A state archaeologist
found that the number and condition of the bones found in an Alexandria
lake hint at an American Indian gathering place a bison kill
site, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years old.
Van Surksum, a fishing guide, points out the exact spot on
Lake Victoria in Alexandria where he happened to catch a bison
bone on his fishing line in 2011. (photo by Elizabeth Brumley)
ALEXANDRIA, MN On a windy, much warmer day on this lake,
Roger Van Surksum snagged the first bison bone with a fishing hook.
The fishing guide knew it was no walleye and reeled it in slowly,
carefully. The bone was 10 inches long, he said, "as black as the
ace of spades."
He put it in the back of his truck but couldn't get it out of
"I had to figure out what it was," said Van Surksum, 69, standing
near the shore of Lake Victoria in Alexandria this week.
He enlisted the help of two divers and, over the summer of 2011,
they brought up more than 250 bones from the bottom of the lake
on the east edge of Alexandria, in central Minnesota. Then Van Surksum
pestered experts for answers. A state archaeologist found that the
number and condition of the bison bones hint at an American Indian
gathering place a bison kill site, hundreds or perhaps thousands
of years old.
"This could be a really important place
where a part
of Minnesota history has been preserved," said Brian Hoffman, chairman
of the anthropology department at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Until recently, little was done to determine the bones' age
or origin. But this semester, a St. Cloud State University class
is studying core samples taken from the lake's bottom, which could
reveal clues to the area's past or even evidence of human settlement.
Van Surksum brought the students out on the ice in late January,
to the point marked on his GPS, watching as they collected sediment
samples that today bear his name. He remains anxious for answers.
"Who lived here?" said Van Surksum, who began guiding fishing
trips after retiring from auto sales. "What kind of human inhabited
"I'm not an archaeologist, but I'll tell you what: I turned
In search of walleye, Van Surksum has caught some strange things:
blankets, hats, minnow boxes. "A basket full of sunfish," he said
with a half-smile. "They were still wiggling."
But never before a bone. At first, Van Surksum couldn't tell
whether it had come from a creature or a person. He brought
it to a butcher shop, then an undertaker. Not cow, not human.
"This is not an everyday finding, here," Van Surksum remembered
He gave the bone to his daughter-in-law, who was working at
St. Cloud State University. She called one day with a match: It
was a bison bone.
Turns out, it was far from the only one. Using the GPS coordinates,
divers began collecting the bones 10 on the first trip, more
than 100 on the next. Ribs, jaw bones, vertebrae. A photo from 2011
shows how Van Surksum laid them out on his driveway, awaiting a
visit from David Mather, the National Register archaeologist for
the Minnesota Historical Society.
The find sounded interesting, especially due to its "very unusual
setting" under water, Mather said recently. "I was very curious
to know whether this was a cultural site or a natural accumulation
of bison bones."
Mather took note of one bone that bore a gouge mark, possibly
caused by a human tool. Van Surksum kept trying to steer the zooarchaeologist
to the "perfect bones with no cracks in them," Van Surksum said.
But Mather focused on the broken bones. The breaks curved along
the bones, known as spiral fractures, showing that the bones were
broken when fresh and perhaps pointing to human use.
American Indians who used bison for food, shelter and
tools broke apart their bones to get the marrow, said Hoffman,
the Hamline professor. "So that's really intriguing. To me, that
suggests that this is an archaeological site, an American Indian
After his visit to Alexandria, Mather told Hoffman about the
bones, which Van Surksum was storing in apple boxes, under newspaper.
The once-black bones, which had begun to fossilize, had started
growing lighter. Hoffman picked them up and brought them to St.
Paul, with plans to date them.
But after doing an inventory, "basically that's been the end
of it," Hoffman said. He needs a student to take the project, he
Cloud State University student University Cate Knudsen split
one of the bison bone samples from Lake Victoria in Alexandria,
Minn., this week at the University of Minnesota. In recent
weeks, a St. Cloud State team took the samples from the bottom
of the lake. They could provide a record of human settlement
on the site.
In a University of Minnesota lab last week, a dozen St. Cloud
State students watched as a curator slowly split open a core from
Lake Victoria, revealing a mossy brown layer atop dark, sandy sediment.
Tucked into it: a small shell.
"It'll be interesting finding out from biologists what that
is," said Kate Pound, the geology professor leading the class. The
They will take a closer look at the core samples' grain size
and composition, keeping an eye out for anything that might have
been brought by people, such as charcoal, Pound said.
"When I read about the bison bones, I thought 'Ah-ha!'?" she
said. "Now we can use this work to really try and answer a question."
An excavation of the site could answer tricky questions: When
did the bison die? Were they forced over the nearby cliff? Did hunters
trap them out on the ice? Or did lower lake levels leave this land
But despite researchers' urging, no local museum has shown interest
in applying for a grant for the work, Mather said. Investigating
the site is more difficult because it's under water, he said.
While other archaeological sites have been plowed over, the
lake has protected this one from development, "a fortuitous thing,"
At the same time, the site is vulnerable, he added. He's grateful
that divers brought the site to researchers' attention, but "every
time they pull up a bone
we lose a little more of that picture."
guide Roger Van Surksum was driven by curiosity to find out
the story behind the bone he found.
The lake water was murky when divers first went down, Van Surksum
said. But zebra mussels have since made it clearer. When the St.
Cloud State team took core samples, Van Surksum and his friend lowered
a camera, capturing objects that Van Surksum is sure are "so many
One afternoon last week, he walked to the lake's edge with his
dog Kuma and pointed to where he was fishing more than four years
"Early in the morning, I've stood out here, when it's really
quiet," he said. "Sometimes you can almost hear the hoofs running
over the cliff.
"It's kind of an echo in the air."