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'Archaeological Heritage of Illinois' showcases 10,000 years of native life

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

clay figurine of human head
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy ITARP
Clay figurine, human head

Released 8/29/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Spectacular items of material culture – some going back more than 10,000 years and all of them made by the Native Peoples who lived on the land that became Illinois – will be on display in an exhibition at the University of Illinois.

“The Archaeological Heritage of Illinois” opens with a 5 p.m. reception on Aug. 30 and runs through June 1, 2008, in the Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign. The reception and exhibition are free and open to the public.

The exhibition consists of “spectacular objects that represent the richness and diversity of more than 10,000 years of native life in Illinois,” said exhibition co-curator Thomas Emerson. “There has never been an exhibition like this on our campus.”

According to Emerson, a senior cultural research archaeologist in Illinois’ department of anthropology and the director of ITARP, the campus-based Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, more than 100 items will be on display, including clay figurines, bracelets and other ornaments, spear points and fish hooks, pipes, cooking jars, digging and weaving tools and ceremonial objects of exquisite quality and variety.

Most of the items were drawn from ITARP’s collections, but a few items were loaned from the Illinois State Museum and Western Illinois University.

The items represent seven major archaeological time periods in the history of Native Peoples, as many American Indians increasingly choose to be called: the Archaic Period, circa 9500 to 900 B.C.E. (Before Common Era); the Early Woodland Period, circa 900 to 150 B.C.E.; the Early Middle Woodland Period, circa 150 B.C.E. to C.E. 50; the Middle Woodland Period, circa C.E. 50 to 200; the Late Woodland Period, circa C.E. 300 to 1000; the Mississippian Period, circa C.E. 1000 to 1400; and the Historic Period, circa C.E. 1500 to 1800.

Sponemann figurine
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy ITARP
Sponemann figurine

Sarah Wisseman, an archaeologist and the director of Illinois’ Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials, a division of ITARP, is exhibition co-curator.

Sponsors of the exhibition are ITARP and the Program on Ancient Technologies. ITARP, a joint program of the U. of I. and the Illinois Department of Transportation, is dedicated to the preservation and protection of Illinois’ historic and archaeological resources.

Some of the items in the exhibition previously traveled nationally as part of an Art Institute of Chicago show, “Hero, Hawk and Open Hand,” but they have never been exhibited before in Central Illinois or on the U. of I. campus, Emerson said.

“We especially welcome area schoolchildren and the public in general,” Emerson said, noting that the aim of the exhibition is to educate Illinois citizens about their state’s deep past and heritage. 

“Too few people realize that for about four centuries from around the time of Christ, the Illinois River Valley was the center of a florescence of art, monumental architecture and religion that influenced people across the eastern United States; that in the 11th century C.E. the Mississippi River floodplain to the east of St. Louis was the location of North America’s first city, Cahokia – a vital center of 20,000 inhabitants; or that, interestingly, the Illinois people for whom the state is named, were, like the French who followed them a century and a half later, actually newcomers who migrated to Illinois from Ohio in the early 1500s.”

colorful carved stone arrowhead
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy ITARP
Cahokia tri-notched point of red chert

The introduction to the exhibition states that the new exhibition “presents objects of material culture related to Native Peoples who lived in Illinois from approximately 9500 B.C.E. to C.E. 1800. While these objects display a richness and diversity of form and decoration, they cannot, on their own or with the limited text provided, speak for the people who created and used them.”

For that reason, organizers of the exhibition say that in the months ahead, the Krannert Art Museum will work with faculty and students in American Indian Studies, with the campus’s Native American House and with other collaborators, including those whose ancestors are represented by these objects.

The goals of the collaborations are to “extend interpretations of Native Peoples’ histories beyond archaeological methodologies and concerns to include transnational, transcultural and transdisciplinary contexts and scholarship; to connect these histories to contemporary life and issues; and to explore issues of appropriation, intellectual property rights and the representation of indigenous peoples.”

Beaver effigy bowl
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy ITARP
Beaver effigy vessel

The exhibition opens with a statement about the archaeological heritage of Illinois, saying that the first inhabitants appeared in the recently glacier-free valleys and uplands of what is now the state of Illinois approximately 12,000 years ago.

“From the onset, the region was a meeting ground for people with differing lifestyles and beliefs whose presence we can trace through the objects that archaeologists recover. The first inhabitants brought a varied material tradition of weaving, carving and stone working skills and a wide array of social and spiritual beliefs. Their economic base involved a rich blend of fishing, hunting and plant collecting that continued until the first millennium C.E., when the large-scale adoption of maize agriculture changed the native world.

“Agriculture provided the stable resources to support population  increases, the establishment of large sedentary villages and increasingly complex social and political systems with a flowering of architecture and art forms.”