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common ground

Celebrating National Accomplishments
Spring 1997, vol. 2(1)

Online Archive

*  Constructing [on] the Past

(photo) Archeologist excavating site in Springfield, Georgia.

"In the Southeast alone the number of recorded sites has gone from under 10,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 today [and] while modern field crews only rarely approach those of the New Deal era in size, the quantity and quality of the data far exceed that collected in earlier times."

David G. Anderson

by John Walthall, Kenneth Farnsworth, and Thomas E. Emerson

In 1978, when an armada of construction equipment was assembled for two massive highway projects in Illinois, archeologists working with the state department of transportation were on the verge of what the University of Wisconsin's James Stoltman called "without a doubt the most ambitious . . . undertaking to ever have been conducted in eastern North America since the WPA era." What was about to take place was a landmark in highway archeology, the latest accomplishment for a state that, from early on, had been crafting an environment in which archeology and construction projects could exist together to the benefit of both.

The building of Interstates 72 and 270 would be a chance to show how far a state could advance its commitment to archeology. It was also an opportunity, if all went well, to produce a showpiece example of large-scale excavation using modern machinery.

Though they were yet to appear on road maps, the highways could be traced through places whose archeology was rich. Each project held unprecedented potential to yield new information about regions where prehistoric occupation was especially intensive and complex. It was perhaps one of the last opportunities to research region-wide patterns of prehistoric lifeways and cultural change.

The Illinois Central Expressway (an extension of Interstate 72, known locally as FAP408) would run about 78 miles from Jacksonville westward to Quincy near the Missouri border. Its right-of-way formed an ideal study area not only across the densely occupied features of the Illinois and Mississippi River flood plains, but also into the archeologically neglected uplands beyond. The reconnaissance away from major river valleys would carry the project into essentially unknown archeological territories.

I-270 would form a huge north-south transect across the American Bottom. The highway would move through the broad, fertile floodplain at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers, just across from the present day city of St. Louis, best known for the famous Cahokia Mounds, and ascend the Wood River Terrace and the uplands to the north. Much research had been done on the large Mississippian mound centers like Cahokia, but other time periods and areas outside these centers had been neglected.

The years between 1977 and 1987 would be tumultuous, exciting, and exhausting. They would also result in the latest and most distinguished achievement in a long tradition of cooperation between the state's department of transportation and the professional archeological community.

The Early Days

In Illinois, the cooperative relationship between engineer and archeologist had its beginnings in 1956, when Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act. This legislation allowed (but did not mandate) the use of highway construction dollars to salvage archeological sites threatened by highway construction. Each state was given the prerogative to implement this section of the act. Some did; many did not.

Two important events occurred after the passage of the act. The state established policy for the preservation of cultural sites in highway rights-of-way. Shortly afterwards, archeologists from the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University, and the Illinois State Museum formed a professional organization: the Illinois Archaeological Survey. The survey would lobby for archeological concerns, consult with highway officials, and establish a site file and recording system. It also would assign member organizations surveys and excavation work on a non-competitive, regional basis.

During the first 20 years of highway archeology, funds were allocated only for field investigations. No money was available for laboratory processing or reports. The funds allowed only partial survey of proposed rights-of-way and led to the selection of small numbers of the most promising sites for excavation. Archeologists were then to obtain other funding, theoretically in the form of grants, for analysis and write-up.

Illinois' nascent highway archeology program got its first test in 1960. Two new highways, Interstates 55 and 70, were planned. In their path was a major portion of the vast Cahokia site, now recognized as the preeminent Mississippian (900-1300 A.D.) civic-ceremonial center in North America, and one of its major satellites, the Mitchell site to the north.

The Cahokia salvage program, which lasted from 1960 to 1964, resulted in extensive excavations of this temple town and led to the discovery of a series of large "Woodhenges," huge circular patterns of tall posts thought to have had some astronomical or ceremonial purpose. After years of field work came the massive task of analyzing and interpreting the data. Outside grants were obtained to aid in this effort, most notably several from the National Science Foundation. The ensuing series of reports tremendously advanced knowledge of this major prehistoric culture.

Coming of Age

If the early days of highway archeology in Illinois were hampered by a lack of funds for lab work and report writing, 1976 brought about a major change. New regulations were issued to strengthen the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Now, for the first time, it was mandatory to identify archeological and other cultural sites when planning projects such as highways. Another important change was that funds were now allocated for laboratory analysis and report preparation.

Archeology in Illinois during this period was dominated by professionals associated with major universities and museums. Research was the byword. Simply going out and surveying a proposed highway corridor was no longer acceptable. A research design was now required. The importance of a site was determined by its research potential and projects were judged accordingly. Each major institution had traditional research territories and was assigned work in that particular area of the state. This system was organized so that each university would have a corps of trained archeologists familiar with their regions to provide expertise on survey and evaluation.

