Wagner and Muntz

Mark Wagner, director of the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Alice Muntz, a graduate teaching assistant with the CAI Summer Field School, discuss artifacts at an archaeological excavation site located outside the known fort walls at the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. The field school is conducting archaeological surveys and excavations at the site through June 16. Visitors are welcome. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

June 02, 2017

Students gain hands-on experience during archaeology field school

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Alice Muntz is confident that the students digging precise rectangular grids and sifting buckets of dirt in the quest for artifacts will have the skills required to land jobs in professional archaeology after completing the Southern Illinois University Carbondale-Center for Archaeological Investigations Summer Field School. 

Muntz spent several years as a professional archaeologist, often known as the field of cultural resource management, but recently decided to pursue a graduate degree in archaeology at SIU.  Now she’s one of the team of graduate assistants teaching the field school. 

“The idea is to give the students exposure to academic and professional archaeological methods,” she said. “They could go get a job after this field school.” 

The Center for Archaeological Investigations at SIU has hosted a summer field school for years. Recent digs were at the Kincaid Mounds State Historic site near Brookport in Massac County. This year, the field school begins at the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site in Randolph County and concludes at Miller Grove, an historic pre-Civil War, freed-African-American-slave site in Pope County.

Media Advisory

Members of the media are welcome at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale-Center for Archaeological Investigations Field School, both during the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site and the Miller Grove excavations. Of particular interest is the anticipated arrival of members of the Shawnee Tribes of Oklahoma, a federally recognized tribe. The group is a guest of the National Forest Service-Shawnee National Forest, as part of an effort to reacquaint members of the tribe with its ancestral home. The group includes students from elementary school to high school and adults. They will assist the field school at the Fort Kaskaskia site. Lewis and Clark’s interpreter, George Drouillard, is known to have stopped at Fort Kaskaskia; his mother was Shawnee. For more information about the field school, contact Mark Wagner at 618/521-9217 or mjwagner@siu.edu.

Mark Wagner, CAI director, applied to the Lewis and Clark Foundation for a grant to help fund the field school. Fort Kaskaskia is one of the places Lewis and Clark stopped for supplies and recruits. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency owns and maintains the site, and gave permission for the field school’s activities.

The goal, Wagner explained, is three-fold: first, to train students by giving them hands-on fieldwork experience; second, as a public outreach; and third, to provide the IHPA with information they wouldn’t otherwise have about the site. 

“We’ve got a banner announcing our field school so visitors to the site know they can approach us and ask us about our work here,” Wagner said, noting that several people already have visited the site since the field school began last week. 

“We’re also using equipment for geophysical surveys that enhance the investigation,” he said. “If the IHPA hired an outside agency, it’s likely it would cost $20,000. But we are doing this as part of our field school.” 

The geophysical surveys involve the use of a gradiometer and a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) unit. Ryan Campbell, a researcher and student in the doctoral program with CAI, conducted surveys to give the field school teams a good idea where to begin digging. The equipment gives a topographical map of what is below the surface. Sometimes it is possible to approximate building foundations or to see other forms defined in the data collected. 

He’s also been working with the students to give them experience with the survey equipment. “Training on equipment like this -- that’s not something you get at every archaeological program,” he said. “It really does give our students a leg up when it comes to the job market. There are programs that are classroom-based but there really is no substitute for in-field training. These students are learning to deal with some of the problems you don’t encounter in a textbook.” 

And it’s more than that, too. “It’s a different perspective when you find an artifact in the field, on a dig --it’s completely different from seeing an artifact in a classroom laboratory.” 

Muntz agrees. “It can really spark someone’s interest when they find an artifact,” she said. 

Jessi Spencer, currently of Cobden, is also on the graduate teaching team. She said she loves that this site is visitor-friendly. “It’s a great bonus that we get the chance to share what we’ve found and to interpret the site,” she said. 

Spencer is a bio-archaeologist. Her focus is bones and teeth. The fundamental archaeology skills are the same, she said. “It’s important for students interested in any part of archaeology to learn all the basic techniques,” she said. “They’ll do that here.” 

A visitor to Fort Kaskaskia will see a green meadow surrounded by low earthwork walls. The site has been rebuilt at least once, maybe twice, and one of the big questions regards the authenticity of some of the existing earthwork. When the fort was in use, the walls would have been wooden, with the earthwork as supports. 

The field school is excavating in three places at the fort site. One team is working in a corner of the fort where, according to notes made by a British soldier in the 1760s, there might have been a bakery, or perhaps a raised platform for artillery. From the artifacts the team has uncovered so far, the artillery platform seems the more likely. 

“We’re finding evidence of double occupancy,” Tony Farace, graduate teacher, said. “That’s common, and it’s good for the students to see that. Sites that are attractive to one set of builders are often attractive to another set as well.” 

Another team is working a part of the fort near what probably was an entrance. The geophysical survey indicated some anomalies under the surface, and the team is eager to find out what that may be. 

A third team is excavating outside the fort walls. Wagner said SIU is the first archaeological team to do so. And the team is finding plenty of artifacts -- including the button from a British soldier’s uniform. 

“We’ve learned a lot of new information,” Wagner said. “The button is the first evidence of British presence here. We’ve found evidence of a wall trench. All the artifacts discovered outside the walls of the fort provide new clues. We’ve found a number of flints from flintlock guns. We are also finding prehistoric artifacts including arrowheads.” 

The field school remains at Fort Kaskaskia through June 16. After that, the field school will relocate to Miller Grove, the site of a free African-American settlement. A group of area teachers and students interested in archaeology will join them. 

Here is a list of students participating in the field school, with hometowns: 

  • Scott Malloy, Halifax, Novia Scotia
  • Geno Mascio, Chicago
  • Hillary Merrill, Indianapolis, Ind.
  • Alexander Nagy, Aurora
  • Lisa Ortiz, Berwyn
  • Joe Oswald, Chicago
  • Madyson Ratermann, Beckemeyer
  • Elizabeth Robinson, Carterville
  • Rob Rose, Carbondale
  • Luke Schroeder, Lombard
  • Dana Stalets, Pana
  • Dakota Street, Memphis, Tenn.