In the Place of the Dead
Young author, old graves at Dickson Mounds
March 11, 1971
I had completely forgotten that I wrote this. A brief stint as a navvy on an archeological dig left me fascinated about the Dickson Mounds on the Illinois River. I invited an old pal to spend a day there; she was inspired to become an anthropologist specializing in ancient North American people. If you’d seen the Mounds exhibit as we saw them before it was closed in the 1990s, you would understand why.
I wrote this for one of the three alternative weeklies I was involved with in the Springfield of that day. Signed “J. Krohe,” as I was then in print, it is the seed from which my much later pieces about Dickson Mounds grew. Those pieces can be seen here and here.
The Focus introduction: In 1968 construction was scheduled to begin on a new museum and laboratory complex at Dickson Mounds in the Illinois River valley opposite Havana. In the summer of that year, the State Museum authorized a "rescue dig" at the construction site to salvage any archeological remains that might otherwise be lost during the building. The author was a crew member on that project, under the supervision of the museum staff.
* * *
"Dickson Mounds authentically displays the largest known prehistoric cemetery of burials and burial offerings. The total burial population probably exceeds 2500 and infants. Over two hundred skeletons are presently exposed in their burial positions in the cemetery area of this crescent mound. The Mississippian Culture of the area of the Mounds flourished circa A.D. 900, and lasted for approximately 400 years.
Illinois State Museum brochure
We were a motley crew. Bill was the first to arrive; he was a grad student in anthropology from Southern Illinois University, taller than average, with a manner and expression that was, for all his attempted dignity, irrevocably collegian. Next to appear was Shapur Malik, an exchange student from Iran, who was studying Old World archeology at the University of Chicago. He was there principally to refine his field research techniques, although many of the local waitresses came to a slightly different conclusion. Buzz came from Kansas City; he had agreed to work at the Mounds after he failed to secure a crew assignment at the more extensive (and more interesting) dig at Cahokia. Don, an anthropology student who lived in nearby Canton, Illinois, was the last to show up, as was his habit; he had a penchant for cowboy hats, sour jokes, and beer-drinking marathons.
Of the four, Shapur made the first and most striking impression. He wore a fierce beard, closely cropped like his speech, and affected an out-size Mexican sombrero to ward off the sun; he loved to lecture long into the night about the abuses of capitalist economics, and during the day he amused himself by singing obscene versions of current popular songs. For all his incongruities, though, his fractured English and his taste for the role of clown, Shapur loved his work. His humor and good spirits were infectious—valuable assets during a summer when 90 degree days were common and tempers got touchy with the heat and the monotony. He was patient and precise on the dig, and seemingly impervious to the effects of sun, gnats or fatigue; once, while the rest of us were near exhaustion, cursing the heat and the stubborn ground, Shapur spent hours crouched in a two-foot by three-foot refuse pit, resolutely scraping its walls for precious fragments of pottery. And when he discovered a burial he took particular care—he gave each of his finds a name, and talked with those inert forms as if they were close friends. This idiosyncrasy made little sense to me at first, but later, I came to understand.
"Timber-framed buildings, for instance, structures of upright wooden posts, have a short life in temperate climates, and will rot away without a trace on the surface. But to hold the upright timber, holes or or sockets have to be dug in the subsoil; smaller stakes will be driven in direct, like a fencepost.The positions of all these timbers penetrating the soil will leave traces in color and texture even if all trace of wood has long ago vanished, and by the archeological recognition of such features the can plan be discovered."
Stuart Piggot, in Approach to Archeology
The first few days of the project were spent digging several exploratory trenches. The site itself occupied the top of a hill overlooking the Illinois River valley below; the trenches were dug at right angles from a point on the crest of this hill. Marked off with stakes and string to a width of ten feet, the trenches eventually stretched sixty feet down and along the hill crest. The digging here was difficult, at times almost impossible. First the sod had to be stripped away to a depth of six inches, then carefully stacked, so the grass could be replaced without damage after we'd completed our work. Once through the topsoil we struck a layer of sodden yellow clay interlaced with tree roots and small pebbles. The heat was very bad, for there was no tree cover on this part of the hill, and the trenches bore the full brunt of the sun. Gnats swarmed in the high grass around us, our sweat stung our eyes, and the winds, stinking of mud and wilting corn from the fields below, brought no relief.
Once the sod was cleared, the clay sub-surface had to be shaved. This meant hours spent, bent nearly double, to bring the flat, honed edge of the shovel across the pit bed. This operation is necessary before the pit floor can be checked for possible soil features. It was horrible work, and we were all relieved when evidence of burials was found near the top of the hill, for it meant that the focus of the work would shift there and we would have shade for at least a few hours of the day.
"The bulk of the population was interred in individual graves on the bluffs overlooking the valleys, usually without grave goods. They were most commonly located in such a position that they commanded an imposing view across country. Children were often buried in the villages, presumably to be near their parents, and very small infants were frequently placed in the trash accumulations."
