ISU Professor Digs Into A McLean County Anomaly | WGLT

ISU Professor Digs Into A McLean County Anomaly

Feb 23, 2018

In the middle of a field just north of Heyworth, Illinois State University professor Logan Miller and his students this summer will continue unearthing ancient tools, ceramic bowls and even elk bones.

The Noble-Wieting archeological site is a one-time American Indian village dating to around 1200 A.D. It was originally discovered in the early 20th century.

Logan Miller at the Noble-Wieting site, in the middle of a field just north of Heyworth.

Miller says the site is an anomaly of sorts, in that it is a relatively large village, and appears to combine aspects of both the Langford tradition of northern Illinois with the Mississippian culture that centered around the Cahokia area of southern Illinois.

Because corn is omnipresent in central Illinois  and known to be grown by Native Americans, you'd think finding it in an archeological site wouldn't be a big deal. Not so, says Miller.

“We don’t really see big villages like this before people start growing corn,” said Miller. “And we don’t see a lot of these big social differences until corn begins to be grown, and we have this domino effect after that.”

The Noble-Wieting site barely 10 miles down U.S. 51 is a gift Miller inherited when he landed at ISU three years ago with no knowledge of its existence. The site serves as a field classroom that allows him to teach proper mechanics of scientific archeology. It's also a goldmine for learning how diverse peoples make a metropolitan setting work.

Last summer’s excavation also allowed partner Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois to develop an underground map of the site, allowing Miller and his team a peak into the breadth of the village.

Aerial imaging map of the Noble-Wieting archeological site.
Credit Robert McCullough

“The gray is just the average, natural read, that’s just undisturbed soil. Anything darker or lighter than that is something of archeological interest,” Miller said while pointing to the survey map.

Miller said the parallel lines at the top (north) indicate a modern field road, while squares and rectangles within and around the circle are house or structure foundations. 

“The little tiny black dots are probably pits initially used to store corn, kind of like an underground silo,” said Miller. “And once the corn is used or soured, they filled the pits back up with trash.”

This is gold to an archeologist, as they can infer much about the way people lived centuries ago by scouring old garbage dumps.

“The big differences between the Langford and Mississippian traditions were how they made their pottery, bowls and cooking utensils,” said Miller. “They’re all made of clay, but Mississippians mixed in crushed up shell from the rivers, where Langford mixed in crushed up rocks into their pottery, and they decorated with different designs.”

He added there’s an old saying in archeology that “pots are not people” in that it’s difficult to discern different divisions on how people made their pottery.

“But they do reflect these broader traditions and trends that are out there in Northern and Southern Illinois,” said Miller.

Another exciting find was elk bones, as known protein sources from people of this period came from hunting. That usually meant deer.

“At Noble-Wieting, the people there seemed to have a big taste for elk,” said Miller. “You find elk mixed in here and there with some of the people in this time period, but at Noble-Wieting, this seems to be their major food source.”

Based on the imaging map from the University of Illinois, Miller said roughly three dozen structures lay underneath the soil, most of which he’s guesses were houses. Larger ones were probably used for religious purposes or communal gatherings.

“The other big trick is to figure out how many of these were operated at the same time,” said Miller. “Because these are made from wood and set in the ground. Estimates say any house would last from five to 20 years before you’d figure that out.”

Miller also said carbon dating from a few decades ago placed the village at around 1200 A.D. More recent analysis put that guess into the mid-1300's.

“It’s possible both are right,” said Miller. “But certainly if we have this long occupation, you’d expect some of these houses would be early on and some are later, so it’s possible only a dozen houses were there at any one time.”

Logan was fairly low-key and methodical speaking at his office on the ISU campus, but became more animated when asked what excites him about the site. He mentioned the thrill of working with students and discovering items that hadn’t been touched by human hands for over 500 years. It also fills in some puzzle pieces.

“Sometimes as you learn about overall patterns, it really helps to look at the anomaly, the one that doesn’t really fit if you’re trying to understand these broader ideas about Langford or Mississippian, or whatever it may be,” said Miller.

One of his most exciting finds was a few scraps of copper.

“That would have come from the Lake Superior region, and then maybe traded down here and even through Cahokia,” said Miller. “And then maybe it made its way here as part of a necklace or from somebody’s clothing. It’s always kind of cool to find those personal items.”

Miller said the close proximity of the site is a boon not only for him as an anthropologist, but also for his students, who can find the expense of traveling to sites across the country or even in other countries daunting.

“So I think it’s really important to have these local opportunities not only for the students, but also I’m here with the local population in general so we can do things like this and connect with people who are part of the land at this point,” said Miller.

Miller presents a program about the recent archeological findings at the Noble-Wieting site Feb. 24 at 1 p.m. in the Museum’s Governor Fifer Courtroom of the McLean County Museum of History. The program is free and open to the public.

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