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Archeological dig offers new view of historic life

Author: Arts and Letters

A cluster of ancient roasting pits packed closely together on a bank along the Kankakee River in northwest Indiana may have been the celebratory gathering place of early Native Americans – with remains of mussel shells in the pits pointing to an ancient version of a modern clam bake.

“We estimate the pits were used between 1400 and 1450 or so, just before Europeans began moving into the New World,” said Mark Schurr, a University of Notre Dame anthropologist and lead researcher of a recent archeological dig near Kouts, Ind..

“The ancestors of historic Native Americans gathered at this site because it wasa good place to cross the marsh and harvest wild resources when they were inseason, and we have some really good charcoal samples from the pits that we will send to a botanist at the University of Texas to see if we can find out more about whatwas roasted in them.”

Schurr has led archeological digs for the past four summers on the grounds of the Collier Lodge, a 19th-century hunting lodge located on the banks of the Kankakee River – once home to marshlands so rich in waterfowl that the area was known as the “Everglades of the North.” The work has yielded some surprising finds, including the discovery this year of several rare artifacts that help shed light on ancient life in the area.

Schurr, with the help of Notre Dame anthropology students and some 40 volunteers from the Kankakee Valley Historical Society (KVHS), have unearthed hundreds of clues to the area’s rich past, from a prehistoric tool dating to 7,000 B.C., tohand-blown glass from an early 19th-century European settlement.

Schurr noted that prehistory is defined locally as any time prior to 1679, the time of the first written history of the area.

This year, piecing together some unearthed shards of pottery from the Early Woodland period (800 to 200 B.C.) helped Schurr and his colleagues understand a portion of the area’s history as well.

“Pottery from this time period has been well-described from surrounding regions, but we never have found those types in this area, leading anthropologists to believe that our area was uninhabited during the Early Woodland period,” said Schurr.

“We now have enough samples from the Collier Lodge that we can see that the Early Woodland people of the Kankakee made a distinctive and unique type of pottery, and they must have had contact with neighboring regions.”

Other notable features discovered this year included post molds (places where posts once stood) from an 1830s-era log cabin buried beneath the ground, perhaps owned by the first Kankakee River ferry owner, George Eaton. A concentration of animal bones discovered next to the cabin gives an interesting picture of early life along the Kankakee.

“The first settlers in the area probably made a living by doing a little bit of everything, from running a ferry to fur trading,” Schurr said.“This is quite a bit different that the typical pioneer, who was usually heavily involved with farming.”

One of the most noteworthy artifacts discovered this year was an ancient, intact point, or the sharp end of a spear or tool, judged to be nearly 10,000 years old – evidence that the land near the Collier Lodge has been used for thousands of years as a site for camps or settlements.

“This knife, with a somewhat unusual shape, dates to the period known as the Early Archaic.” Schurr said. “It was probably made around 7,000 B.C., and it provides our earliest date for the use of the site. It appears to have been re-sharpened many times and finally discarded when it was worn out.”

“The environment back then was still changing from a glacial one to the modern one we see today, so people living then had to learn to use not only the newly forested world that was appearing around them, but also how to adapt to an environmental change.”

With the help of students, volunteers from the KVHS and residents of the area, Schurr and his team will sort and catalog the collection unearthed at this year’s dig, and will present a public lecture on his findings in September. Schurr also plans to nominate the site for the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation.

Originally published by Susan Guibert at on July 10, 2006.