group (NLONG), a desire to dig into the past has brought them to the shores of Vadnais Lake in Vadnais Heights with shovels and sifting screens. The group has also exhumed two scraps of stone debris, believed to have flaked off from a tool being sharpened.
With the help of a professional archaeologist and funding from the Minnesota Historical Society, they’ve been scouring the area for American Indian and early Euro-American artifacts after making a few similar finds on the banks of nearby Lake Wabasso in Shoreview last year.
The small neighborhood group teamed up with Shoreview Historical Society to receive a $9,750 grant for its survey work, which allowed members to hire licensed archaeologist Jeremy Nienow.
Each dig has drawn about 10 volunteers, who shovel soil onto screens, sift through the piles and then return it to the ground. Should sifters find something of interest, they call on Nienow’s expertise.
“Some of them we’re sure are really, really an artifact, but [Nienow] can look at it a different way and is able to tell that it’s just charcoal,” said Vadnais, an NLONG member who helped organize the digs.
Finding a piece of pottery or flakes off a stone tool punctuates discoveries of lots of rock — and the occasional tennis ball. Nienow believes the ceramic fragment traces back to Indian campsites from the Woodland period, which extends from 0 A.D. to the 1600s.
The stone flakes that volunteers found are harder to date, Nienow said, but they’re at least hundreds — if not thousands — of years old. And since they were uncovered on public land, all three finds will go to either the Minnesota Historical Society or the Ramsey County Historical Society for safekeeping.
The group is hoping to find more artifacts during two more weekend digs in September. “Very little archaeological work has been done in this part of the county,” Nienow said.
The area holds special interest to volunteers like Lucena Slaten, who grew up in Shoreview and often heard tales from her mother about finding arrowheads buried nearby. “Her stories resonated with us as children,” said Slaten, who, along with Vadnais, helped get the archaeological work started.
During the digs, volunteers ponder the people who once lived and moved through Ramsey County — from early tribal groups to later settlers like Vadnais’ great-great-great grandfather, who journeyed to Minnesota from Quebec and built a cabin in 1847 along the lake that now bears his name.
“When you pull it out of the ground, these artifacts, it’s very, very special,” Vadnais said. “Believe me, it’s a lot of work, but you always say, ‘It was worth it.’ ”