Illinois Archeology, Volume I
We had fought the clay for over a week, and the heat was draining what little reserves of energy and interest we still had left. We'd suffered sunburn, heat exhaustion, and the drudgery of fruitless labor, and had found nothing but some scattered shards and evidence of a few postholes. The systematic excavation of the past is graced with the name "science," but to us it was hard labor, labor made all the more deadening by the science's demands for precision a mishandled shovel, an inexact measurement, or a carelessly discarded bit of baked clay may ultimately prove critical to the archeologists' interpretation of the site. So we were careful, even though we were convinced that we were on sterile ground. Then Buzz uncovered some human bones.
Buzz's find was the first of four adults discovered that week; we had found an never-excavated burial area on the fringe of the cemetery mound. It was Friday, and Bill was scraping the floor of the pit in a routine effort to spot soil stains that might indicate habitation. When his shovel struck something solid, he thought it was just another rock, and stooped to dig it out. It wasn't a rock, however, it was a tiny bone, a shoulder blade, yellowed and pitted by seeping acids in the soil, but still intact. It was no longer than a matchbook; the bone of a child who had died before reaching his first birthday. Bill put the shovel aside, picked up a whisk broom, putty knife, and for three straight hours he worked on his hands and knees, bent in silence over the grave, freeing the miniature skeleton from the dirt.
The end of that day's digging required setting the pits for the night—all the tools had to be accounted for, all the litter from the day’s work had to be collected and disposed of, and the pits themselves had to be covered. This last step meant that the excavation was covered with huge polyethylene sheets to preserve the features from damage by rain or falling debris from the trees around the work area. Bill had by this time finished his work on the burial. He was standing over the pit looking at its fragile form, and as we drew the blanket of plastic over the child in the grave, he said to himself, "He was just a baby."
As each skeleton was unearthed, as each bone was uncovered and exposed in relation with the rest, a grave's inhabitant gradually took on human form. From these bones the pathologist was able to estimate the sex, the height and weight, and the probable age of the deceased; from the number and kind of funeral ornaments buried with him the archeologists were able to tell us his likely trade, whether he was a hunter or a fisherman, and whether he occupied a position of respect in his community. We even knew if he had suffered from arthritis, for example, or had had bad teeth, whether he had been taken by disease or had broken a leg as a child. Bit by bit the pieces fit together, and as we learned more about him, he began to assume a distinct personality—a sketchy one, to be sure, but not that much less, after all, than we know about most of our own casual acquaintances. Shapur’s habitual conversations at least seemed not so strange.
To say that these bones came alive to us overstates the case. But they did become human once again—for a while they ceased to be merely artifacts, and became the carriers of human flesh, the mortal remains of men and women who lived and worked and died according to much the same imperatives that define our own lives. It was, in the words of our supervisor, an altogether improbable, but nonetheless quite respectable sort of afterlife. It was also brief, for once they were removed from the pits and taken to the field lab for analysis and classification they ceased to be human even in form, and became instead only bags of bones and numbers on a chart.
By necessity, much of the analysis of finds was done at the site. The project field laboratory was situated in an archetypical little red schoolhouse that straddled the hillside about fifty yards below the cemetery mound. A weather-battered cupola that once housed the school bell now provided lodging for a growing menagerie of pigeons, swallows, and mud wasps. Inside there was a single large room, dominated by an elevated platform at one end from which the teacher had presided over her pupils. An American flag had been mounted on the wall above her desk, but for reasons unknown had been glued to the wall, rather than hung. The school desks had long since been removed; the room was now filled with eight long banquet tables, strewn with pottery shards and assorted skeletal remains from the gravesites. Under the tables there were dozens of cloth sacks filled with bones already cleaned and classified; in the corners was stacked the survey equipment, the tripod and wire rolls, the sighting stakes and the Army surplus sextant that was never used. To one side of the door rattled an ancient refrigerator that barely managed to chill the crews beer and keep the snack supply from melting beyond consumption; in place of the teacher's desk sat a drawing table used by the staff to sketch out the day's finds before they were removed to clear the pits for the next layer.
Beside the drawing table were rows of somber gray filing cabinets. They stood tall as a man, and stretched across the length of the wall. They looked very much like the vaults in a city morgue, and in a sense they were, for within them were contained the sketches and notes of ten summers of digging—a desiccated and lifeless record of a remote village of a not-too-successful people gleaned from the dirt of the hill above.
The first and second generations of the Weaver family had cultivated the side and top of the bluff above the village and had plowed over the west mound group. Hillside farming was a common practice in the decades after the Civil War though it is now largely abandoned and the hills are in pasture. The years of cultivation resulted in the erosion of the west mounds and contributed to the destruction of the upper levels of the cemetery. Mr. Garren (a life-long resident) remembered the top of the hill "looking like it had snowed" because of the numerous fragments of bleaching stones.
