Bernard Kowalski and Steve Holen of the Center for American Paleolithic Research (CAPR) ended their fact-finding mission at the Straight Arrow Bison Ranch.
The pair spent the previous four days in Valley and Custer meeting with landowners before traversing public and private properties in search of archeological findings. After receiving permission from ranch owner Marty Bredthauer, Kowalski, an Archeologist Technician from Comstock, and Holen, an Archeologist who grew up in Overton, spent part of Tuesday, November 17 investigating a portion of Broken Bow’s Straight Arrow Bison Ranch.
While there, the pair discovered a fossilized rib bone, potential charcoal remains along with ancient rodent burrows. Armed with a Ford F-150, trowels, shovels, and a keen eye, Holen and Kowalski reviewed the exposed soil looking for human-made artifacts in the Peoria Loess that blew in 10,000-21,000-years ago from the nearby Sandhills.
“I’ve always said, a bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office,” Holen added.
The survey of land Holen and Kowalski’s completed in Custer and Valley Counties began at 9 a.m. along Highway 11. The clear and bright morning, where not a breath of air was stirring, progressed to another public thoroughfare before they took a brief break to tour a local tourist hotspot and have lunch. By the afternoon the duo was atop the highest peak in Valley County, on private ground, using their observational prowess and situational awareness of archeology to locate landscape anomalies.
Iron concretions caused from water laid runoff was the most common found. They were discovered among cut banks that Holen considered were between 11,000 to 30,000 years old. However, to an experienced archeologist and archeologist technician every tree, shrub and stone are a compass.
“Any place with soil exposed,” Holen said. “That’s where we like to look.”
As Kowalski and Holen reached each site they voluntarily halted and rehashed their decades worth of experience while sharing the distinguishing features of soil types and how to differentiate a modern bone from a fossil. The rough and ready volunteers of the non-profit organization, Center for American Paleolithic Research, that Holen and his wife, Kathleen, began in 2013 used no GPS instead their eyes focused on the surrounding landscape and their ears were saturated with an endless cacophony of sounds from days gone by.
The pair knows how to read each other well for good reason, they began working together about 33 years earlier at the La Sena Mammoth Site at the Medicine Creek Reservoir in Frontier County. At the time, Kowalski worked for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Holen was the Highway Archeologist for the Nebraska State Historical Society.
They, along with Arcadia’s Doctor Gordon Mackenzie and countless others, helped unearth Pleistocene mammoth bones that were modified by humans and date back to the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago.
“I actually met Doc. Mackenzie in 1982 on a highway project between Ansley and Berwyn while excavating house sites,” Holen recalled. “He was so beloved that when Bernie and I, along with a crew of many others, excavated around the Arcadia Diversion Dam in 1995 we named a site after Doc. Mackenzie.”
The pair revisited the site named after their friend who lost his life at age 70, recalling how fortunate they are, at age 72, retired with the ability to continue pursuing their passion of archeology. Both grew up with an innate desire to learn about their surroundings and were not in the least surprised to fall into careers that demanded a deep respect of nature.
After graduating from Overton High School in 1967, Holen began pursuing a Bachelors of Anthropology with a specialty in Archeology. That same year Kowalski graduated from St. Paul High School and went to work before being drafted into the U.S. Army in Sept. of 1969. While Holen worked as an arborist to pay for college, Kowalski began his career as a mechanic long before working in the motor pool along Vietnam’s Landing Zone.
“When I returned from Vietnam, I worked for Custer County as a heavy equipment operator before joining the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,” Kowalski remembered.
Before working with the Bureau of Reclamation, Kowalski recalls being constantly intrigued with his surroundings and always noting unique features in the landscape, thereby earning him the nickname “Hawkeye.” After joining the reclamation team, he took soil samples and was introduced to notable archeologists like Holen.
Holen admits his introduction to archeology came as a child where he gathered rocks, arrowheads and while studying the history of an 1864 Plum Creek Indian Massacre of settlers that were traveling across the Oregon Trail on property he grew up on and currently owns.
“Employees from the Parks Service found a mass grave, burned wagons and six sets of Oregon trail ruts,” Holen added. “That, along with comments from my dad regarding how I should be an archeologist, not a farmer led me down this path.”
While receiving a Bachelors and Masters of Anthropology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a PhD of Anthropology from the University of Kansas, Holen learned most dig sites are found by farmers, ranchers, artifact collectors, or during surveys around reservoirs.
In fact, during his career Holen has taken part in 27 Mammoth excavation sites across the Midwest. Holen’s recent move from Hot Springs, South Dakota to Hayes, Kansas inspired his trip to Central Nebraska where he hoped to find a site like one recently discovered by a friend of his in Kansas.
“You never know what you find unless you try,” Holen added. “Or where you’re going to find it for that matter.”
Even though Kowalski and Holen were unable to unearth Holen’s 28th Mammoth, they were able to make connections enabling them to visit Woods Park, a Pleistocene Lake formed during the last glacial period that Holen has always wanted to explore.
“This was unexpected,” Holen noted. “Even though we got to look it over there is plenty more to unearth.”
That comment and more is why Holen plans to return to the area in the spring of 2021. He and Kowalski said spring temperatures and producers cultivating the soil during planting season will enable them with even more opportunities to find sites of note.