BLOOMINGTON — Pieces of animal bones, stone tools, ceramics and other artifacts being unearthed on a farm in rural area south of Bloomington are providing clues to a culture that inhabited a small village more than 750 years ago.
Illinois State University students, under the supervision of Logan Miller, assistant professor of archaeology at Illinois State University, and Jacob Skousen of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, have been working on the site for three weeks as part of a month-long archaeology field school.
The archaeological survey is part of the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois.
“I can talk about it and they can read about it in class all you want, but you don't really get it until you do it,” said Miller, explaining the value of the field school.
“They're really excited at the chance to be Indiana Jones for a month, then the heat and hard work get to them,” Miller said with a laugh.
But once they start finding “the good stuff,” the excitement returns, he said.
The young students weren't the only ones who were excited.
“The chance to work on a site like this reminds you why you like to be an archaeologist,” said Tom Loebel of the archaeological survey as he worked to uncover some deer bones.
The site on private property has been known about for nearly a century. A burial mound was found in the 1920s, Miller said. But only limited archaeological work had been done at the site, including a joint project by ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University in the 1970s. The location is being kept private at the landowner's request.
Last year, the archaeological survey used remote sensing geophysical techniques, including magnetometer imaging, to survey the site.
Through those techniques, “we learned more in four days than we did in four years,” said Loebel. “Everybody's jaws just dropped.”
Bob McCullough, a director of special projects with the survey who worked on the magnetometer mapping, said the technique, which helps identify differences in soils and minerals below the surface, uncovered evidence of “a ring of houses in a plaza.”
Now the archaeologists and students are using the maps to determine where to dig, starting in one corner of the village.
“It's turning from a couple-of-years project into a lot longer,” said Miller.
The village is believed to date back to 1200 to 1250 A.D., he said.
Its inhabitants are believed to have been from the Langford culture, more commonly found along the upper Illinois River Valley and about which little is known. The site might be an ethnically diverse community that also included members of the Mississippian culture groups from the central Illinois River Valley, according to the archaeological survey.
Joanna Klein, a senior in anthropology from Morrison, said, “It's kind of cool to work on something that doesn't have a lot of research on it.”
Among artifacts uncovered at the site are a large number of bones from elk, an animal long gone from Illinois.
That's part of what fascinates Alli Huber, a graduate student in archaeology from Bloomington whose specialty is zooarchaeology — the study of animal remains at archaeological sites.
Studying those bones help researchers learn more about not only the diet of the people who lived there but also how they processed the animals they hunted, she explained.
Loebel said “a site like this allows us to look at not just the life on a household level or a community level” but also interaction across a broader area.
The discovery of items made of copper, most likely from the Lake Superior region, helps researchers learn more about trading networks, said Miller, showing a copper bead and a small bar of copper that are among artifacts unearthed at the site.
“There's no other way to look at this culture other than through the archaeological record,” said Loebel. “That's what, even after doing this for 30-some years, makes it exciting.”