|26 December 2004
In Illinois, unrecorded history being written in small discoveries
Two thousand years ago, a community of American Indians lived along the Rock River in far northwestern Illinois, where they shaped stone into smoking pipes with such acumen that they were able to ship and trade them all over the Midwestern prairie. This year, archaeologists discovered broken pieces of pipe stone and other debris from the pipe-making process in the area, giving researchers several promising leads on the locations of pipe workshops used by these renowned artisans.
The array of artifacts has been painstakingly recovered by anthropologists from Beloit College and placed into storage, and the spots that produced them have been cataloged along with the 52,170 other archeological sites now in Illinois' official directory. The sites in the state's catalog have produced thousands of pieces of evidence from the lives of Illinois' ancestors. Many of the new sites reported this year have come courtesy of developers and builders, whom state and federal law have harnessed as their workhorses in the cause. Every time they try to put up a neighborhood or pave a parking lot, they have to hire a team of experts to come out, look around and make sure they aren't about to plow under significant evidence of some prehistoric civilization. The voluminous size of the state catalog highlights the fact that thousands of artifacts probably were crunched under the wheels of construction decades ago. In 1970, shortly after federal law began to require archeological assessments for all projects involving federal funds, the state had only 5,150 sites on record. With the law on the books, though, people were reporting 2,000 and 3,000 new sites every year in the decade that followed.
In northwestern Illinois, the discoveries of the last year intrigue researchers because they provide signposts for future study. After months of interviewing local residents about where they found pipe stone remnants over the years, a Beloit College professor and her students now have several good ideas about where the pipe workshops were.
The pipes from American Indians of this period have been in curators' hands for years, and some of the most prized specimens are currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Even so, experts still don't know much about how the pipes came to be made or the lives of their makers. Individual specialists may have made the pipes, said Shannon Fie, the Beloit College assistant professor of anthropology who is heading up the research. Besides giving information about the lives of the pipemakers, the pipes also tell something about the trade routes among Native Americans. Anthropologists already know that the native people of the area possessed objects like marine shells from the Gulf Coast and obsidian from Wyoming. "The pipes are beautiful," Fie said. "A lot of them are done in the shapes of animals, birds, bears, and seemed to be tied to various ritual activities. ... That, coupled with their beauty and the symbolism of the messages, suggests they were very special in some way."
Source: Chicago Tribune, Tallahassee Democrat (24 December 2004)
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