There is a story in the ground at Spring Lake Park Reserve.

It's told through fragments of pottery, chips of stone, arrowheads, bones and variations in the soil.

It stretches back thousands of years through centuries of prehistoric settlement.

This summer, a team led by Ed Fleming, curator of archeology at the Science Museum of Minnesota, dug into the park to attempt to fill in missing chapters by building on research originally done in the 1950s.

And even if the story is unfinished, each piece of pottery, each flake of stone, each unearthed fire pit, adds more detail.

"We know people were traveling through," Fleming said. "It's a story of the river being used for transportation and for commerce."

In the '50s, before the park was established, local boy Ken Klink piqued the curiosity of archeologists when he began showing them the artifacts he collected in the area -- arrowheads, tools and pottery. The Science Museum excavated and documented a number of sites but never fully completed work on one parcel known as the "Ranelius Site."

A collection of artifacts was preserved by the museum, but that was it. There was no formal story to go with them.

"We've always sort of wondered about the Ranelius site," Fleming said.

And so, in July, with grant funding from the Legacy Amendment, they went to check it out again. The project was relatively small and specifically targeted.

The team first used high-tech equipment to check for varying characteristics of the soil to pinpoint locations that could yield artifacts or ground conditions that indicated a fire pit or a structure.

One spot they identified turned out to be a fire pit. Now, a bag of charred rock and burned animal bones is evidence that whoever was there ate large mammals, although Fleming noted, "It's so crushed up that it's not really identifiable."

To the 1950s collection already at the Science Museum, they added stone flakes -- evidence of tool making -- and projectile points, more commonly known as arrowheads. They also found bits of pottery that, based on its composition, came from sometime between 800 and 1400 A.D.

One thing that they didn't find, however, was evidence of permanent housing.

That leads Fleming and other archeologists to believe that the Spring Lake area may have been more of a temporary campsite than a village.

But the area is large, and there are more places to explore. It would make sense to eventually find housing, said State Archeologist Scott Anfinson, because there are burial mounds at another site near the lake.

"It takes a village to raise a mound group," Anfinson said.

David Wiggins, park ranger at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, said he always tells river visitors about the prehistoric settlements along the waterway.

"This is a nationally significant area," Wiggins said. "The larger Upper Mississippi story is in these sites."

The sites, although in a park, are relatively remote and tough to reach. There is no trail yet, but there could be someday when there is a better understanding of what is out there and needs to be protected, said Bruce Blair, manager of facilities and development for Dakota County Parks and Open Space.

"It's still more of an undiscovered resource. There's still a long way to go, for us as a managing agency, to understand what we have," he said. "We were very grateful of Dr. Fleming's and the Science Museum's interest in the site."

For now, park visitors can get a taste of the prehistoric settlement at the park, believed to stretch back 8,000 years, in interpretive displays at the Schaar's Bluff Gathering Center.

"There's lots of stuff out there," said Klink, the original discoverer of the site, who's now 76 and living in Hastings. "I would like to see lots of excavation going on out there."

Fleming plans to publish a report of his findings in a local archeological journal. He hopes to someday get back out to Spring Lake and explore more areas.

"There's a great potential to learn more," he said, noting that the site is relatively undisturbed for being so close to the metro area. "There's little pockets of areas like Spring Lake Park Reserve where it hasn't all been bulldozed yet."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056