Monday, July 29, 2013

SIUE Archaeological Dig Provides Insight Into Ancient Cultures

On the west side of the SIUE campus, history is literally unearthed every summer. Anthropology students uncover Hopewell pottery, figurines, axes, arrowheads and more that were left behind by Native Americans as long ago as 10,000 years.

In a 35-acre farm field on the west side of the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus, history is literally unearthed every summer. Amidst the growing corn, anthropology students dig well-defined, carefully smoothed holes in the ground. In these holes, students and faculty have found axes, arrowheads, Hopewell pottery, figurines and more that were left behind by Native Americans as long ago as 10,000 years.

Since 2009, SIUE anthropology professors have worked alongside students during these digs. This opportunity is part of the field school program, which offers anthropology students the chance to gain hands-on experiences in their areas of study. Because of the importance of their discoveries, the field was taken out of agricultural production and dedicated solely to archeological digs.

Each summer, 10 students interested in archaeology get the opportunity to excavate the soil in search of Native American artifacts and structure locations. Students spend their time delving into the earth under their professor’s direction and supervision, sifting soil through screens, mapping the dug areas and washing artifacts in the lab. Each finding has led them and anthropology faculty to learn more about the culture of people who once inhabited what is now the Metro East.

Anthropology professor Dr. Julie Holt led the five-week summer 2013 archaeological dig. “Since we began digging in this area in 2009, we have found more than 30,000 artifacts,” said Holt. “We have found items that are common to the period and location, as well as more rare pieces, like mica and a ‘Casper the Ghost’ style figurine.”

The dig findings are mostly from the Woodland and Mississippian periods. The Woodland period lasted from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE and involved hunter-gatherer and agricultural Native Americans. Mississippian culture thrived from 1000 CE to 1400 CE and is centered on mound-building Native Americans, like the Cahokians. Artifacts from earlier periods have also been found – perhaps as much as 10,000 years old.

During the 2013 archaeological gig, anthropology senior and Edwardsville native, Courtney Reiter, found the figurine and mica. Mica is a shiny mineral that Holt believes could have been used for ceremonial objects, and the figurine is a small ceramic doll. Reiter participated in the archaeological dig as part of her undergraduate requirement but also because she plans to be an archaeologist.

“Finding the figurine was really exciting,” Reiter said. “Going on this dig has made me even more enthusiastic about pursuing my career.”

What makes both the mica and the figurine especially unique is that they are not common for the southwestern Illinois area. Holt says the figurine is 2,000 years old and that only one other “Casper” style figurine has been found in the American Bottom. Mica is also not locally found. Holt believes the mineral was brought to the site from the Carolinas.

“These finds tell us that the people who lived here may have migrated,” said Holt. “They may have come for a winter hunting trip. However, if they had mica and other ‘fancy’ pottery or ceremonial objects, they may have stayed here longer.”

McIlhagga, Doug. 2013. “SIUE Archaeological Dig Provides Insight Into Ancient Cultures”. PRWeb. Posted: July 4, 2013. Available online:

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