July 13, 2010

Students dig for clues at Mississippian site

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Archaeology and anthropology students are busy looking in the dirt for the floor.

The Southern Illinois University Carbondale Archaeological Field School, held summers at Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site in Massac County, is nearing its end for the year. The field school runs in two four-week sessions, one beginning in late May and the other in late June. Students spend five days a week during the session living in Brookport, Ill., and spending their days at the Kincaid Mounds field site.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews: You still have this week to shoot or film the archaeological dig, and to interview the students at the site. Contact Paul D. Welch at 618/453-4740 or pwelch@siu.edu, or Brian M. Butler at 618/453-5031 or bbutler@siu.edu to make arrangements.

The Kincaid Mounds site includes a series of flat-topped man-made earthen mounds and a leveled area that was, long ago, surrounded by a palisade wall. It is one of the largest Mississippian sites, with artifacts dating to 1000 to 1450 A.D. Past excavations explored the mounds themselves, but recently the field school has taken to the leveled area, where they search for clues to the village and buildings that are now long gone.

“We are … trying to gain information about buildings of different sizes and shapes in different parts of the site,” Paul D. Welch, associate professor of anthropology and director of the field school, said, noting that this year’s dig focuses on two buildings in the north of the site, just inside what was the palisade wall.

“We don’t know yet whether the buildings date to the time interval when the wall was standing,” he said.

Welch and Brian M. Butler, director of the Center for Archaeological Investigation at SIUC, use a magnetometry survey conducted several years ago to help select sites. The images created during that survey show minute variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, hinting at outlines of buildings and constructions obliterated long ago.

While the images and maps help, the real information comes only with painstaking excavation work. The team is working to reach the floor of the larger of the two buildings in site this year. Once they find it, Welch said, they’ll have a better idea of what the building was. They are looking for such hints as hearth, storage pits, interior rooms, and so on.

“As is typical for buildings at the site, the floor was recessed below the surrounding ground surface by about 30 centimeters,” Welch said. “The smaller building, however, appears to have a much deeper floor -- I’m not sure what that tells us.”

One thing it certainly tells the members of the field school and hopeful archaeologists everywhere -- there remains much in our shared past that is yet to be discovered.

The SIUC Field School is open to students from other universities. This year, students from Vanderbilt, Bradley, University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Loyola, among other schools, are participating.
To learn more about the field schools at SIUC, visit http://anthro.siuc.edu/courses.html. To learn more about the Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site, visit www.kincaidmounds.com.