The small, grassy mound near the river bluff on the northwest side of Ames is unremarkable at first glance. Shredded plastic wrappers adorn its shrubs, and the knocks and pings of hammers and the cracks of falling wood fill the air as construction continues on a nearby house.
Devoid of signs of life except for an abandoned badger hole, the mound seems to hold no particular significance. It looks ordinary, but this mound holds a secret.
This controversial site is an Indian burial mound, and although it's in the middle of the expensive new Northridge housing development, there are no additional plans for it. The mound is protected by law, and not everybody is happy.
After a long fight in Iowa courts between the developers and the State of Iowa, this burial mound in Ames has been preserved, but from the position on top of the bit of elevated ground, peering into second story windows of a house almost close enough to touch, it's hard to determine who has won the battle. The mound is a silent testament to the uneasy compromise between preservation and development — a compromise that Iowa State professor emeritus David Gradwohl hopes will soon change.
Gradwohl, a recently retired ISU anthropology professor, used to bring his classes up here to study and learn.
"In all of this area there was a fairly dense concentration of [arrowhead] points and pottery," he said. "There was a large village site over there on the south end, and [the developers] completely blitzed that."
Gradwohl winced and said, "I'm just sure that these houses destroyed a lot — but there was no official archeological survey done, and therefore no record."
With the population growing and sprawling out into "uncharted" land, there is a growing concern that significant archeological sites are being mowed over in the name of progress. But this concern is not shared by everybody.
Gradwohl said the laws need to be changed to identify these sites in order to learn from them and maybe preserve them. There is not adequate protection when it comes to preservation of any historical artifacts, whether it's a burial mound or an ancient village site, he said.
"I kept saying that the village site was going to be destroyed," said Gradwohl. "But you see, the developers didn't give a damn because it wasn't covered by law."
The federal laws concerning archeological sites are few, and the state laws vary, said Tim Weitzel, the site records coordinator for the state archaeologist.
All burial sites are protected under federal law, he said, and all registered federal historic sites are protected under the Federal Historic Preservation Act.
Gradwohl said some states, such as Illinois and Wisconsin require state-sponsored archeological surveys at some construction sites, the Iowa state law is nonexistent when it comes to anything other than burial sites.
Gradwohl said what constitutes a site has never been defined.
"We've been fighting about that for years," Gradwohl said.
Weitzel said, "It's basically any intact archeological deposit—even a shard of pottery or a single flake of rock in a cornfield."
There are about 16,000 sites in Iowa that have been reported—but the actual estimated number is a couple million, said Weitzel. He said most sites aren't significant, however, and don't need to be investigated.
"It's like that one flake in the field—that flake is nice, but it doesn't tell us much about who left it there," he said.
The catch-22 is that in order to know if it's a burial site to be protected, the site needs to be looked at and probed—and trained archeologists need to do it.
"But the thing is, most of these developers are not going to go in and do a burial survey," Gradwohl said. "Unless there's federal money involved, they're not required to."
Weitzel said, "It gets complicated. Survey work is driven by the federal laws that state that whenever there is federal money used in development, there needs to be a survey done to study the impact that the money will have on a potential cultural record."
On private, city or federal land, as long as you don't use federal money and there is not a burial site there, you can do what you want under the Iowa Code, said Weitzel. "It's a broad interpretation."
Recent clashes between developers and the preservation laws in Illinois, Wisconsin and California have helped bring attention to this issue, as has the Iowa Supreme Court case which was ruled on in 1994.
The Iowa court case involved the developers Hunziker, Furman, Freidrich and Sons, and Buck Construction, who sold one lot of their 59-acre tracts of land in Ames to John Fleming in 1990 for $50,000. In 1991, the State Archaeologist's office learned of a mound on the property; and when the mound was probed, they found human bone.
The state office ruled the mound a protected site, and required a "buffer" zone around the mound to ensure its protection, thus making the site unsuitable for house construction.
The developers took action against the state, and courts concluded that the developers never had a right to build a house on an ancient burial mound in the first place. One of the state's arguments was that the developers caused their own loss by buying property without recognizing any possible significance it might have. Both Weitzel and Gradwohl agree that they would like to see more information gathered before development.
"There are no federal laws, and in Iowa no state laws, to prohibit what you do on private [non-burial] land," Gradwohl said. "I feel that there should be something in the city code such that whenever a new development goes in, there should be an archeological resource done before-hand," he said. "The cost would be relatively minuscule; and although most finds will not be significant, a few will be."
