Prehistory on the Prairie: Excavations at the Middle Grant Creek Site, Part III
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Illinois, 2019
by Joseph Wheeler, Midewin NTP Archaeologist and Madeleine McLeester, University of Notre Dame
2019 marked the third year of PIT excavations at Middle Grant Creek (MGC) on Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, Illinois. Led by University of Notre Dame Archaeologists Dr. Madeleine McLeester (Field Director) and Prof. Mark Schurr (Principal Investigator), 54 volunteers (16 per day) from 9 states learned excavation methods, from shovel skimming to record keeping, while breaking through the prairie sod and to complete another successful field season. This year, volunteers contributed 2,386 hours to the project, resulting in over 7,000 total hours for this PIT project!
In its third PIT year, MGC amazed volunteers and seasoned archaeologists alike. MGC is a Native American village occupied just before European contact and dates to the early 1600s. The project excavated a new section of the site this year to investigate possible differences across MGC. Like previous years, excavations targeted storage pits that were refilled with the inhabitants’ refuse. Within the pits, volunteers uncovered a wide array of artifacts dating to the early 17th century.
One feature was especially rich with artifacts, including the first clay pipe found at the site and an agricultural toolkit, consisting of a mano and metate , bison scapula hoe , and deer antlers that could be fashioned into tools . Other finds from the feature include a bald eagle sternum and dried turkey tendons , possibly used for gaming—all very rare finds.
The other excavated features also produced exciting finds! Feature 11 contained fragments of a small basket or matting and was full of carbonized plant remains used to identify agriculture and gathering practices. Feature 13 had large pottery sherds, including an example of Huber bold trailing . Overall, the site produced distinctive ceramics, stone tools, animal bones, freshwater shells, and carbonized plant remains.
Volunteers work with a changing prairie in the background as Midewin moves forward on their goal to remove Joliet Arsenal-Era Army structures and infrastructure, and restore the land to tallgrass prairie. This PIT project is helping restoration efforts by providing unique environmental and cultural data from the 1600s.
With hard work and lots of sweat and sunblock, volunteers uncovered tremendous data that will continue expanding understandings of this era . The processing and analysis of the artifacts is just getting started and with finds like these, will continue for some time to come! Stay tuned for updates and get ready to join us in 2020 for this large volunteer-powered project!