A recent archaeology project shed light on the history of the Shawnee National Forest, uncovering the remains of a 19th Century home and an ancient cemetery.
Archaeologists Mary McCorvie and Heather Carey, and AmeriCorps VISTA team member Eraina Nossa worked with 23 volunteers from across the country on this five-day project to inventory 140-acres of the Illinois Iron Furnace Historic Site and to create a more complete picture of what life was like there. Built around 1837, the Illinois Iron Furnace is the only remaining iron furnace structure in the state.
The Passport in Time volunteers used a compass to walk in transects through the woods, digging and screening for artifacts, producing scaled maps of new archaeological sites and exploring the hills and valleys within the study area. .
Discoveries included an early to mid-19th century home with a cistern and cellar, remains of a log house, and iron prospecting and mining pits. Cisterns don’t usually sound very exciting, but on the Shawnee National Forest, they are a thing of beauty. Each cistern was hand dug in the shape of a bee hive or straight sided, using only a shovel. All are lined with hand-cut sandstone blocks that were quarried nearby. House foundations and cellar walls are also lined with sandstone. There is never a problem finding sandstone in the Shawnee Hills. You will find it scattered along the ridge tops and along the many picturesque creeks and streams in this area.
The team also discovered a cemetery thought to be associated with the 175-year-old Iron Furnace village. Several rough sandstone grave markers were present in the cemetery, but no formal store-bought tombstones. Most of the people living in the hills could not afford fancy carved markers, but had to settle instead for plain or hand-carved markers. They may have remembered where their loved ones were buried, but as people left the hills, this information was lost forever.
“When you walk in the woods and discover a site, you begin to wonder: ‘Who did this? Why did they pick this place to build a house or bury their family? Where did they come from? Why did they leave? ”said McCorvie. “It is so intriguing learning about people who have passed this way before, learning how wealthy they were based on items they discarded or left behind or by finding fragments of plates and serving dishes which brings images of what their kitchen table looked like at dinnertime,” she said.
Here are a few outdoor ethics for heritage sites:
- Respect the past, as heritage sites hold clues to what life was like long ago.
- Educate others never to dig at sites or collect artifacts.
- Graffiti is vandalism and it damages rock art, ruins, cliff walls, trees and historic structures; while attempting to remove graffiti can cause further damage.
- Respect that many Native Americans consider their ancestral lands sacred