The Weaver Site, I.S.M. Scientific Papers
Many of the burials we uncovered had been hopelessly mutilated by plowing or souvenir hunting. It became easy enough to deride three generations of local farmers who regarded Indian remains not with reverence, or even curiosity, but only irritation—they looked upon the jumble of bones and pottery that littered their fields not as the priceless relics of a vanished race of men but but merely as nuisances that fouled their plows and stunted the growth of their corn.
The excavator bears a very heavy burden of responsibility; as he excavates, he does in fact destroy the site he is investigating. . . .
Thus the damage we did to the remains we encountered was no less final than that wreaked by the careless farmers; it differed only in degree. It is true that we did such damage for the best of reasons—the broadening of scientific knowledge about our past—but some of us still saw our effort as the handiwork of vandals. It's a feeling, which, although probably the result of nothing more profound than a vague and out-of-place sense of propriety, can be quite intense. We did approach a gravesite with what we often called "respect," but even that was mostly just methodological caution; it stemmed as much from the rigorous demands of the art as from any exalted sentiments of human kinship. We also maintained that we had come to those fields with an awareness of their "significance" that was somehow beyond the comprehension of the area's residents; it was a simple matter to add historical provinciality to a list of their defects that already included a mean and nervous cultural insularity. But such sneers could not completely insulate us from our own nagging conviction that we were also guilty of trespass, that we had quite intentionally robbed a people of their eternity.
In our defense, let it be said that we dug them, up very carefully, and with the purest of motives. But we dug them up just the same.
The Illinois floodplain is as magnificent today as it must have been to the Mississippian Indians who once lived in the valley.
Illinois State Museum brochure
The flats that spread out from the base of the bluffs once teemed with water birds that fed in the thick marsh grasses that dominated the valley floor, and held it against the river's annual assault. All that has vanished—the birds are now found only on small federal wildlife refuges farther up the river, and the valley itself has been subdivided into a grid of drainage canals and dikes built to protect farms and roads from the floods; in fact, the highway that leads to the Mounds from Havana runs along the crest of one of these embankments. Trees and heavy brush can now be found only along the riverbank, huddled together on marginal land that has so far escaped the plow. For as far as one can see the land has been stripped, so that the corn and alfalfa and beans can take root in the black dirt of the bottomland. These acres are among the richest farmlands in the world, but from up on the hill, the valley somehow looks barren and empty. And if the day is clear, one can also see the arching columns of blue-gray smoke pouring from the stacks of the gigantic brick and steel power plant at Havana.
It is our hope that you can look beyond the skeletons and burial objects from the Dickson Mounds, and, like the archeologist, better understand the lives and culture of the people who lived here centuries ago.
Sketchbook of Artifacts, Allan Harn
Bill and I had finished a late supper, and moved down to the schoolhouse for a beer and some fresh air. We'd been at work nearly a month, and the tables inside were crowded with bones that we'd pulled from the graves. From the steps of the schoolhouse the view of the valley was unobstructed; the only reminders of man's presence were the glowing red lights of the power plant, six or seven miles distant. It was very quiet, as it always was on that hill after the digging had stopped and the tourists had gone. The damp air on the ground below had been turned to ground fog by the cooler air of late evening;the mists caught the white light of the moon in its swirls and eddies, so that the fields themselves seemed to rise and dance. Bill nursed a lukewarm beer; I just looked, as we relaxed. Then Bill spoke, softly, but the sound of a voice was startling in the stillness.
"I just can't shake the feeling that this is sacred ground."
It was a feeling we all had at one time or another, though we rarely spoke openly about it. All of us there were party to the exhumation of a dead people, and reflections upon the nature of that task were to be expected. But there was more to it than that, more to it than a residual uneasiness about breaking graveyard taboos. What imbued this place with an aura of sanctity had little to do with those forgotten Indians on the hill. What Bill was describing was a sanctity that exceeded any within the power of man's mere presence to bestow; it sprang instead from the land, the place itself, and its measureless strength to endure. For this valley was still beautiful in spite of the scars it bore from the hand of man, still rich in spite of man's waste. It was ultimately the land's undiminished capacity to outdo man in invention, its ability to restore itself after centuries of man's clumsy intervention, that gave this place its hold over us.
This has become the archeologist's grandiose task: to make dried-up wellspings bubble forth again, to make the forgotten known again, the dead alive, and to cause to flow once more that historic stream in which we are all encompassed, whether we live in Brooklyn or Montparnasse.
C. W. Ceram in Gods, Graves, and Scholars
So much is true, and important. But archeology can teach us more than that. The justification of efforts such as these is the hope that the dead, like those people buried on the hill, can teach us what they already know, that man and his accomplishments are ephemeral, that modern man's attempts to manipulate the processes of nature to his own small ends are suicidal, and vain. What we can, what we must learn, is humility. ●