July 02, 2010

SIUC team assisting with Shawnee trail project

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A team of archaeologists led by the Center for Archaeological Investigation at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is helping blaze trails in the Shawnee National Forest.

The team is part of a trail restoration, repair and re-routing project in areas of the western side of the Shawnee National Forest. The team works ahead of the trail crew, looking for signs of Native American sites with the idea of preserving the sites by leaving them alone.

Mary McCorvie, archaeologist for the Shawnee, said trail maintenance is necessary to protect the watershed. Trails through gullies deepen by inches every year, while other trails can become pathways for silt and debris to wash down into the watershed and creeks.

“We are re-routing some trails in the Pine Hills and Johnson Creek areas to follow the natural curvature of the hills,” she said. “When we find them, we try to leave our Native American sites just the way they are.”

Archaeologists already knew about two possible sites on the trail. They conducted limited excavations there to determine the significance of the sites. Sites with very few signs of early human activity do not impede trail building, while trails are made to go around sites that yield numerous artifacts.

Brian Butler, director of the Center for Archaeological Investigation (CAI), said survey projects are “very necessary work but often not exciting archaeology.” Meaning, archaeologists in the field, armed with shovels, battle heat and poison ivy often in the hopes of discovering -- nothing.

“We are working in areas where there is often no ground visibility,” he said. “We dig, screen and refill.”

The University and the U. S. Forest Service will team up again later this summer or fall to excavate a site relevant to the Trail of Tears.

“We know we have at least two really good segments of the actual trail,” McCorvie said, adding that the site is marked on Illinois Route 146 between Vienna and Golconda.

This new project seeks to determine if a known site might be part of a large winter camp where Cherokee people, under forcible removal by the federal government, spent a difficult season stranded by dangerous, mobile ice on the Mississippi River.

“It was not a pleasant camp,” McCorvie said. She added that the Forest Service would work with the National Park Service if the site is indeed found to be a camp.

Butler said the partnership between the Forest Service and SIUC works well for both. Students from several colleges and departments on campus have the opportunity to work in their chosen fields before graduation, and the Forest Service gains the benefit of trained temporary workers.

McCorvie echoed his sentiments. “SIUC is always ready and willing to help us. It’s been great for us to have such a resource nearby.”

The Forest Service, the Shawnee National Forest and the United States Department of Agriculture fund SIUC’s participation in these projects.