Yards from the Lake Minnetonka shoreline, crews sifted through dirt Wednesday for signs of American Indian remains dating back as much as 2,000 years ago.

The burial mounds they're working to restore weren't supposed to be here.

Experts had surveyed the land before a major construction project on County Road 101 in Minnetonka started last fall and thought that the large burial mounds were located 30 to 50 feet east of the site. As a result, they didn't find anything, and the state signed off on the work.

But when the work began and bulldozers unearthed quarter-sized bone fragments, the work was halted immediately.

Now, Hamline University archaeology and anthropology graduates and crews from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council are working to fix the mistake, restoring the treasured burial mounds to the way they were meant to stay.

"We should've been notified in the beginning; it would never have gotten to the point it's at now," said Jim Jones, the cultural resources director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which state law gives authority to protect American Indian burial sites. " … This should've been prevented."

Restoration work could take at least the next four weeks, as crews meticulously recover artifacts and sift through dirt to restore the mounds.

Minnesota is home to an estimated 12,000 known mounds, the final resting places of Indians from about 500 B.C. through 1500 A.D., according to the state archaeology office. On Lake Minnetonka, 524 mounds were mapped in the 1880s. Along the lake, the city of Mound was even named after the mounds discovered there and made between 300 B.C. and 100 A.D. Now, more than 40 mounds are estimated to be along the lake.

"Lake Minnetonka was a cultural and spiritual place," Jones said. "Each burial site is still held in high regard. It's still a sacred place to people."

Conflicting reports

At the corner of Breezy Point Road and County Road 101, some of the 12 burial mounds first mapped in 1883 by T.H. Lewis have been destroyed over the years by development, roads and a Deephaven trolley line that had a station on the site.

Starting in 2008, consultants dug into the site to see whether any trace of the mounds remained intact. In 2010, the Indian Affairs Council dispatched its own consultant, who said that based on soil cores and Lewis' notes, the mound remnants still existed in the project's proposed footprint.

State archaeologist Scott Anfinson's office disagreed with that conclusion, saying the council's consultant had his map wrong. And Hennepin County hired a third consultant, who extracted 45 soil cores and found "no evidence for any surviving mound fill, burial pits, bones, or artifacts," according to a 2011 report by the state archaeologist, so grading work began last fall.

"I just wasn't comfortable; I felt something," said Jones, who is working with four Dakota tribal communities.

He was right. Last October, the bone fragments were discovered.

Road changes

Now, a planned roundabout to make the steep curve of County Road 101 safer has been nixed and instead, the road will be realigned to make it safer while preserving the remains.

The $41 million construction project, which stretches from Hwy. 12 to County Road 5, includes replacing crumbling asphalt, putting in a bike trail and widening about 2 miles of Bushaway Road — which is part of County Road 101 and claimed to be the first registered road after Minnesota became a state. Construction remains on schedule, slated to finish by Thanksgiving, with crews working elsewhere now while restoration work on the burial mounds, which began last week, continues through June.

"We believed we were not going to encounter burial mounds … at the same time, here we are," Hennepin County engineer Jim Grube said. "We'll make sure restoration is respectfully done."

Anfinson added via e-mail that the state office and county went above and beyond normal procedures to prevent impacting the burials and there were no mounds visible on the surface when surveys were conducted. It's the first time in his 10 years as state archaeologist that an inadvertent discovery was made on a project he reviewed, he added.

On Wednesday, flags marked burial mounds and a trash pit with old bottles from the early 1900s. Of the 12 mounds, five were impacted by the bulldozers, Jones said. It's not clear how old the remains are because radioactive dating could destroy the remains and would be disrespectful, he said. But what is known is they are to be preserved the way they were meant to be.

"It's going to change the way we look at these sites," Jones said. "We'll have a voice here on out on burial sites."

Staff writer James Shiffer contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141