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Ancient Treasures Discovered on National Forest in Southern Illinois

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. .

 A Illinois Iron Furnace taken by Forest Service photographers in 1936.  Land was acquired by the Forest Service in 1950 and the furnace was completely rebuilt by young men from the  Golconda Job Corps in 1965. US Forest Service photo

A Illinois Iron Furnace taken by Forest Service photographers in 1936. Land was acquired by the Forest Service in 1950 and the furnace was completely rebuilt by young men from the Golconda Job Corps in 1965. US Forest Service photo

The remains of a half-dovetail log cabin found by Passport-in-Time volunteers and Forest Service archaeologists during a survey project appearing to have been constructed during the mid-nineteenth century.  Possibly the home of a worker at the nearby Illinois Iron Furnace and the land is now included in the Kaskaskia Experimental Forest. US Forest Service photo

The remains of a half-dovetail log cabin found by Passport-in-Time volunteers and Forest Service archaeologists during a survey project appearing to have been constructed during the mid-nineteenth century. Possibly the home of a worker at the nearby Illinois Iron Furnace and the land is now included in the Kaskaskia Experimental Forest. US Forest Service photo

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

5 Responses to “Ancient Treasures Discovered on National Forest in Southern Illinois”

  1. Bea Schnake says:

    I was born and raised not far from Iron Furnace. Herod, Illinois has a lot of small grave sites. You run upon them 4-wheeling in the hills of Pope and Hardin Co. Spar was the main employment in these co. esp. Hardin.

  2. Al says:

    I think this is an awesome find and I really dig this type of thing so please don’t take this the wrong way but is 1837 really ancient?

    I was expecting to read about a really old Native American site and feel a little mislead by the headline.

  3. Mary McCorvie says:

    To Bea Schnake:

    Bea, when did you live in Hardin County? Do you get back much? It is such a pretty area, especially Tower Rock and Garden of the Gods! Hardin County, like most of southern Illinois was populated by farm families, and each little family had its own family cemetery. Although not everyone could afford a store-bought tombstone, everyone that was buried in these cemeteries was remembered, with a rough sandstone grave marker, or a carved wooden cross, or other marker. Yes, there are lots of them scattered around the Shawnee Hills!

  4. Mary McCorvie says:

    To Al:

    I am glad you enjoyed the article, and you are right, this site is not really ancient, in the strictest sense of the word. However, “ancient” is a relative term, and the 1830s, being only a generation away from the American Revolution, was a period in our nation’s history when Illinois was still considered to be the frontier. I am sorry you felt cheated, but we really wanted to grab attention, and I think we got yours! Thanks for your comment….mmc

  5. Kay Patterson says:

    My friends and I came across a very old cemetery while riding horses between the Promised Land and One Horse Gap just yesterday in Shawnee National Forest. The forest service has marked it with a cross and the name of the cemetery. There were a few hand made stones but I couldn’t read anything on the stones – if anything had ever been there. I’m so glad the forest service is making sure these kind of sites are preserved. It’s a beautiful place and I cherish the time I get to ride there.

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