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University of Iowa archaeologists use laser-transit technology for high-precision mapping at the site of a new wastewater treatment facility in Des Moines. The archaeologists discovered artifacts nearly 7,000 years old at the site. office of the state archaeologist
State archaeologists are hoping thousands of artifacts they uncovered at a site in Des Moines will provide some insight into how people in the area lived nearly 7,000 years ago, from the way they made a living to what they ate and how they interacted socially.

"Those are the big research questions that are going to drive the lab analysis that takes place next," state archaeologist John Doershuk said. "We have thousands of artifacts that will tell us about their diet and map info that will tell us how they used their space."

Workers found more than 6,000 artifacts, from arrowheads and spear points to flint chips and even two human skeletons thought to be 6,680 to 6,890 years old at the site of a new wastewater treatment facility in Des Moines, north of the Des Moines River.

They are among some of the oldest and most well-preserved artifacts ever uncovered in Iowa.

The archaeological study of the area was required in order for the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority to receive federal funding for the new facility.

The Office of the State Archaeologist at the University of Iowa often is hired to conduct the excavations on large projects such as this, though findings of this scale are rare.

"It became clear very quickly that the site was something spectacular -- something none of us had seen before or probably will ever again," said Bill Whittaker, OSA project archaeologist who co-directed the dig.

Archaeologists also found evidence of constructed housing units: leveled-off areas where they were constructed, a series of fireplaces and holes in the ground that likely held poles or another kind of support framework.

The field crew dubbed the site "The Palace" because of its size and preservation quality. The living quarters were about 800 square feet, Doershuk said. Crews uncovered at least four such spaces, though there could be more, he said.

Because construction already had begun on the treatment center when The Palace and other artifacts were discovered, they had to work through the winter months to keep pace, warming the ground with heating blankets and keeping warm inside makeshift construction trailers.

Excavation of a majority of the site, which was the size of nearly three football fields, was completed in May. Now it will be destroyed by the construction of the wastewater treatment facility slated to open in two years.

Part of the site falls outside of the construction area and likely will be preserved by the Wastewater Reclamation Authority, Doershuk said.

It is possible that the village extends farther, but Doershuk said his office doesn't have the money for another major excavation.

The WRA covered the cost of this excavation, which accounted for about $1 million of their $38 million project, he said.

Officials from the WRA did not return calls for comment Friday.

For now, Doershuk is looking forward to getting into the lab to analyze the findings and sharing the rich history with Iowans.

"All the artifacts will be officially stored at the archaeological depository at our office at UI, but we'll probably loan them out for display at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines and other locales," he said. "There will be a public outreach and education effort."