Mound system at Allerton Park studied

State archaeologists received a rare opportunity to study a Native American mound system as they conducted a field school recently in the forests of Allerton Park. The two-week project that ended last Friday was operated by the Illinois State Archaeological Survey along with students from Parkland College.

The 10-mound system – known as Samuel’s Mounds – occupies a triangular, 1.5-acre upland bluff site in the southern portion of the park along the Sangamon River.

With most of Illinois’ mound systems falling prey to development, farming and looting, the Allerton site is unique because it is relatively intact, a fact not lost on archaeologists who surveyed the site.

“Burial mounds used to number in the tens of thousands if not more across the entire state,” said Dr. Tom Loebel, the ISAS cultural resources coordinator. “Ninety-plus percent are now gone either through expansion and destruction through building, agricultural practices, and then also intentional destruction either through misguided early attempts to investigate the mounds, as well as looters and relic hunters.”

“This is one of the few where almost all of the mounds are intact and this area has actually never been plowed. That is very rare in the state of Illinois to find a tract of land that has not been plowed,” said Site Supervisor Dan Smith, also an archaeologist with ISAS.

Three of the 10 mounds, which were the topic of initial study 50 years ago, have been damaged by looting and other activity over the years.

Crews hope to repair them and turn the site into an educational and interpretive display for Allerton Park.

Smith said since the mounds may contain human remains, they are protected by state and federal law and will not be touched except for repair efforts. Instead, test pits are being sunk and dry sifting being conducted of the soil gathered around the mounds in an attempt to establish just when the mounds were erected.

“Our immediate objective is to try to locate any temporally diagnostic artifact that would help us conclusively tell what time period these mounds relate to, and therefore what prehistoric culture they relate to,” he said.

One clue was the finding a chert flake left over from the making of a tool, maybe an arrowhead. Made out of Cobden-Dongola chert native to Southern Illinois, Smith says that could date the site from the Middle Woodland culture, possibly between 300 B.C. to 300 A.D.

Another find made through a soil recessivity test was that a structure thought to be a long, narrow mound was in fact three conical ones that had been joined together, either through natural or man-made means.

There is not enough evidence yet to determine whether the mounds were for mortuary or ceremonial purposes, but ISAS archaeologist Dr. Duane Esarey is betting they contain burials.

“Really, the only people that built mounds that are not burial mounds are Mississippians like at Cahokia. They are the ones who actually built platforms for structures,” said Esarey.

Loebel agrees, adding that Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in southwestern Illinois was meant to make a statement, not honor the dead.

“You’re modifying the landscape to signal social status. It’s like the White House – a visual reminder of where your place in society is,” he commented.

Less invasive
While there is plenty of digging going on at the site, archaeological research is less invasive than in the past. Magnetometers were brought in to identify areas that contain metal and fire-based disturbances. That means the digging is more specified and less random.

LIDAR was also used to map the mound system from above before any shovels, spades or trowels hit the dirt.

“Archaeological practice has become far less invasive, particularly in the last decade or so,” said Smith. “Geophysical equipment can conduct non-invasive, geological surveys.”

Parkland College student Lucas Wagner, who is pursuing studies in anthropology and archaeology, appreciates being able to get hands-on experience close to home.

“We’re very fortunate because usually the schools at higher universities are incredibly expensive, but right now I can do this basically for the fee of the credit course,” he said.

Not all of the students have archaeological aspirations, but seemed to enjoy the experience.

“My major at Parkland is theatre and I took the course to fulfill a transfer requirement,” said Monticello High School graduate Aubrey Brown. “I’m very much enjoying my time at the field school. While it was definitely challenging, I feel like I’ve learned a lot and think we’re doing something really cool and important.”

Early history of Samuel’s Mounds also told of a village that was thought to have surrounded the mounds. No evidence of that has been found at this summer’s dig, but Smith thinks it is a likely notion, whether right around the site or close by.

Archaeologists hope to conduct another two-week field school next summer.


 

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