Now that IDOT funds were available for lab work and reports, the regional approach could really take shape. Though it was embraced as a good strategy in earlier years, lack of money hampered the universities' ability to do effective research. Now, projects could be accomplished in a more efficient manner, since the resident experts had intimate knowledge of the sites in their regions. This system, while it had its problems, was extremely successful. Money was not wasted on repetitious evaluation exercises, and was quickly allocated to the investigation of significant sites. Reports were generally submitted in a timely fashion since authors were already experts in their regions.

By 1976, the number of transportation related construction projects was increasing rapidly and archeological work reached new heights and levels of complexity. During this time, highways weren't the only places where archeologists were needed. The demand for archeological expertise expanded to include several major water resources programs and new airports. The recent survey of a 24,700-acre area in Will County for a new airport is an example of the potential magnitude of some of these non-highway transportation projects in Illinois.

Thousands of smaller surveys have been conducted for bridge replacement and highway widening. As a result, over 2,000 sites have been found in the last decade alone. Many small sites, which would have been ignored in the past, have now been studied intensively, giving an entirely new perspective on the prehistoric occupation of Illinois' varied physiographic regions.

With the cooperative stance between the state's archeological community and Illinois DOT well-established, the stage was set for the two landmark projects that would follow.

Linking Two Rivers

As the I-72 construction got underway, archeological crews took to the field, sometimes numbering more than 150. The project would enjoy some vital assistance: funds for laboratory analysis and reports.

For more than two decades, the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Illinois, had conducted field work in the region. This produced important data for some prehistoric time periods, but others remained essentially unknown. As investigators preceded the highway construction into new areas—dissected uplands, tributary drainages, upland prairies—they saw an opportunity to answer some questions about changes in prehistoric settlement, social systems, and health. Because urban sprawl, modern farming, and flood control were rapidly destroying sites in this area, there was a sense of urgency to their efforts.

Archeologists discovered nearly 600 prehistoric village sites, special purpose camps, and mortuary sites, 150 of which were in I-72's right-of-way. Combined with previous floodplain studies, this new information held the potential to give a new outlook on the 11,000 years of regional prehistory.

In Illinois' uplands, surveys seem to indicate that early Archaic and perhaps even Paleoindian peoples left sites characterized by little debris, meaning they lived virtually everywhere. Apparently, they were extremely nomadic "cream skimmers," taking the best of what was available. Later groups established larger, more stable camps in a more restricted set of environments. These upland sites appear especially concentrated within a mile or so of the Illinois and Mississippi valleys or at the margins of tributary streams. Surprisingly, a Paleoindian site was discovered in the Illinois River floodplain, the first such site known. Floodplains were thought to be uninhabitable during Paleo times. Since even isolated Paleoindian and early Archaic tools are rare in this area, discovery of an actual campsite is of the first importance.

Another significant, very early site discovered along the right-of-way had never been disturbed by the plow. The Campbell Hollow site was found under about two meters of sediments at the mouth of an Illinois River tributary. It consisted of two cultural horizons dated to the early Archaic (6,400 B.C.) and the early-middle Archaic (5,720 to 5,610 B.C.). This was the first time early Archaic features had been discovered in a sealed, stratified context in the valley.

The Napoleon Hollow site, a series of archeological deposits at the base of bluffs immediately west of the Illinois River near the mouth of a small tributary stream, provided excellent data on changing adaptations to this particular environmental niche. Napoleon Hollow featured three horizons that dated from 5,100 to 1,670 B.C., and the recovered tools and subsistence remains were extremely useful as elements of a specific regional Archaic settlement system.

The unexpected discovery of a cemetery on the bluffs overlooking Napoleon Hollow provided valuable insight into Archaic mortuary practices. The presence of formal burials suggests that middle Archaic people maintained territorial boundaries. Although artifacts do occur with specific burials, there is much less evidence of social differentiation than in later Woodland societies. Rather, emphasis was placed on group membership, with even sexual distinction inconsistently symbolized.

Perhaps the most exciting new information came from three early Woodland sites, Ambrose Flick, Bushmeyer, and Sand Trees, discovered on the Mississippi flood plain. Ambrose Flick yielded evidence of the Marion culture (600-400 B.C.), the first pottery-using group in the Midwest. The site contained culturally stratified deposits ranging up to 1.5 meters in depth, which indicates heavy occupation. Marion people were previously thought to only have small peripheral campsites. This was the first discovery of its kind. Pottery and stone tools found at the other two sites required archeologists to create a new cultural phase (Snycartee) for the Illinois Valley, characterized by thick pottery, often decorated by incised line patterns over a cordmarked vessel surface. The contracting stem and notched points characteristics of the stone tools were more commonly associated with a later time period. It appears that in the transition from the early to the middle Woodland period, local culture history differs significantly from that of adjacent regions.

The middle Woodland period was perhaps one of the most thoroughly researched in the valley prior to the start of the I-72 project. Several large habitation sites and major Hopewellian mound groups had been excavated in and adjacent to the Illinois and Mississippi valley floodplain and bluffs in the previous decades. In addition, regional reconnaissance studies had gathered surface collections from over 200 habitation sites.

