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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Archaeological Blunder

When white settlers arrived in Wisconsin, they were intrigued by the ancient mounds that dotted the landscape. This sparked excitement about archaeology generally, and during the late 19th century the discovery of new "antiquities" fueled speculation about the state's ancient past. It also led to one memorable blunder in 1878 concerning a find at Hartford, in Washington Co.

A resident there whom the press called "a student of American antiquity" found two large millstones buried in a collapsed mound. The stones had roughened surfaces and center holes through which rods would be inserted so that they could revolve. This appeared to be evidence of ancient milling, and the two stones were displayed at the State Historical Society in Madison. A report on them said that of all the relics so far unearthed in the state, "there was none more curious or valuable" than these. The discovery of prehistoric millstones in Wisconsin was reported far and wide.

That's when a pioneer settler of Hartford spoke up.

"I have seen the stones often," he wrote to the West Bend Democrat, and recalled that "when the railroad was first built through Hartford, there was a man by the name of Swandollar, who built him a shanty on the railroad company's ground, east of the depot. He was a potter buy trade, and used the two mill-stones to grind his clay. Mr. Swandollar soon died, however, and left a large family without means."

The mound was nothing more than earth that the potter had heaped up around his walls to keep the winter wind out. It collapsed over the stones when the railroad removed the shanty while expanding its yard some years earlier.

Archaeology fever had led knowledgeable people to turn modern junk into a precious ancient technology. The journalist who reported the story in 1918 charitably called it "an amusing incident of blundering eagerness."

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 12, 2012
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