Local Digs Provide a Glimpse into Lives of Prehistoric People

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Cole Daily Herald Staff Writer

Luxury homes now overlook the Fox River from a bluff in Lake Barrington.

But starting 4,000 years ago, Native Americans visited the site and used the high ground to bury their dead. They may even have built a mound to mark the location, although if they did, the earth has long since been eroded by time and the farmer's plow.

At least that's what Rochelle Lurie believes. She founded Midwest Archaeological Research Services Inc. 13 years ago, and has extensive knowledge of how the ancient people in this part of the world lived.

Still, some of her findings puzzle her. She uncovered the remains of at least 31 people during the dig at Lake Barrington in 1996, and she can't figure out why some of the skeletons were laid to rest prone, while others were curled into a fetal position. Even more puzzling, some of the bodies were flayed of their flesh and the bones were bundled before being deposited in graves.

Archaeology provides many tantalizing clues to how our ancestors lived, but archaeology isn't limited to such exotic sites as the Nile Valley in Egypt, home of the Pharaohs, or Olduvai Gorge in Africa, where the remains of some of our oldest prehuman ancestors have been found. There are plenty of local sites worth digging up.

Lurie, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University, estimates she and five staff members - also professional archeologists - conduct 60 to 70 field surveys a year.

But most of the digs MARS does are prompted by impending development, which will destroy the sites.

It isn't advertised much by builders, but projects that use federal or state money, permits or land must be reviewed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which decides if an archeological survey is needed.

The goal of this law is to document any traces of early civilization beneath a plot of land before it is bulldozed and paved, said Mark Esarey, chief archaeologist for the historic preservation agency.

"Once (an archeological site) is destroyed, it's permanently destroyed," Esarey notes. "All that information at that site that would tell us something about the past is gone."

The preservation agency reviews about 3,000 to 4,000 building projects annually for possible archeological significance. About 10 percent of the projects require a survey.

Most sites do not turn up significant evidence of past history. One that did is now covered by the Alden Golf Course in Alden. There, Lurie found evidence of habitation during the Middle Woodland Period, dating back about 2,000 years.

"This was either a village or a campsite overlooking a wetland," said Lurie, who found spear points, stone knives, charcoal, bone and pieces of pottery.

In most cases, developers resume their project as soon as the survey is completed, but in some instances, developers have had to build around the site. In either case, the developers have to pay to have the site surveyed.

"The goal is not to impede development," Lurie said. "The goal is to find out what cultural resources there are on a piece of property. It's to find out what's there before development takes place."

Certain clues trigger a survey. Proximity to water is one. In the summer of 1997, Northern Illinois University conducted an archaeological survey on property west of the Fox River south of Island Lake - the site of the River Walk housing development. Researchers found 30 to 40 arrowheads, two to three pieces of pottery, about 10 hammer stones and lots of chert flakes, called debitage, from the manufacture of arrowheads.

Dating as far back as 10,000 years, the finds told of prehistoric and pre-tribal Indians who crisscrossed the spot regularly, hunting deer, rabbit and other game with spears, and later with arrows. …