Professional archaeologists and volunteers have been working on a "late prehistoric site" at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, where a Native American village was located "just before Europeans arrived" in late 17th century explorations.

Last Saturday, Midewin archaeologist Joe Wheeler led a group on a "Prehistory on the Prairie" outing to the site, which is believed to have been occupied by Native Americans in the late 1600s — more than 200 years before the first European settlers arrived in the area.

Initial archaeological research was required to be done at the site a few years ago when some TNT bunkers from the former Joliet arsenal were scheduled to be removed in preparation for restoring historic tallgrass prairie to the area, said Joe Wheeler, Midewin archaeologist since 2013. Federal regulations require such investigations whenever land-disturbing projects are planned, he said. "They did some shovel tests and found some shell fragments" — not of military shells but of clam or mussel shells.

This summer, the dig began by volunteers and University of Notre Dame archaeologists Madeleine McLeester and Mark Schurr.

In pits dug at the site, "lots and lots of tiny mussel shell fragments," indicating possible pottery making, have been found. Some mussel shells found are of species that have become extinct in the area, she said. The dig also has produced many fish bones. "One of the things people depended on was fish," McLeester said.

"We did find some bison bones here, but not a lot," she said, explaining they "wouldn't want to drag a bison back. They would kill it in the field and take the meat off the bones and only keep one or two bones — scapula (large, flat shoulder blades) that they used for hoes for growing crops — corn and beans. We have come on a kind of quinoa (keenwah) called goats-foot. Knotweed is another good one."

The sharp point of an antler was found and believed to have been attached to a wooden shaft to aid in digging "deep storage pits that would be tough to dig with shovels," McLeester said. "These people were not afraid of hard work."

She said the antler is believed to be from an elk — an interesting find for anyone who remembers early Midewin talk about introducing elk, an idea dropped because of the height of fences that would be required.

The dig also yielded dog bones — not likely from pets, McLeester noted. "They were probably eating dogs."

The village was not likely large, but an agricultural site for "a couple families pooling resources in summer to grow crops."

They might have been tidy people — indications that the deep pits they dug for food storage also became repositories of their trash indicate as much, she suggested.

Pits have different uses. "Shallower ones with a lot of rock might be an earthen oven," she said. A darker soil area "had a lot of charcoal in it."

Researchers hope to determine what time of year the natives lived at the site. Pollen found in soil can help with that. You melt soil with acid and look at the pollen. If it's ragweed, that can determine they were here in the fall. Tree pollen indicates spring. "Also, we have all these beautiful shells. You can tell based on the isotopes left in the shell what the water temperature was, so you can tell when the shell was collected."

Discovering where to look for evidence of the past underground is challenging.

"You can send different kinds of waves through the ground and see if they behave differently," she said. Electric current and ground-penetrating radar haven't been very successful. "The magnetometer is the most successful. It detects burned material," she said.

"In September, we will be sending thermal detecting drones over the area," she said. "They can cover a lot more ground than people. It's brand new to archaeology in the last five to 10 years. We're getting a guy from Dartmouth to test the usefulness for arcaheology, so the Middle Grant Creek Site will be on the cutting edge of archaeology."


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