Southwestern Illinios dig uncovers ancient tribal settlement

By Maggie Borman
Jerseyville, Illinois (AP) July 2010

South of Jerseyville, along U.S. Route 67, a team of state archaeologists, students and volunteers excavating about four acres of land has found evidence of a 1,400-year-old Native American settlement.

“We have found about 40 pits, some very large storage pits, and one bell-shaped pit that appears to have had hundreds of tons of limestone hauled in and has a flagstone floor,” David Nolan, Western Illinois Field Station coordinator for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, said at the site during July

Working with the Illinois Department of Transportation prior to completion of the section of Corridor 67 south of Jerseyville that eventually will be a four-lane highway from the Quad Cities to Alton, the crews have been toiling to complete their excavations, and are on schedule.

“We began the first of April and should be done in about one month,” Robert Hickson, Western Illinois Field Station assistant coordinator, of Jacksonville, said at the site Tuesday.

Nolan said they evaluated the site south of Jerseyville last fall (they prefer not to define the exact location of the site) and were eager to get started excavating the site, which is located on IDOT right-of-way for Corridor 67.

“We have three sites – two sites on the west side of U.S. 67 and another site on the east of the present highway, about a quarter-mile south of this site,” Nolan said.

The archaeologists believe they have a village dating back to about A.D. 600, as well as archaeological deposits going back 4,000 to 5,000 years; also, on the east side of the highway, the archaeologists are conducting a more current excavation dating to the 1830s or 1840s.

“The excavations on the west side are yielding very well-preserved bone fragments, as well as pottery pieces,” Nolan said. “It appears this was a large communal village, but may not have been used year-round. Our later analysis of our data will have to tell us that.”

Some of the pits on the west side excavations are large, some smaller; some are storage pits, and some were trash pits. Two appear to have been kiln pits. To date, archaeologists have not found any evidence of homes, because they haven't discovered any post pits. The large bell-shaped storage pit with the flagstone flooring is shaped such that it easily could have been sealed with a clay plug to keep rodents and other small animals out of the goods stored inside.

On the east side excavations, they are finding ample amounts of glass and pottery pieces dating to the 1830s and 1840s. While a much later time period, it is one that is not well-documented archaeologically. At that site, they have found what appears to be an old cistern and an odd, trench-like area that was known more to be a construction method of the French.

“We know the family whose property this was, and know the history a good way back, so we are interested in what our state historian has to say,” Nolan said.

The materials gathered from the excavations will be sent back to the Jacksonville Field Station to be cleaned, inventoried and analyzed.

There is 90 years of archaeological experience among Nolan, Hickson and State Archaeologist Bob Monroe, of Grafton, who was busy at the site on the east side of the highway.

“This is my first experience with actual excavation, and I love it; I never want to do anything else,” Alexis Volner, of Alton, said on site Tuesday.

Volner, who soon will be graduating from Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, is the granddaughter of the family that owned the land from which IDOT purchased the right-of-way for the expansion of U.S. 67 along that stretch of the proposed Corridor 67.

“I was at my grandmother's, and since I am nosy and taking archaeology along with other subjects, came over to the site and talked to Rob (Hickson) to see what I had to do to be a part of the crew. He said, 'Fill out a resume,”' Volner said. “I did, and I actually started last week. I love it.”

It had rained early Tuesday, so the crew had to pump out the pits to work in them, but work they did. They all described the work as hot, muggy, muddy and rewarding.

“It is rewarding, and it is important to get excavations done, as this site will be gone in a couple months, and a new road will be here,” Nolan said. “Then, the real work begins of understanding what the data and artifacts have to teach us about the people that lived here.”