East St. Louis

Archaeology Under the Arch

Tamira here, Research Archaeologist with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). I currently serve as a Site Supervisor at the East St. Louis Mound site, one of the largest Mississippian period (AD 1000-1450) sites in the pre-Columbian world, just downstream from Cahokia Mounds. Large-scale excavations have been ongoing at East St. Louis since 2008 in advance of the construction of a new bridge that will span across the Mississippi river from Illinois to Missouri. This project involves more than just the bridge though – it includes new utilities, interchanges, road realignments and improvements, and the diversion of an interstate from its current route to the new bridge. A large portion of this project’s footprint impacts the site. It’s our job to recover as much information as possible from this portion of East. St. Louis before construction takes place.

This bridge project requires LOT of work from a lot of different groups. ISAS works with all of these groups on a daily basis in order to ensure that this important project runs safely and with efficiency. Just like the many other groups working on this project, we have deadlines that must be met so that the bridge will open as scheduled in 2014. Unlike those contractors however, we really never know what lies ahead on any given day – which is one of the most exciting parts of being an archaeologist. We could be faced with rock hard soil or sloppy mud depending on the weather or enjoy a perfect day of sunshine; be completely shut out of an area due to another contractor’s schedule or finish an area ahead of time; spend hours digging finding nothing but dirt or discover an amazing artifact that will help rewrite the history of the site. These factors make a large part of the job a balancing act between maximizing data recovery and doing top notch research while meeting the demands of the larger project. Luckily, we have a hard-working crew of more than 80 individuals who rise to meet the challenge day after day. Our team includes not only the excavators and supervisors on site, but essential staff in the office who make our maps, write reports, curate finds, coordinate with native groups, and make sure that our research both reaches both the scientific and public communities.

My particular role at ISAS shifts depending on the needs of the project. Until recently, I spent my days running one of the many excavation blocks at the site – supervising crew, interpreting features, making sure that paperwork is done properly, coordinating with supervisors in other areas of the site, and deciding what’s to be done next among other tasks. The job requires a great deal of flexibility, problem solving, and people skills. I worked in this capacity until the day that my daughter, Orin was born. This came with particular challenges – working through morning sickness, an increasing need to visit the port-a-john as the due date approached, and navigating my baby-bump in tight excavation areas – but the most unexpected challenge was probably finding field-appropriate clothing for the expectant archaeologist! Try a Google search of “maternity work wear” and you’ll see what I mean. Despite these minor obstacles, a healthy pregnancy allowed me to enjoy my entire pregnancy in the field, and there’s no place I would have rather been!

I returned to work from my maternity leave just last week and am now active on the next stage of the project – analysis and write-up. My day to day involves checking over notes and maps from the field, examining the artifacts – which includes anything from the refuse of daily life such as pottery and chipped stone to exotic and unusual items, interpreting finds, and most importantly, pulling all of this information together so that it can be written up and presented in a cohesive report. For a project of this scale, this process will take a large team of researchers several years to complete. The finished product will be a seminal volume that will rewrite the history of the East St. Louis site and its contemporaries, helping us to better understand the people that made their lives in the fertile river valley that I now call home.

So how did I end up with this awesome job, working on this awesome site? Well, unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t always want to be an archaeologist. I used to go arrowhead hunting on the family farm as a child and was always fascinated with Native American culture, but I actually went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to pursue a degree in music. I was derailed from that path by an excellent gen ed course in anthropology during my first semester, which led to a new major and my participation in Dr. Tim Pauketat’s archaeology field school the following summer. Several additional summers of excavation convinced me that there was no better life than the digging life, and I’ve been doing it ever since – for the government, independent contractors, universities, in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and ultimately at ISAS on one of the most impressive and important projects in North America.

Mississippian Archaeology in the Midwest Heat

Since 2008, archaeologists have been excavating areas of a prehistoric Native American site that covers roughly 478 acres. The site is buried by a meter or more of historic gravel, slag, and trash in East St. Louis, IL and was present from about 900 to 1200 AD. During this time, archaeologists have dug thousands of storage pits and structures (storage, residential, and otherwise). Parts of this site are being mitigated prior to the construction of the new Mississippi River Bridge.

