June 07, 2007

Kincaid Mounds dig resumes this summer

by Andrea Hahn


CARBONDALE, Ill. — A team of Southern Illinois University Carbondale archaeology students returns to the Kincaid Mounds on the border of Pope and Massac counties this summer, hoping to come one step closer to understanding the mystery of the mound builders.

The field school begins on June 11 and concludes Aug. 3. Students commit to working at the site five full days a week for the eight-week period. They may receive six credit hours for their efforts as well as skills directly applicable to employment in the field of environmental impact management. A bonus for out-of-state students is that the class is an "off-campus course" with a set tuition fee regardless of residency. Another plus – this year, students have the option of staying as a group in rental housing near the site rather than commuting.

Students participating in the dig are: Nina Fuscaldo, Lockport, Sara E. Murphy, Marion, Wesley Pinks, Chester, and graduate students Jennifer Malpiedi, Carbondale, and Corin Pursell, Webster Groves, Mo.


Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to visit the dig site in Massac County. To schedule a time to visit, contact Paul Welch by email at pwelch@siu.edu. Because Welch is on-site, media should expect a several day lag in response time.


The focus of this year's dig is a large, circular structure on top of one of the largest mounds on the multi-mound site. What makes the work particularly challenging is the evidence for the structure is not readily visible to the naked eye, though it is easily seen in maps created with magnetometry imaging technology. A gradiometer creates the image by measuring minute variations in the strength of the Earth's magnetic field, which, at any particular spot, is influenced by what is in the ground directly beneath the gradiometer or magnetometer. Buildings typically leave magnetic evidence even after immediately visible physical evidence is gone.

Paul Welch, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and the director of the dig, said the circle is 22 meters across, with an area of about 4,000 square feet. The circle has projections at the four cardinal points of north, south, east and west and seems also to have an inner ring. Welch said a similar structure 27 meters across was discovered in Florida. Evidence in the historical record helped archaeologists reconstruct that site. If the two sites are as similar as they initially appear to be, the inner ring may be a row of benches and the building may be a sort of council house.

"We won't know until we dig into it," Welch said. "We are interested to find out something about the layout of the building and the settlement."

Welch hopes the work this summer will uncover not only the building but also its purpose. He wants to see how the building fits in with other structures discovered at the site. Understanding the layout of the settlement at Kincaid Mounds may provide a clue about its inhabitants – namely, their cultural identity.

Welch explained the Kincaid site was inhabited from about 1100 until about 1350 AD, at which point it, and many other sites from the Missouri bootheel to the Tennessee and Ohio River Valleys, was abandoned for unknown reasons. The area was resettled some time after 1500 by Native Americans known now as the Sauk, Fox, Illini and Peoria – native peoples still in residence when the French explorers arrived. However, these tribes do not seem necessarily to be direct descendants of the Southern Illinois mound builders.

Current archaeological study suggests two possible cultural descendants of the mound builders – those in the Siouan language family or those in the Muskogean language family. The Muskogean peoples, Welch said, tended to create settlements around a central square that included a single site for public religious observation. Siouan people, however, tended to have multiple locations for religious ceremonies.

As the site at Kincaid is slowly pieced together, and as archaeological study continues to shed light on what the settlement may have looked like, it may become clearer whether the site tends more toward the Muskogean or the Siouan model. That, in turn, may help archaeologists determine what happened to the mound builders during the widespread abandonment of the river valleys.

Past SIUC field schools confirmed the existence of a wooden palisade surrounding much of the site, discovered a mound outside the palisade area and uncovered burned houses with evidence of thatched roofs that have helped establish the inhabited dates of the site.

"A lot of what people do doesn't leave evidence in the ground," Welch said. "Parts of the human past are exceedingly difficult for the archaeologist to get at. We do our best to leave an archaeological record for the next generation of scholars so that, even if we don't know what we are looking at, we've left a record that is clear."