With virus on wane, archaeology students return to the dig at fort visited by Lewis and Clark

FORT KASKASKIA, Ill. — Scraping dirt away inch by inch, archaeology students are uncovering a fort that lay undiscovered for two centuries. After almost two years away, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Archaeology Field School returned to Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site this month, digging into the fort’s unknown history.

“People either find out they love being in the dirt, or they hate it,” said Jessi Spencer, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at SIUC and course teaching assistant.

Universities across the country are sending students back into the field after coronavirus concerns shut down archaeological digs for more than a year. This has required adapting to changing pandemic guidelines, increasing the number of dig sites and limiting crowding, but field schools like SIUC’s are back in action. The work is key for budding archaeologists: Hands-on experiences teach students real-world skills and help determine their career trajectories, from field work to museum curation.

Institutions around the country, like the University of California at Davis, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Tennessee have also reopened archaeology courses this summer in locations ranging from the eastern Sierra Nevada to colonial battlefields. Others remain closed, which limits some students’ options.

“It was here or the Yukon,” said Riley Nagy, a junior history major at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, working at Fort Kaskaskia this month. “I chose this one because it was much closer.”

The SIUC field school has worked at Fort Kaskaskia since 2017. The fort is actually two ― both the French and American armies built forts at the site, 50 miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. French soldiers first constructed a stronghold on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi in the 1750s to protect the nearby village of Kaskaskia. Grass-covered earthwork mounds from the fort remain today.

Researchers long assumed that American soldiers renovated the French structure and built their fort 40 years later at the same location.

‘Earth slices like cake’

Four years ago, SIUC field school students began excavating the original fort and found an absence of American artifacts. After some exploratory digging, they discovered a second, distinct fort just over 300 yards uphill. They determined it was the American Fort Kaskaskia.

In 1803, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped here for supplies and chose 11 men from the garrison to join their mapping journey of the western U.S.

“Lewis was here. Clark was here. York was here,” said SIUC anthropology professor and field school director Mark Wagner, listing famous members of the expedition.

On a recent Monday, 10 students from seven different universities were digging at sites within both forts. For most, this was their first experience with field archaeology.

Jenny Torres, a junior anthropology and history major at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said this experience will help determine her next career step.

“I’m doing this because I study anthropology, and this will help me figure out if I want to excavate,” she said.

Jeffrey Smith, a senior at SIUC, agreed. “This will give me good, practical experience before I jump into graduate school,” he said.

The students carefully dug and mapped thin layers of the roughly 4-foot-by-4-foot excavation units. They used sharp trowels to carve down 4 inches at a time, a painstaking task when the ground is dry and hard. On this day the ground was moist from recent thunderstorms, making the job easier.

“This earth slices like cake, which is why I can dig this way,” said Jane Neubauer, a junior anthropology major at SIUC, as she used a trowel to cut a cube of dirt from the bottom of the pit.

She added this dirt to a five-gallon bucket and passed it to Torres and two other students, who dumped the soil on a mesh screen to sift. This method allowed them to isolate small artifacts, like chunks of animal bone or cooking charcoal.

Untouched for 200 years

At the French fort, students were excavating an old trash site and had found building materials, pottery and broken stone smoking pipes. The pipes indicated someone had been living in the fort, Wagner said. The French abandoned this fort before it was complete, and until this discovery, there was no indication anyone had lived there.

Up at the American fort, teaching assistant Kaleigh Best, a Ph.D. candidate in biological anthropology at SIUC, led a team of undergraduates excavating what they suspected to be a cellar, which Best said could be up to 6 feet deep. The team planned to dig to the bottom in hopes of finding artifacts that could provide clues about the occupants who used it 200 years ago.

The researchers keep exact records of where objects were found, then bring them back to the lab to wash, document and research.

“These artifacts give us an idea of what life was like back then,” Spencer said.

Their work will also protect the forts. The researchers will share findings about the French fort with the state of Illinois so it can better manage the site.

The team hoped to discover the boundaries of the American fort to safeguard it from further development. They are in the process of listing it on the National Register of Historic Places due to its association with the Lewis and Clark expedition and its potential to provide further historical information.

“The fort that Lewis and Clark visited is still here under the ground,” Wagner said. “You don’t want to do development that destroys the very thing this park was created for.”

Students took turns last week inspecting a fragment of green pottery unlike any they had unearthed yet.

“It’s really neat touching things that no one has touched in the past 200 years,” Neubauer said.

After excavating the cellar for only 10 minutes, the team found two U.S. Army buttons. Even Wagner was not immune to the enthusiasm.

“Though we can’t prove it, these buttons could be from members of the Lewis and Clark expedition,” he said. “It’s a different kind of treasure.”