Weitzel pointed out that Iowa City recently passed a historical preservation ordinance that includes archeological sites. "That is very significant, but it is also very new," he said. "If the legislature fails to appropriate any money to do the surveys, they're not going to get done."
The problem with expanded protection laws, Weitzel said, is the lack of money and the manpower needed to do the extra work.
"Due to urban spread and highway construction, we've already seen a lot more sites destroyed each year than we can keep up with," Weitzel said.
"Iowa doesn't have exciting pyramids or anything like that to draw the needed manpower in," he said. "Also, we're not so fanatical that we say we have to preserve every flake in the ground. We would rather work with people to see that everybody comes out ahead."
Some people, however, are questioning the need for concern.
Don Heck, who runs his own contracting company, thinks the preservation efforts are extreme.
"I like history as well as anybody, but there were Indians all over the place. You can't find a piece of land that didn't have somebody on it once," he said. "Sure there were Indians there—there were Indians all over. How far do you go?"
Heck said he had never seen evidence of a site on a job.
"Most of it's gone anyway, there's nothing left to find," he said. "If you went out and looked for that stuff, you would look a long, hard time. Just to accidentally find something is pretty tough."
But an employee of another contracting company, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job, said otherwise.
"We put tile in, build terraces and ditch lines—you name it," he said. "I've been working at this for 19 years, and I've seen lots of stuff like bones and artifact-looking things. We just keep going. There's a lot of pressure to get things done."
The anonymous employee said that's "more or less understood" by everybody he works with.
"There's a job we just finished last week, and there were bones at that one," he said. "We stopped to look at it and dug around with our hands a little bit while they kept digging with the back hoe."
"It was interesting …," he said, and shrugged. "Then we kept going."
Heck said stumbling across a find would be hard on the company.
"It would be a great pain in the neck," he said. "Those people [archeologists] seem to have powers that you can't believe. They would shut the whole thing down without pay or stop the project completely. It'd be devastating."
Heck said his company has no policy dealing with finds.
"It happens so very rarely that we don't need one," he said. "And surveys would be pretty costly for what you'd actually gain—which isn't going to be a lot.
"We did some work out at the new K-Mart in Ames," Heck said, "and they spent several thousand dollars to make sure [there were no artifacts] before they'd buy it. They were out there with their shakers and their teaspoons, and they never did find anything."
Gradwohl disagrees. "The survey costs compared to the development costs are nothing," he said. "The K-Mart people, to their credit, did hire the state office to do some preliminary work."
A small display of some artifact replicas found at the site, along with a short explanation of the survey process is tucked away above a corner of their service counter.
"At least something was done," he said, "even if it was in the middle of winter."
Weitzel said that although there have been cases brought up in Iowa courts where contractors had been accused of deliberately destroying sites, they haven't been proven. The penalty for destroying a burial site is a third degree misdemeanor.
"I would be very surprised if that [destruction of burial sites] doesn't happen," Gradwohl said. "We know it's not practical to save every site, but at least survey them to find out the significance. Then you can excavate them and resume development, or save them and interpret them for further education.
"I think we are woefully behind in interpretation of archeological sites," he said. "You save the site and build it into a park or natural area, maybe put up a sign telling people what is here and why we're saving it. You could still keep the scheme of the development while preserving the site."
Archaeologists agree that the biggest threats to these sites are ignorance and urban sprawl, with its intrusion of waterways, terraces and new buildings into "untouched" land. All they have to fight with is education.
"It's frustrating, because we have to convince people using educational appeal," Weitzel said. "We don't have guns or tanks or expensive lobbyists to help us get our point across.
"Iowa tends to be a state of farmers who are really tied to their land, and they resent anyone coming in and telling them what to do with it," he said. "We're trying to encourage preservation and education while not restricting peoples' rights to use their land. We're still studying what to do."
The importance of our past can not be overlooked, Gradwohl said.
"I think that we should be stewards of the land—we took it over, and we should have respect for that and pay attention to history," he said, looking down at the land around him.
"These sites cover eight to ten thousand years, and they represent many different facets of human activity. We forget that this space has been used before us for that long," Gradwohl said.
"If we can interpret these sites and bring attention to them, then the seeds will be planted for a desire to learn … and that gets in your blood," he said.
He bent and picked up a minuscule square of white out of the earth at his feet.
"Eggshell," he muttered, and then smirked as he cracked it between his fingers. "Probably modern."