The I-72 project greatly expanded regional perspectives on the location and structure of middle Woodland settlements. Previously we recognized only large floodplain villages. The new research revealed that small camps, such as the Archie and Massey sites, were located in dissected upland prairies, well away from any large river valleys, while larger settlements such as the Smiling Dan site occurred in the small tributaries of the Illinois Valley. The middle Woodland component at the Napoleon Hollow site consisted of a habitation along the river and another on the steep slopes more than 100 feet above. Further up, atop the bluffs, sat the Elizabeth Mound Group, a complex of mortuary-related earthworks.

I-270 and the Cahokian Context

The archeology performed on the massive I-270 corridor far to the east of Cahokia Mounds drastically transformed the perspective on cultural development in the American Bottom. With crews as large as the I-72 project's and beginning at about the same time, the work has been conducted under the auspices of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The university argued for large-scale, 100 percent recovery of the archeological record in I-270's right-of-way. Much of the regional history had already been obliterated by development and the total corridor represented a minute fraction of a percent of the archeological record. To merely sample this already minute sample (as some had suggested) would have been virtually criminal. Previous projects in Illinois showed that techniques aimed at total recovery using earth-moving equipment could produce data hitherto unavailable. Thus UIUC proposed a research design that focused on community-scale investigations. Eventually, this allowed the examination of excavation blocks ranging from 13,000 square feet to 148 acres. This was combined with an emphasis on building a cultural and historical sequence for the region.

UIUC archeologists had a long tradition of research in the American Bottom, which served to focus many of the research approaches that were employed by the I-270 Project. After over half a century of observing the increasingly rapid and massive destruction of regional history, and the loss of prehistoric mound centers and villages, there was a feeling that this may well be the last chance to record the story of the cultures in the American Bottom.

Despite broader scientific advances in the discipline from the 1960s onward, knowledge of the Archaic and early, middle, and late Woodland cultures and sequences in the American Bottom was virtually nonexistent. The area was the location of the largest mound centers and most complex cultural formations in North America, but little was known about the development or fall of Cahokian Middle Mississippian culture. This focus on building a culture history of prehistoric communities was combined with an intensive research program of archeobotany, zoology, physical anthropology, and regional geomorphology.

To date, archeologists have investigated a section over 27 miles long across the archeologically rich American Bottom of Monroe, Madison, and St. Clair counties in southwestern Illinois. The project has impacted several hundred sites, 137 of which were subject to large scale investigations. Over 13,000 features have been excavated. This research has lead to the definition of 27 new cultural phases in the midcontinent and a reorientation of the culture history and chronology of eastern North American archeology.

The research of the project's first decade was summarized in American Bottom Archaeology: A Summary of the FAI-270 Project Contribution to the Culture History of the Mississippi River Valley. Since 1983, 27 volumes have been published on the I-270 excavations by the University of Illinois Press (with a final three volumes currently in press). As the corridor progresses to the north, and major new sites are excavated, they will form the corpus for a new series of reports.

Perhaps its importance has been captured best by Harvard's Stephen Williams, who summarized the project by saying that "nowhere else in the East has major contract archeology done so much to provide such a detailed . . . sequence from early Archaic times to the protohistoric period."

Another proof of the success of this fully funded, regionally based system has been a wealth of reports and articles. In 1984 Charles J. Bareis, program director, was presented the Award for Outstanding Public Service to Transportation and Historic Preservation. Bareis also received the highest award given by the Department of Interior, its Public Service Award, for the creation of "a program that splendidly serves the professional community and the American people."

So has this state-based cooperative effort worked? After 40 years of successful investigation and research—recognized as being of national significance by the archeological community at large—the answer must be a resounding yes. Illinois has continued to be on the cutting edge of the discipline. What about from the standpoint of those who build highways? Illinois DOT's cultural resource programs have been models of efficiency in historic preservation within a construction-oriented agency. The use of regionally based archeological organizations has proved to be a cost-effective and resource friendly system. The partnership of the university-based and not-for-profit research groups has benefitted both the state and archeology, but even more importantly, it has benefitted the citizens of Illinois by producing one of the top cultural resource preservation programs in the nation.

John Walthall has been Illinois DOT's Chief Archaeologist since 1978. Kenneth Farnsworth is Director of the Contract Archaeology Program, CAA, and has participated in archeological research in the lower Illinois Valley for over 25 years. Thomas Emerson is Director, Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, UIUC, and is responsible for the current direction of the continuing I-270 project. All volumes of the I-270 and I-72 projects as well as other volumes on Illinois archeology are available from the CAA Press, Box 366, Kampsville, IL 62053. For more information, contact Thomas E. Emerson, University of Illinois, 103 Horticulture Field Laboratory, MC-001, 61801, (217) 244-7476, fax (217) 244-7458, e-mail tee@uiuc.edu