Notable artifacts recovered from this dig include a small flint clay figurine found early on in excavations. The importance of this figurine is two-fold; one for its importance to the pre-historic peoples that manufactured it, and second to demonstrate how historic development has impacted the site itself. The figurine was recovered within a burned structure adjacent to a historic drainage trench. Had the trench been shifted, even a few inches, the figurine could have been destroyed or lost entirely.

Currently, archaeologists are working in close proximity to construction crews. The bridge is scheduled to be opened by 2014, and our last few excavation areas are situated adjacent to the main construction of the bridge and surrounding roadways.

Once excavations are concluded, years of analysis will follow, yielding data that could change the way we interpret the prehistoric history of the region.

Today, I woke up before the sun was up; my turn to drive the work truck. After Memorial Day we implemented our early schedule so instead of starting at 8am we start at 7am.

At the lab I loaded up the necessary paperwork and equipment for the excavation block I worked in and made my way to the site.

Our supervisor (Patrick Durst) had already made the decision to stop field work at lunch today due to the heat. We did the same yesterday.

The block I’m currently in (EB14) is expansive, but most all of the features have been dug. All that’s left are a storage pit and a complex of structures. The pit only required a photograph of the profile to show the depth and the different fill episodes. The structure complex, however, required a bit more attention.

For me, this block is a bit of a breather. The block I was in previously (EB78) had about 50 people in it at its peak. Granted, there were other supervisors also working in that block. But, it was kind of nice to find out I’d only have to deal with two active feature areas and less than 10 people.

The crew in the structure complex continued taking down the basin fill. Within the fill we found an abundance of chert debitage (flakes of stone removed from larger cores or tools). Actually, that’s all we’ve found for the last two days: trays and trays of white (presumably Burlington) chert flakes.

They got to the floor surface of the structure and we began defining the architecture. Based on initial observances of the floor, this appears to be a pair of wall trench structures from the Stirling Phase (1100-1200AD).

By this time, it was getting close to 11am, so we started wrapping up for the day. Our block is dug down a few feet and foliage has started growing up around it. Add to that the backdirt piles created from the excavation, and the little breeze that is blowing on this hot summer day is greatly minimized. So, we were feeling the bright sunshine and humidity and were grateful for an afternoon in the lab.

At the lab I ate my field lunch (half a tomato, half an avocado, two slices of wheat bread, and a peach) and proceeded to the task of preparing for the expansion of the block I was previously working in (EB78).

First I had to go back through the paperwork left in the storage bin from that block to ensure it was all complete and ready to be filed away. Once that was done, I found the maps that would be impacted by the expansion of the eastern edge of the block. Studying the maps I found numerous structures that ran into the eastern wall. I set aside the maps and the notes for these features so that the crew expanding the block will know what to look for. We’ll be able to piece together the partial structures and will be able to assign the existing numbers to these known structures. This way, when the structures are dug we won’t have duplicate numbers and all the data will be in one place.

And that was my day. I wish I could say that something more exciting happened like I saw a wild dog scavenging a deer carcass on the side of the road on the way to the site or that I saw a building ablaze and billowing a thick black column of acrid smoke into the air… But that was Tuesday and Wednesday.

On a personal note, I was given permission by our project direct (Dr. Tom Emerson) to take pictures at the site to document the crewmembers working there. I’ve found that we painstakingly document every feature and every artifact, but when the reports come out the crew are (not intentionally) under represented. As well, I think the general public has a misconception as to what happens at an archaeological site.

What I’m attempting to do is to document people working in a “street photography” fashion. And I’m shooting it on black and white film that I’m developing at home in instant coffee and vitamin C. In the end, I envision some sort of an art-book/coffee table book containing the images in an attempt to mainstream the work we do in a positive fashion. Because yes, the archaeology is important, but equally important are the people that put in the hard work making reports on sites like this possible.