Local archaeological site provides window to historical past

Near the western edge of SIUE’s campus by Stadium Drive sits a patch of old farmland.  The 35-acre field provides a glimpse into prehistoric American life in the St. Louis area.

Anthropology students work during summer field school at the Gehring excavation site on the west side of the SIUE campus. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Julie Holt)

For the past five years, SIUE anthropology professors Julie Holt and Greg Vogel have led undergraduate students on field school studies at the site.  Their discoveries have provided a window into the culture and lifestyles of the Native Americans of the Middle Woodland period 2,000 years ago.

Since the first excavation in 2009, the piece of land, known as the “Gehring Site” has yielded a treasure trove of more than 30,000 artifacts, and Holt and her students have found thousands more artifacts including tools, pottery and artwork.

Holt said this period in American prehistory is rarely studied because of the limited availability of sites and the Cahokians and other Mississippian people built over the same land once occupied by the Middle Woodland era people. The area lies in the American River Bottom, a flood plain that extends from Alton in the north to Chester, Ill., near the Kaskaskia River. The Hopewell civilization predates the Mississippian culture by 1,000 years.

“This is just an incredibly fertile place to live and people keep coming back here over and over and over again through time,” Holt said.

What Holt and her students found were people who were well-adapted to the land and different seasons. The Hopewell people of the American River Bottom lived in small groups, possibly in extended families. They farmed native plants like squash and sunflowers. They hunted deer and fished. They also created seasonal residences.

Holt said that the Hopewell people had similar religious beliefs to the Cahokians and other Mississippian people and also built burial mounds. But the Middle Woodland people did not yet grow corn, which helped facilitate the cultural boom that took place at the time of the Mississippians 1,000 years ago.

Junior anthropology major Maudie Knicley examines stones used by Native Americans of the Middle Woodland period. (Photo by Joseph Lacdan)

But senior anthropology major Steven Hanlin said they also had a taste for exotic objects. The southern Illinois Hopewell were also traders. Among the artifacts found were obsidian flakes and ghost-like figures with minimal features. Holt said obsidian is rare in Illinois and the materials likely came from the Yosemite National Park area in Wyoming.

“When you use the term Hopewell you’re kind of indicating that people of the Middle Woodland are involved in this larger interaction sphere where they’re trading raw materials, finished goods and of course ideas such as you should bury your dead in burial mounds,” Holt said.

Students have also found fragments of mica, a shiny, flaky mineral. Mica cutouts were often in the shape of human hands or raptor-like birds that may have religious or cultural significance.

“It really is symbolic because you’re finding these in burials,” Holt said.  “And raptors –birds in general– are really important because they represent the Native American cosmology. They represent the upper world. They are upper world creatures. Humans would be of this world.”

Holt learned about the Gehring site after she arrived on campus 15 years ago. The site was first excavated by retired professor Sidney Denny in the 1970s. She said she was encouraged to excavate the site by Denny.

“I was interested in the site because of the Middle Woodland occupation,” Holt said. “And when it was first reported in the 1960s they referred to it as the Middle Woodland village but they also noted that it had occupations from other time periods, including Mississippian. Virtually every time period of Illinois prehistory is recognized there.”

About 60 undergraduate students have participated in the study. During field school training, students learn how to dig and properly examine stains in the soil. Working in the lab students learn skills including how to identify and classify various artifacts.

“It was very meaningful for me to be able to actually find (artifacts) and get the whole picture of excavation, from cleaning the artifacts and analysis to kind of get the whole picture of archaeology,” said senior Joseph Gackstetter.

SIUE anthropology professor Julie Holt display a figure carved by the Hopewell people of the American River Bottom. (Photo by Joseph Lacdan)

Senior Steven Hanlin is collecting clay samples from various areas within a 150-mile radius. As part of Hanlin's senior project, he will bake the clay and take infra-red readings and compare the samples to clay samples found at the Gehring excavation site. Hanlin said the study will help determine how far the Hopewell people of the Middle Woodland period traveled to acquire raw materials. (Photo by Joseph Lacdan)











Some students volunteer for lab work in exchange for a small stipend as part of SIUE’s Undergraduate Research Creative Activities (URCA) Program, while other students use lab time to earn credit for their senior thesis. For Hanlin’s senior project, the anthropology major is collecting clay samples from areas within a 150-mile radius. After baking the samples, Hanlin compares the materials in the clay to the clay found in Middle Woodland pottery to determine the source of the clay samples. Hanlin said that he hopes the study may help indicate how far the southern Illinois Hopewell people traveled for raw materials.

The Gehring site and about 25 other sites near the campus area showcase rare findings from the time period which are part of the larger sphere of early Native American life in the area. The study helps create awareness of the area’s history and along with Collinsville’s Cahokia Mounds World Heritage site paint another picture of American prehistory.

“It should be known. It’s all around,” said junior Maudie Knicley. “I feel it is important to show this history. I feel it shouldn’t be lost. It’s important to learn about it and give it a voice.”

For the first time in six years, the anthropology department will not host a field school at the Gehring site this summer, but Holt said she plans to begin work on penning her conclusions from the study for publication. An article on infra-red study of pottery found at the site was published in Illinois Archaeology. The archaeology field school will return to the Gehring site in the summer of 2016.


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