The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln

By Robert Mazrim | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Under the House, Behind the House

Picture a vast, rolling terrain overlooking a small ravine and shallow creek. It is summertime, and it is hot and humid in southern Illinois. For most of human history, this piece of rolling terrain has been treecovered. Paths through the woods lead to the water. There are deer, wild turkeys, small campfires, and some tents fashioned from hides and sapling poles. Then the American farmers arrive, and steel plows follow closely behind. In one or two generations, an old forest succumbs to cabins, hearth fires, and plowed fields. By the late twentieth century, the hills surrounding the little creek are mostly devoid of trees, replaced by the homogenous landscape of modern agriculture. Here and there is a small patch of mown grass surrounding an old farmstead, with a big barn or a new garage. In the fields, someone picks up a chipped stone projectile point or a fragment of a wine bottle.

When I arrived in the early 1990s at this spot, situated along Silver Creek in the uplands east of the American Bottom, everything was gone. The trees, the houses, the barns—even the topsoil itself. The nearby Scott Air Force Base was about to expand, and its federal funding had required an archaeological survey.1 The sites of dozens of prehistoric campsites and villages, a few ancient cemeteries, and several American farmsteads were discovered in less than a year. Now it was time to excavate them, and the size of the project was enormous. Backhoes and belly loaders were busy scraping the topsoil off of hundreds of acres of land,

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