Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | FEATURE
Celebrating the Nye bones
Background to be revealed on Polk County Museum’s new display
Greg Marsten | Staff writer
BALSAM LAKE – The public is invited to share in the excitement of a historical new display that is nearly 80 years in the making, with several-thousand-year-old relics discovered in Polk County, but nearly lost to memory and bureaucracy.
After years of research, investigation, tracking, queries and scientific analysis, the so-called Nye Bones Collection exhibit is ready for the public at the Polk County Historical Museum, and is now part of the museum’s collection for 2014.
The exhibit and story behind the new collection is so important, the Polk County Historical Society is hosting a special event this Saturday, June 28, to celebrate and highlight the background behind the unique display, which has such a local connection.
Where they were found
The new display is a cross section of a collection of approximately 1,500 bones discovered by accident in late 1934 at a marl dredging pit, east of Osceola in Nye. Marl is a sort of calcium carbonate-rich clay deposit found on former lake beds used back then to deacidify former forested lands for agricultural use, and Polk County had six such marl mining sites that were part of a government program during the Great Depression.
The cache of bones became a major regional news story that fall, catching the attention of a local farmer, who brought several examples to a zoologist named Samuel Eddy, who worked at the University of Minnesota.
Eddy identified the bones as being from a species of extinct bison we now know as Bison occidentalis. At the time of the discovery, the scientific world was trying to connect ancient Native American settlements and their tools with the extinct bison. Alongside several other finds at the time out west, the Nye discovery was initially thought to be more evidence of that connection.
Eddy involved anthropologist Albert E. Jenks, and the two set out to Nye to recover as many of the bones as they could. Suddenly, the little marl pit became a source of intrigue.
Jenks and Eddy took their field notes and findings and wrote an article about the Nye find, published in the May 1935 edition of the prestigious Science magazine. They noted that most of the bones were Bison occidentalis, some burned, maybe worked by humans, and they said hand tools were also found.
“The artifacts are quite unlike those associated with modern North American Indians in the area,” they wrote.
The two researchers took possession of the bone cache for study - which is pretty much where they have been ever since. However, the find was apparently never studied further, and neither man wrote anything more about it.
Boxed up and forgotten
In spite of the initial hype on the find, the Nye collection was boxed up and basically forgotten. The find would still be in boxes at the Bell Museum of Natural History in St. Paul if not for an unusual set of circumstances that can be traced back to another major bone discovery in Polk County at around the same time, at a site in Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls.
That Interstate Park find piqued the interest of Iowa State University anthropologist Dr. Matthew Hill, who was researching extinct bison of the region. He had teamed up with Marlin F. Hawley, an archaeology curator and researcher with the Wisconsin Historical Society, who also joined with Illinois State Museum geology curator Chris Widga in the research.
The three had been studying the background on the similar bison bone find in 1936-1937 that occurred at Interstate Park. Hill and Hawley began to go deeper on the Interstate site, and in their research - which began almost a decade ago - they noted several mentions of the Nye bison find, but they had trouble finding any real follow-up.
Lost, and almost forgotten
The Nye site and its “lost” collection became a sort of mystery to be solved for the men, and in their research they found that the assemblage of artifacts was likely still in storage at the Bell Museum of Natural History, but other details, such as the true location of the find in 1934, remained unknown.
Hawley dug deep into the mystery and even began to seek local Polk County people who might be in the know on the Nye find and the marl site.
As it turned out, the collection had truly been set aside and forgotten by Minnesota researchers since, and was apparently moved from one location to another in 1993 as the Bell Museum constructed a new building. The bones were no longer relevant to that museum’s more recent focus, and after several years, they were able to convince the Bell Museum to release the assemblage.
It took some time, but the cache was finally assembled, boxed and reviewed. It was also studied in-depth by students at Iowa State University, where they even did carbon dating on several of the examples.
Evidence and results of that carbon dating will be one of the topics highlighted at the museum event this Saturday, with a special program at 2 p.m.
Remarkably well preserved ...
Some details, such as the estimated age of the find, will be revealed at the event this weekend at the Polk County Museum, but admittedly, some questions still remain.
Sadly, the original quote in 1934 that 1,500 bones were found is in question, and in the end, researchers reassessed just over 500 bones total from the Bell Museum storage. Scientists studying the collection believe that it was culled somewhere along the line, as many fragments were lost.
“Honestly, they might have ended up in a dumpster somewhere,” Hawley admitted.
Hawley is one of the researchers who will be at the June 28 event, where he will give details on the background and the admittedly difficult time they had in not only finding out more about the Nye bones, but in bringing the collection back to Wisconsin, and ultimately to be studied under modern technology.
As it turns out, the Nye assemblage was remarkably well preserved, in part due to the nature of the site, where it was oxygen-free for thousands of years, due to the peat and marl pit where it was buried.
The remaining 511 bones were all of the Bison occidentalis, which science generally believes became extinct about 4,500 years ago. The final tally showed they came from 41 different bison of various ages, genders and sizes. Their exact age will be revealed at the museum.
What you can expect to see
The Nye bones on display in Balsam Lake include an adult bull cranium (skull), which is at least 15-20 percent larger than the largest bison of today, as well as various skeletal examples, alongside an example of a modern-era bison.
The display also features a time line of the glacial era, and reveals why the site had so many bison, and also shows the significance of the find, and where it stands in relation to modern bison.
“It is too rare for many of us to take a project this far — from discovery and analysis to publication and exhibition, so it has been a pleasure to work on,” Hawley said prior to the opening. “It took more time than we thought, but it finally came together and we are happy with the results on our end.”
Open invitation this weekend
The public is invited to share and celebrate this unique and rare local find, which has taken years to assemble and bring home. The Polk County Historical Society is opening the doors to the public this weekend, offering free admission to the Polk County Historical Museum on Main Street in Balsam Lake this Saturday, June 28, from noon-4 p.m., as the bones are highlighted and dedicated.
The PCHS will have a special Nye Bones Collection presentation and background program this Saturday at 2 p.m., with free admission and special guests to answer questions about the historical 1899 museum and the new bone exhibit. The Polk County Museum is openThursday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m., through Labor Day.