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Students look to uncover answers at SD site of prehistoric fire

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(Jake Shama / Republic) 2 / 3
University of Exeter students Julia Carey, left, and Sam Ashcroft, right, dig Monday inside the Thomsen Center Archeodome at the Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell. (Jake Shama / Republic)3 / 3

MITCHELL, S.D. — A thousand years after it burned out, a prehistoric fire may still make an impact on 17 students visiting Mitchell.

For the 14th year, Mitchell's Prehistoric Indian Village has welcomed university students to excavate inside the Thomsen Center Archeodome. And the aspiring archeologists may get a rare glimpse this year into what daily life looked like at the site 1,000 years ago.

The students have begun digging around a location that shows evidence of burning. Archeologists Adrien Hannus and Alan Outram said a lodge in the prehistoric village caught fire and burned down, but anything inside may have preserved exactly where the inhabitants placed them, possibly providing a direct look into how the people lived.

"The fire falls on them and burns them, but they're in place," said Outram, head of archeology at the University of Exeter. "So you get this chance of getting this snapshot in time preserved by the disaster."

Fifteen students from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and two students from Augustana University in Sioux Falls started digging last week. While they are nearing the burned patch and uncovering two new caches, which may have stored food or other items, they haven't made major discoveries, but Hannus said the summer dig always uncovers something remarkable.

"There's never been a year that we've worked here that we haven't found some unique new artifact or something we just haven't seen before," said Hannus, director of the Archeology Laboratory at Augustana University.

Last year, excavators uncovered an intact bison skeleton, and two years ago, they found an unbroken pot, which Executive Director Cindy Gregg said was her best day at the site.

"That was just such an amazing day, and it's really great to see the excitement in the students' eyes," Gregg said. "That's the best part."

Levi Verschuren is one of the University of Exeter students who traveled to Mitchell for the summer project.

Verschuren, who studies archeology and ancient history, said he was interested in leaving behind rainy England weather. The Prehistoric Indian Village gave him the opportunity to keep learning while doing so.

"It's good for practical knowledge and seeing how digging actually works other than just reading about it," Verschuren said.

Life in Mitchell has required adjustment, especially when trying to order "chips" at local diner instead of "French fries." But everything in the archeodome has gone smoothly, and Verschuren is excited about what he and his classmates may find.

Hannus believes there is about 12 feet of deposits to uncover in the archeodome. So far, the deepest areas are only about 3 feet below the surface, and some areas remain untouched, so Hannus said the site could remain active for 20 or 30 years, and even then there would likely be an opportunity to expand and continue.

Although the air-conditioned archeodome provides what Hannus described as the "luxury tour" in archeology, he said the site provides important benefits to the students.

"This is just absolutely adding the real-world dimension to what otherwise is an academic dimension," Hannus said.