Mitchell Young knew he’d found something different Monday as he uncovered a couple of rusted pieces of iron at the Etzanoa dig site in northeastern Arkansas City.

Courtesy photo

He found the metal pieces 87 centimeters (about 34 inches) below the ground surface.

The Wichita State University anthropology student was excited about his find, although he didn’t know exactly what it was until it was examined by his anthropology professor, who is leading a field school in Ark City that now is in its third week.

Young had found several Native American artifacts on previous days during the two-week-old dig. They included pieces of bone and rock that had been formed by the Etzanoan people into tools or weapons. But the iron wasn’t used by the ancestors of the Wichita tribe who lived in a large settlement called Etzanoa more than 400 years ago. It was in wide use in Europe, however.

The 5-mile-long settlement was explored in 1601 by Spanish soldiers, who estimated the town’s population at 20,000.

“It’s an old-style Spanish horseshoe nail, exactly the form we should see from that period in their history,” said Don Blakeslee, a WSU anthropology professor and archaeologist.

Etzanoa was a settlement of ancestors of the Wichita tribe who lived along the banks of the lower Walnut River, near its confluence with the Arkansas River, from about 1425 to the early 1700s.

Nailed it on the first try

Blakeslee showed a visitor the two pieces of iron fitted together. They form the shape of a curved nail. These metal pieces represent the first Spanish artifact found so far during this year’s dig.

Only three other pieces of metal, representing Spanish artifacts, have been found since Blakeslee began conducting his recent studies of Etzanoa sites in 2015. That summer, three metal balls were found — two iron balls used as cannon shot and a lead ball used as a musket bullet.

Soon after Monday’s discovery, Blakeslee’s colleague, Scott Ortman, professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Colorado, viewed the old horseshoe nail.

“They dug into 270 mound-shaped pits and you found it in the first one,” Ortman said to Blakeslee.

He referred to the archaeological work led by the Kansas Historical Society in the 1990s before the U.S. 77 bypass was built.

No Spanish artifacts were found during the 1990s dig. “It’s the luck of the draw,” Blakeslee said.

The metal pieces are too corroded to be radiocarbon-dated, he said, but other artifacts that have been found in the same pit that Young is working with will be radiocarbon-tested.

The WSU students have uncovered many new artifacts every day since the field school started May 15.

Some of the larger items include several pieces of pottery including two large earthen pot handles, three bison shoulder bones used by the Etzanoa people as hoe blades, a bison tooth (molar) and a fresh water shell that could have been used as a container.

Students join Etzanoa dig

Ortman joined Blakeslee at the dig site May 31. He brought along two University of Colorado teaching assistants and 10 CU anthropology students.

The new group of archaeology field students began digging five more meter-square pits at the site.

Meanwhile, more than half a dozen Wichita State students and volunteers continued to dig deeper in six other meter-square units.

Blakeslee said they were uncovering artifacts from three trash heaps of discarded items that had been used by the Etzanoan people.

“These bell pits began as food storage and afterwards, they were used as trash pits,” Ortman told his CU students.

“If a pit is being used for storage, you can assume that somebody is living nearby,” he added. “By the time it becomes a trash pit, you can assume they say, ‘Okay, we’re moving away’ — but not too far away for them to haul the trash there.”

Ortman said that in the past, he’s worked with sites primarily in the Southwest, but he is becoming more interested in the Plains peoples, so he has been collaborating more with Blakeslee, a specialist in Plains sites and peoples.

Blakeslee noted that artifacts from tribes of the Southwest have been found at ancestral Wichita sites, indicating a trade network between the peoples of the two regions.

Friends and volunteers

Last week, Hurshal Clark, a 79-year-old archaeological aficionado from Derby, visited Blakeslee at the dig site.

Clark presented Blakeslee a gift — a collection of potential artifacts he had found during explorations along the Walnut River.

Blakeslee said he has known Clark for many years. “He’s interested in the very old stuff, thousands of years old, not the artifacts that are 250 to 400 years old.”

Years ago, Clark brought Blakeslee a collection he had gathered along the Walnut River, Blakeslee said. Clark carefully recorded where he had found the items.

The artifacts came from the northernmost part of the 5-mile-long town of Etzanoa, according to Blakeslee’s study of maps and information from recently re-translated 1602 Spanish documents.

“Here’s the stuff you’re interested in,” Clark said to him as he handed over the artifacts years ago, Blakeslee said.

“I reported it, got it documented as an archaeological site,” Blakeslee said. “Years later the new translation came out, and I realized that site fits as the northern edge of the town, as far as the Spanish had explored.”

“Having good friends is really important,” said Blakeslee, referring to Clark and the archaeological finds he has shared with him through the years.

Blakeslee added that the additional artifacts Clark brought him last week also would be studied and recorded for the archaeological record.

Volunteers also are important to archaeologists and students who go about the slow work of uncovering artifacts at a dig site, Blakeslee said.

This information was provided by Etzanoa Conservancy member Foss Farrar.