Uncovering the past: ISU students dig into history of 800-year-old village
Molly McManus found a special birthday surprise last Wednesday in a cornfield about 10 miles south of Bloomington. The senior anthropology major was shoveling deep into a layer of clay-thick black soil when she struck something hard. She dug a little more and pulled out a smooth black stone with sharpened edges.
“I found the stone axe,” McManus said matter-of-factly. Illinois State Professor Logan Miller had a little more trouble containing his excitement. He showed off the palm-sized object, known as a celt, and noted that McManus was probably the first human to touch the axe head in 800 years.
This is just one of the many artifacts Illinois State students have uncovered during the Department of Sociology and Anthropology’s four-week field school at the Noble-Wieting archaeological site.
“We are finding gobs and gobs of stuff,” said Miller, an anthropological archaeologist who is leading the field school. His students are collaborating with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) to excavate a Native American village dating from about 1200–1250 AD.
The village encompassed about four acres and was—and is—located on an isolated plot of farmland bordering the Kickapoo Creek. The village’s main claim to fame is being home to the only known prehistoric burial mound in McLean County. The mound was discovered in the early 20th century but now appears as barely a ripple in the rows of corn due to decades of farming. Earlier excavations at the site, including one conducted jointly by Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities in the 1970s, also provided the earliest evidence of corn and bean farming in the county.
The location is now operating as an experiential classroom for 16 Illinois State graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom are learning how to conduct fieldwork for the first time. Every weekday, from 8:30 a.m.–4 p.m., they dig through the soil, collecting piles of dirt that are filtered through screens to expose any items left by the Native Americans. Later, researchers will examine the recovered stone tools, household items, and animal bones in a laboratory to determine their age and other details.
Despite the earlier excavations, many questions remain unanswered about the village: How many people lived there? Why did they leave? How long did they stay?
“It could have been a flash in the pan,” Miller said. Similar villages rarely lasted even 100 years.
What is known is that the villagers lived in thatched-roof houses with mud exteriors and fire pits dug out inside. The homes encircled a central plaza and were surrounded by fields of beans, corn, and squash. The people hunted elk, deer, and possibly even buffalo, which roamed as far east as Ohio at that time.
There is no sign of a fortified wall or that the village was burned down, so it is possible the people lived peacefully and left of their own accord, Miller said.
Archaeologists believed that the village contained about 12 to 15 houses, meaning there were likely 50 to 75 people living there. However, an ISAS-created map, based on a magnetic field reading of the site, detected a couple dozen houses buried beneath the soil. “That’s more than we thought,” Miller said. The question is how many of those houses were occupied at any one time. That will take time to figure out.
One interesting note is that the village was multicultural, which was unusual for the time, Miller said. There were clear influences from the Langford culture based in the Chicago area and farther north and the better known Mississippian culture to the south. The latter people built giant burial mounds—some of which are still standing at their former metropolis of Cahokia.
“For whatever reason, here we have at least both types of artifacts,” Miller said. “What brought these different types of people here? And how did they make it work?”
The answers to those questions may be buried at the site. The students have excavated the foundations of two homes and a possible trash dump, a boon for artifact seekers. “We love trash,” Miller said. “Trash doesn’t lie.”
Besides the axe head, the students have uncovered copperware, originating from the Lake Superior region, which may have been worn as jewelry, and many deer and elk bones.
Elk disappeared from Illinois in the early 1800s with the arrival of American settlers but appear to have been plentiful during the village’s time, said Alli Huber a graduate student specializing in zooarchaeology. The students have dug up large amounts of foot bones and mandibles, which indicate elk were processed in the village, leading her to believe the elk were killed nearby.
Getting a clearer picture of village life could take more than a decade, Miller said. With less than 5 percent of the site excavated, he hopes the field school is just the beginning of a long-term research project. He has applied for a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to pay 10 student researchers.
Miller chose the site because the department had not conducted a field school in Illinois in a long time. The students talk a lot about Illinois prehistory and archaeology in class, but this is an opportunity to apply their learning, Miller said: “You really don’t get it until you are over there and doing it.”
McManus chose to participate in the field school to learn how to properly excavate. She said it’s hard work but definitely rewarding. And it has given her a birthday she is unlikely to forget.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.