January 02, 2008

Class will offer look at the archaeology of Illinois

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Brian M. Butler, director of the Center for Archaeological Investigation at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, offers students a chance to connect with where they are in the present by visiting where Illinois originated.

This spring, Butler will teach a newly revamped undergraduate class in the archaeology of Illinois. The course will follow thematic lines as well as a timeline, he said.

One of the themes, for example, is the growth of permanent settlements and the specialized farming that accompanies it. The farming landscape looked very different under Native American cultivation, Butler said.

"In Illinois, we are used to fields of corn," Butler said. "But there is a series of other cultivated plants – such as May grass – people today wouldn't recognize as a crop that was grown by Native Americans."

Butler noted that native people here did not necessarily observe current state lines before Illinois was a state. "There is a 1,200-year record of Native American life in Illinois," Butler said. "This course surveys prehistoric Native American cultures in the Midwest and mid-south."

Students will learn the history behind several archaeological sites that are open to the public, both here in Southern Illinois and in various other parts of the state, Butler said. Some of the most spectacular sites are from the Mississippian mound-building culture. SIUC has an ongoing project at the nearby Kincaid Mounds, and some students may already be familiar with the more famous Cahokia Mounds. But there are sites all over Illinois, Butler said. He referred to Havana, a riverside town in Mason County, that is built on a mound site.

Students will also learn about pre-historic rock paintings, including several sites in the area.

But the course won't be all about sites and what archaeologists have found there. Students will also learn the why's – the theories – and the how's – methodology.

"We'll look a little bit at archaeological methods – what archaeology can teach us and what it can't," Butler said.

For example, Butler said students will learn about radiocarbon dating, a revolutionary way to date organic material, which was developed in the 1950s. Butler said one immediate result of radiocarbon dating was that "all of our chronologies got a lot deeper" as those in the human sciences were able to date finds and objects considerably earlier and with more accuracy. However, Butler said, radiocarbon dating is "not a silver bullet" and students will learn about its limitations as well.

Other themes within the course may include the rise in the use of pottery, which was relatively late in Illinois, and how archaeological information can help us understand social structures in people long absent from the area.

The course number is ANTH 201.