Cultural Resource Archaeology in Southern Illinois

My name is Patrick Durst and I am a cultural resource archaeologist in Southern Illinois. I work for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I am the Statewide Survey Coordinator at our American Bottom Survey Division, which is centered in the St. Louis Metro East.

ISAS conducts cultural resource archaeology prior to construction projects throughout the state per an agreement with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). We have offices in Jacksonville, Macomb, Rockford, Springfield, Fairview Heights, and Champaign that cover the work in various transportation districts. My job is to coordinate all of the projects in the southern portion of the state, which includes 35 counties bordered by the Mississippi River to the west, the Wabash River to the east and the Ohio River to the south.

Although we occasionally tackle large-scale archaeological projects such as the excavation of the East St. Louis Mound Complex undertaken from 2009-2012 prior to the construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, many of our projects are much simpler. They often take the form of small rural bridge replacements, sidewalk construction, road expansions, airport development, and railroad improvements.

For each of these projects my first responsibility is to do background research on the geography, known cultural resources, historical documentation, and prior impacts. This involves a complete knowledge of the archaeological potential and history of my entire region to properly assess each project. At this stage I also make a determination on the number of crew members needed for the work and the investigation methods applicable to the project. This may include walking the surface an agricultural field to search for artifacts, digging small shallow shovel tests or deeper auger tests, or even using heavy machinery to excavate test trenches. In more specific instances it may also include metal detecting or a geophysical survey.

During an investigation our goal is to search for artifacts or evidence of subsurface cultural features with either historic or prehistoric temporal affiliations. Artifacts that we find may include prehistoric Native American spear or arrow points that are thousands of years old, broken pottery from a Mississippian village, items related to the eighteenth century French fur trade, turn of the century patent medicine bottles, and everything in between. When artifacts and/or features are found the area is mapped using a handheld GPS unit or a total station. That data is geo-referenced onto topographic maps and a site recording form is completed and submitted to the Illinois State Museum for a site number. For each project a short report is written and submitted to IDOT and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) that discusses our findings or lack thereof with recommendations for further testing, avoidance, or project clearance.

Assuming that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Illinois Department of Conservation concur with our findings, and that avoidance is not an option, the next stage of my job is supervising the actual excavation of any cultural resources that were found. This typically includes the excavation of test units or machine excavation of a block to expose subsurface features. What is considered a feature is highly variable and can range from a prehistoric Native American house basin or storage pit to a privy vault or cellar on a nineteenth century rural farmstead. The goal of these excavations is to thoroughly document and record every aspect of a site and its features with the purpose of creating a presentable data set.

Each feature is first mapped in plan view then bisected to provide a profile view. Soils are often screened and artifacts are collected by provenience. When completed, photographs are taken of the profile wall and a profile map is created, and Munsell soil descriptions are recorded to describe the layers of fill deposited within the feature. Generally, the second half of each feature is excavated entirely and flotation samples are collected. Later each sample is processed in water to search for small botanicals that may be present such as seeds. During feature excavation, detailed notes are recorded of what the excavator is observing in order to recreate the experience in a lab setting.

Following the completion of a site excavation all of the artifacts collected are washed, categorized, and curated. Eventually, these artifacts and the data collected are used to complete a detailed analysis and interpretation of the site and the archaeologist’s findings. These may take the form of technical reports, articles, books or journal submissions and are often made available through the ISAS website