Some 170 years before Alexander the Great set out to conquer Asia Minor, a now-nameless native half a world away rested a thick clay pot on the ground and walked from a gathering along the Mississippi River into oblivion.
Nearly 2,500 years later, anthropologist Jim Stoltman gently picks up a piece of the pot from a lab table filled with unearthed artifacts.
The segment, plus features in its original resting place, he says, suggest that what researchers have held to be two prehistoric North American cultures may in fact have been one.
The same pit yielded a major burial find belonging to a culture that flourished in the Midwest from 200 BC to AD 500, known as the Hopewell culture. The find, he continues, not only implies that researchers may have underestimated the Hopewell population's size. It also could open a window a bit wider on how the culture was organized.
Of most immediate interest may be the Hopewell discovery. Dr. Stoltman, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has found "a very large piece of the puzzle" as archaeologists and historians try to piece together a picture of the Hopewell's impact on the upper Midwest, says Robert Birmingham, Wisconsin's state archaeologist.
The culture draws its name from a farm in Ohio where the first Hopewell burial mound was studied. Ultimately, researchers would find related sites in states from New York to Michigan to Kansas. Apparently rooted in the Illinois Valley, the culture's trade links extended from the Rockies to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
Stoltman says he went out into the field hoping to find a Hopewell village - a missing link for Hopewell sites in Wisconsin. Finding a village is no small feat, Mr. Birmingham adds, since finds so far suggest small scattered farming hamlets of a few families, rather than larger villages associated with more modern groupings of native Americans.
Step 1 was to look for habitable sites that have remained relatively undisturbed. Stoltman came across a low ridge along the Mississippi where erosion and local wildlife had turned up bits of artifacts. "Groundhogs are helpful prospectors," he chuckles.
By the end of last year's digging season - seven years and some 64 cubic meters of dirt after he'd begun - "we finally knew what we had, a major burial site" from the Hopewell period, he says. The evidence came in the form of well-preserved skeletal remains of at least 29 individuals. Once he completed the survey, the entire dig site was carefully reburied.
Since then, he has been reviewing the artifacts brought up and working to interpret the find. Citing the lack of "a smoking arrow" among the remains, which would point to a violent death, and citing cultural characteristics that would undercut the likelihood of large-scale deaths from disease, he says, the only conclusion he can draw is that this was a frequently used burial site. That makes it "the first major non-mound Hopewellian burial site.
"One of the questions about the Hopewell has been, who is buried in the mounds?" he continues. "Everybody, or just the hot shots? If you only dig in mounds, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was a Hopewellian grave site, but not a mound. You can make the case that people were buried differently based on status. This find would support that."
"Go to Peoria [Ill.] and south, and you'll see jillions of mounds," he continues. Based on past excavations, "you can count the mounds and project the size of the population." If the less-influential Hopewells were buried in a more modest fashion, he concludes, population estimates for a given area may be much too low.
Even as his crew carefully mapped the burial section of the 13-by-26-foot pit, it also discovered the pot fragments, which dated to 500 BC, at a lower depth in another pit section. Nearby and at the same level they also found large stains of red ocher, a characteristic of the Hopewells' predecessors by some 300 years, known as the Red Ocher culture.
The Red Ocher is associated with burials, but researchers generally do not find artifacts at Red Ocher burial sites, he says.
"We've tended to classify groups on the basis of customs," Birmingham says. Stoltman's find, he continues, "says that what may have been artificially separated peoples, based on individual sites, may be one and the same."