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Minnesota researchers investigate bones of dozens of bison found in lake

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - Another chapter in the story of an Alexandria-area archaeological site unfolded last week when students and faculty from Hamline University traveled up Interstate 94 to grab hundreds of artifacts for further research.

Investigating bison bones
Roger Van Surksum, left, tells Hamline University professor Brian Hoffman and students about his experiences with bison bones in Lake Victoria. Blaze Fugina / Forum News Service

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - Another chapter in the story of an Alexandria-area archaeological site unfolded last week when students and faculty from Hamline University traveled up Interstate 94 to grab hundreds of artifacts for further research.

The artifacts were the bones from dozens of bison that were gathered from deep beneath Lake Victoria in 2011. The university was alerted to the site by state archaeologist David Mather, who made a trip to Alexandria in September 2011 to view up close the site where the bones were found.

After making the more than two-hour trip to Alexandria with seven students Oct. 25, Hamline associate professor Brian Hoffman said the anthropology department will spend the next year trying to find out how long ago the bison were alive and how the remains wound up in Lake Victoria.

"The first step would be to do a thorough analysis of it," Hoffman said. "Dave Mather was out here a couple of years ago, but just looked at them for an hour, so he was able to get an impressionistic assessment of it."

The bison bones site was discovered by Alexandria fishing guide Roger Van Surksum during a morning trip out on Lake Victoria in June 2011. As he was fishing, a tug on his line turned out not to be a fish, but instead what appeared to be a bone.

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After many months searching for answers, Van Surksum found out through his sister-in-law that the bone was actually from a bison, an animal that has not lived in the area since the 1880s. Since that discovery, Van Surksum has developed an interest in how and when the animals' remains ended up in Lake Victoria.

"I never thought I would get any interest in archaeology," Van Surksum said. "I thought I was just a walleye fisherman."

Van Surksum persuaded local divers Wesley Torgrimson and Wayne Wagner to jump into Lake Victoria three times during the summer of 2011 and gather as many bones as possible.

Torgrimson, who along with Van Surksum gave his insight to Hoffman and his students, said he was happy to dive in the name of science.

"It was just another reason to go diving," Torgrimson said.

Van Surksum said it was difficult at first to find a university that had time to research the bones. Eventually, Mather was able to contact Hamline to do further research on the site.

As his students looked over the bones on Van Surksum's Alexandria Township driveway, Hoffman said he was curious to find answers about how the bones got into the lake.

"Some of that we will be able to get an idea from finding out more about where the bones came from," Hoffman said. "Others, it's going to be from doing a detailed analysis."

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The first wave of the university's analysis will take about a year to complete. Much of the work will be done by students who are working as part of their senior project.

The research will also include ordering a radiocarbon dating, a process that uses the decay of radioactive isotopes to discover the age of organic materials. The group hopes finding out more about when the animals died will help them learn about the people who were hunting in the area.

Learning more about what time period the bison were hunted could also give researchers a better idea of why the bones were found in Lake Victoria. Hoffman said one idea is that the bison were killed during a time when the lake levels were much lower.

"If it turns out that it dates 300 years old, then that's probably not the case," he said. "If it's 3,000 or 5,000 years old, then that would have been a time when it was a little drier out here, so then that's more likely."

There are many possibilities for future research at the archaeological site once the detailed analysis is complete. Hoffman said one possibility includes getting people from the Alexandria area involved with their research.

"That's the kind of thing that my university is interested in doing - projects in Minnesota where we're working in collaboration with people in the community that have a real interest," Hoffman said.

There are a handful of possible kill sites in Minnesota similar to the one in Lake Victoria. However, Hoffman said this one is unique because it involves a lake. He questioned whether there could be more sites like the one in Alexandria that were not pursued by people as dedicated as Van Surksum.

"A lot of the credit for this goes to Roger," Hoffman said. "There are probably a few more sites that were found by people that just never pursued it as thoroughly as he did."

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