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Old Bones

Sacrilege and science at Dickson Mounds

Illinois Times

May 23, 1990

Alert readers of this archive will note that I wrote more than once about Dickson Mounds, the state-owned Middle Woodland period burial site in Fulton County. This piece relies on arguments and some of the wording I used in lengthier treatments about the proposed enclosure of the open burials. I don't think I would argue this case in quite this way today.


This version has been edited for content, as I did not want to perpetuate what I did not then recognize as an egregious anthropological error.

See also "Dealing with the Dead," "In the Place of the Dead," and "Skeletons in Our Closet."


"What do you think about closing up Dickson Mounds?" The question came on a postcard from a high school friend who now lives in Wisconsin. She had studied anthropology at college in the Southwest, where she indulged an interest in prehistoric American Indian cultures. She and her husband still spend their summers on digs. "Seeing that place," she continued, referring to the exposed Indian burials that are the principal artifact at Dickson Mounds, “inspired me to study archaeology in the first place."

Several months ago the Illinois State Museum, which owns and manages the site, announced plans to close the burial wing. Museum staff joined a trend by deciding that the display of remains in situ was disrespectful of the dead if not actually sacrilegious. No doubt they thought they were doing the right thing, that having exploited the Indian in life the state should have no part in exploiting him in death too. The fact that it was another bunch of white people deciding what red people wanted just proves that Indians don‘t have the only culture that respects its traditions.


Dead Illinoisans have been controversial before this—remember the 1960 presidential election? the last commission city council in Springfield?—but never so peculiarly The museum's closing decision, for example, was preemptive, designed to forestall protests by Indian groups that had not yet been made. Imagine DCCA brass volunteering to refund their 1989 budget allocation on the chance that taxpayers might complain that their money was being wasted, and you have an idea just how weird the decision was.

Governor James Thompson overrode the closing plan, pending his own review, and has since made two trips to the museum. The prospect of a governor vetoing a policy decision by agency professionals usually leaves me uneasy but in this case it was the museum professionals who acted in a politically craven manner.


Inevitably, many silly things were said. The locals' complaints that closing would hurt their tourism economy may be dismissed as irrelevant if not crass. Supporters of the museum argued the "what-if-that-was-your-grandmother" case, forgetting that the dead at Dickson Mounds are not anybody’s grandmothers. The builders of Dickson Mounds died out centuries ago, a failed culture that left not only no known descendants but no knowable descendants; the historic Illinois tribes are unrelated by blood to their territorial predecessors, and in any event none of them survive either.

Indian spokesmen eventually rose to support both the museums decision and its rationale. Most are descendants of Plains tribes, advancing a generic ethnic point of view. Asking a Plains Indian of the 1990s his views of the closing of a thousand-year-old Middle Woodland burial site in Illinois is like asking me, whose ancestors came to Illinois from Germany in the 1830s, what I think of the one-to-one exchange rate of East German and West German marks. I have an opinion, but if it is sound it won't be because l am "German.”

People get sentimental about the dead, which makes it hard for them to talk sensibly about anybody’s bones. The question was asked during the Dickson Mounds debate whether white people like me would not be offended if, say; Abraham Lincoln's bones were put on display I cannot speak for all white people, but it wouldn’t bother me. (Ronald Reagan’s corpse was constantly on display between 1980 and 1988, for example.) l don't think that respecting the dead obliges me to respect their skeletons too. Investing the remains of the dead with sacred or magical significance is a practice the West once dismissed as primitive; it is proof of our sentimentalization of Indians and other non-Western people that we now applaud, even envy their primitiveness because it leaves them in closer touch with the primordial than we are . 

A cemetery of any era is both sacred ground, a teaching text, and a garbage dump. Which you see when you visit the place depends a lot on who you are and why you are there. Sacrilege, we could say, is in the eye of the beholder. By defining sacrilege in terms of what is reviewed rather than how it is viewed we create no end of tangles. If it is sacrilegious for a tourist to gaze upon Indian remains, is it not also sacrilegious for a scientist to gaze upon them? Would not a policy banning the exposure of Indian burials put an end to mortuary archaeology in North America? I am not too concerned if the religious want to perpetuate their own ignorance about their past, but I resent it when they try to perpetuate mine. Which right is more precious? Your right to believe, or my right to know?

The Indian has been much wronged, and I would like to be able to agree with a friend of mine, who says that it would be nice to see the Indians win one for a change. This sort of magnanimity is a luxury enjoyed only by conquerors, of course; having taken the Indians' continent, letting them have a museum is getting off cheap. But political accommodations, however well-meaning, make lousy principles. Any religion that insists that the world be seen the way it sees it wants to be obeyed rather than respected; that’s what makes most religions attractive to their adherents, and dangerous to the rest of us.

The Art Institute in Chicago is crammed with images in paint and stone that believers of one stripe or another might find offensive. That more do not is because the images speak in symbolic languages that have been forgotten; what once was polemic or apology is now just art. (The flap over a students painting of Mayor Harold Washington in a bra and garters shows how incendiary images can still be when they use symbolic language that is understood.) Many of the great churches of the world are as much museums as places of worship for that reason.


Dickson Mounds strikes me as a kind of church. I am no poet and thus can’t describe my reactions on my first visit to Dickson Mounds as a young man. I had seen plenty of Indian artifacts before, in other places. Rather than establish a kinship with their vanished authors, all those remains of stone axes and mud huts, while interesting in their way, merely confirmed my sense of their backwardness and thus their distance from me as a late twentieth century technological sophisticate. But seeing the burials brought home my kinship with the Middle Woodland people more vividly than any other display could have. My house may be manifestly superior in every way to theirs, but my bones are their bones. They look no different in their graves than I will look in mine someday The vestiges of ceremony visible among the bones spoke of sentiment and tradition which pulled at me, who also knows what it feels like to respect and love other humans.


Remembering all that, I think I understand why my archaeologist friend‘s visit to Dickson Mounds made her an archaeologist. It's not that the graves made these people seem important so much as they made them seem truly human for the first time. Their ownership being otherwise impossible to establish, I prefer to consider those bones not as an Indian legacy, but a human one. ●

Revised 03/04/2021




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