Parkland students pioneer local archaeological field school

Photo by EvyJo Compton | Several participants shovel test an area designated by the site supervisor during field work at Allerton Park, Monticello.

Photo by EvyJo Compton | Several participants shovel test an area designated by the site supervisor during field work at Allerton Park, Monticello.

EvyJo Compton

Staff Writer

Parkland College and the Illinois State Archaeological Survey teamed up over the summer to create a field school for Parkland archaeology students, focused on areas around burial grounds at Allerton Park in Monticello.

ISAS had come upon burial mounds at the park, but had no information about them. The students, supervisors, and professor dug near but not in or on the mounds themselves as to not disturb them. The hope was to find some artifact that could help date the mounds.

“[The students were looking for] diagnostic artifacts or features that could help associate the mound cluster with a time period and culture,” said Erin Riggs, instructor of the course. “[This includes] ceramic (an artifact type that can be very helpful in dating a site and defining the cultural group associated) or lithic materials (stone tools and debitage—the flakes and debris that comes off the stone as a tool is made).”

The course was designed for students who might not be able to devote a full month or more to field work.

“The course was designed to accommodate students who did not have the time or funds to attend a [six-to-eight] week field school abroad…typical of archaeological field courses…” Riggs said.

The course was six weeks in total, with four of the weeks being in the classroom and two out in the field.

“This course included four weeks of evening labs [and] workshops focused on practical archaeological skills such as mapping, artifact analysis, [and] pedestrian survey. An individual research project focused on archival work and critical thinking, and two weeks of full time excavation at a prehistoric mound site,” Riggs said.

During the first four weeks, students learned the necessary skills to work in the field. They also worked on their personal projects.

Josh Boone, a student participating in the course, for his personal project “[categorized] all the statues…into different typographies, showing…how Robert Allerton’s taste…may have changed during his time of buying sculptures for the park,” he said.

During the last two weeks, students dug out one-by-one square meter units in the ground and used shovels, trowels, and hand-brooms to move and clean away the dirt. On the last day, students practiced shovel testing.

“It was hot, humid, bug infested, and hard work, but it was worth the experience by having a chance to conduct the process of excavation on a rare archaeological site,” Boone said.

He says the excavation uncovered fire-cracked rocks—stones with damage consistent with being deliberately heated—a regular find at archaeological sites in North America. These stones would be warmed over a fire and used in cooking or to provide warmth to dwellings.

Boone feels he gained some important take-aways from the experience.

“To be an archaeologist, you need to love to get dirty and enjoy an athletic lifestyle,” he said. “Although excavations don’t always turn up everything that is expected, you almost always learn something that helps get a better idea of who the residents of the site were.”

“In a sense, it helped me realize that I am willing to deal with mother nature to gain a better understanding of our past.”

Riggs enjoyed instructing the small group of students whom participated in the dig. He described them as being highly motivated in their work and interested in the project.

“It is a special experience to teach such a small class of students. My students this summer were so dedicated and pushed themselves to do so many things out of their comfort zones—inventing their own ambitious project ideas, enduring the heat and bugs, being responsible for important paperwork, physically exerting themselves, and even talking to news reporters,” he said.

“It was exciting to watch my students grow in self-assurance and confidence throughout the summer. Not many classes immerse students in the environment of a job like this course does. I think the students became familiar with some of the realities of archaeological work and cultural research management—some of which are tough.”

There is a possibility there will be another field school like this summer’s at Allerton Park next year.

“Parkland may get the chance [again] next year,” Riggs states. “Stay tuned and search for [Anthropology 220] within next summer’s course listings.”