On campus field school – a priceless tool

Few schools can boast an archeology site that is on campus and is used on a regular basis to give undergraduate students a graduate school experience.  SIUE can boast, and with good reason.

The summer field school, conducted by the Anthropology Department of SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), is an instrumental tool for the department to turn out high quality students. The field school is a four-credit, eight-week course where students work eight-hour days, five days a week, excavating test units on SIUE’s campus.

Students begin test site dig and screening process in the plow zone. photo courtesy of SIUE's Anthropology Department.

The students working in the field school are learning hands-on archaeological techniques under the close supervision of anthropology faculty. The faculty help preserve the integrity of the site because it is an active research site.

“The students are under close supervision because it is a research site and once something is excavated, it cannot be un-excavated. So, you have to make sure it is done correctly the first time,” said Greg Vogel, assistant professor of anthropology.

Vogel stated that even though the students are closely supervised, they are allowed a lot of freedom to hone skills necessary for archeology, providing them with excellent opportunities that are generally reserved for graduate students.

The field school site, known as the Gehring site, is located just north of Korte stadium. It was named after the person who owned the land before the SIUE bought it. The Gehring site was first excavated by Sid Denny, an SIUE archeologist, in 1970, who found the site to be well-preserved with a lot of material. Julie Holt, associate professor and chair of the anthropology department, began excavating in 2009 and Vogel conducted the field school in 2010 and 2011.

The Gehring site was occupied multiple times, dating back 2000 years, according to Vogel.  Vogel stated the first period was a woodland period, with substantial villages where some of the first farmers began growing locally domesticated crops such as sump weed and sunflower.

“This area is one of the maybe a dozen areas in the world where agriculture was invented independently. This is amazing that all over the world people came up with this idea. One of those areas is right here in the bottom lands of the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. So, archeologically, this area is really rich.”

Two SIUE anthropology students work at digging in a small woodland pit. photo courtesy of SIUE's Anthropology Department.

The second period of occupation was approximately 1000 years ago, when the Cahokia region was active.  Vogel stated that this was the Mississippian time period.

“If you think of Cahokia–at the time–as a big city, maybe a few tens of thousands of people living there, Gehring was a small farming village outside of the city. At that time, other crops had been introduced from Mexico, crops like corn and squash,” said Vogel.

It was also farmed during the 1800’s, according to Vogel.

“People were farming then also, so I like to look at this like 3000 years of agricultural change. These bottomland soils are some of the best areas in the world for farming, and they have been for thousands of years. That’s why this is one of the areas that farming was invented,” said Vogel.

The Gehring site is about a dozen acres of land that, until 2009, had been in crop production.  Holt and Vogel have worked with SIUE administration to close the site to crop production to slow erosion caused by the corn and horseradish crops that were farmed there.  Vogel stated that it will most likely be planted in native grasses to maintain the topsoil and site integrity.

The site has been a treasure trove of artifacts, including stone tools, debris from tool production, and pottery fragments, as well as structure remnants.

“We found a little effigy head this year, that was like a doll or a head that was on top of the rim of a pot. We’re finding spear points, arrow points, and other tools like that. [We’re finding] lots of things that are difficult to recover–botanical samples–often times there would be a storage pit. They stored things in the ground. They dug pits, lined them in clay,” stated Vogel. “Sometimes, they cooked in those pits; they eventually ended up being trash pits, so a lot of debris was dumped in them. So, we are finding tiny bits of charcoal, and seeds left over from what they were eating, so we can reconstruct their diet part of the way.”

Vogel stated that the students dig a one-meter square test pit 10 centimeters down at a time.  They use trowels to scrape the floor clean. Minor soil color changes can mark the edge of houses or storage pits and all of the soil is screened for artifacts, according to Vogel. The test sites average 1.5 meters in depth, which is at the OSHA maximum depth before additional shoring is necessary.  The students also take soil core samples to examine for additional signs.

Two years ago, Vogel had a group come to campus with a magnetic radiometer, which produced images that help target the test sites more effectively.  However, Vogel also wrote and received two grants, one from Excellence in Undergraduate Education and one from New Directions, that allotted him the funds to purchase a state-of-the-art gradiometer, a remote sensing instrument that ‘sees’ beneath the ground. The new equipment will give the students an even more effective experience with the field school, as well as paving the way for the department to receive additional grant funding, according to Vogel.

Julie Holt (l in red shirt) and Greg Vogel (center in blue shirt) work with local Early Childhood Center students. photo courtesy of SIUE's Anthropology Department.

Vogel states that this past summer, the field school was vandalized. He stated that the department works with local schools to educate people on the purpose of the Gehring site. The department also works with local organizations to create a sense of community investment in the archeological history of the region. Vogel stated that overcoming media stereotypes of archeology is one main message the department strives to share.

“A lot of times, even basic ideas of what archeology is–people hear the word and sometimes have the concept of dinosaurs and of course, we study people.  I tell students the easy one word answer to what is it that archeologists study is people–we study people in the past, and the things they left behind.”

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