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Finding the Prairie’s 17th century Native American past at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Piece of pottery found in Midewin
A remnant of a clay jar that was likely made by Huber women around 1600 was found last week at the Middle Grant Creek archaeology site on the USDA Forest Service Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Professor Schurr and Dr. McLeester with the University of Notre Dame are leading volunteers in looking for clues about what life might have been like around 1600. USDA Forest Service photo by Veronica Hinke.

ILLINOIS – Since 2016, University of Notre Dame Professor Mark Schurr and Dr. Madeleine McLeester have been leading a group of summer volunteers with the Passport in Time program in archaeological explorations on the USDA Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Schurr and McLeester have been exploring the Middle Grant Creek Site under an Archaeological Resources Protection Act permit. Recent findings are telling how people of the Oneota Culture (1150-1700) lived here during the Huber phase (1600) and they are gathering evidence to reconstruct their environment and ecology.

Many pieces of Huber pottery and other artifacts have been found in a six-foot-deep pit. The pit is one of several pits believed to be on the site. The pits were likely first dug by two or three 17th century Huber women using antler picks. The pits were utilized around 1600 for storing agricultural products and later for discarding things – including broken pottery, projectile points, shells, and other artifacts. 

Last week, volunteers found artifacts like projectile points made of locally available chert. These points would have been used for hunting. Needles made from bones have also been found. The needles were likely used to weave mats, roof coverings and other items that were likely made from tallgrass.
What’s more, archaeologists are discovering painted pottery. “Archaeology is colorful,” Dr. McLeester said. She said that the closest location to the Midewin where painted pottery, created by using plant pigmentation, has been found is near Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

McLeester also said that bones of lake sturgeon has been identified by Dr. Terrance Martin at the Illinois State Museum, which is surprising since lake sturgeon, as we know them today, typically inhabit lakes, and lakes are a great distance from the site. 

Findings from explorations in previous years are the subject of a newly published American Antiquity scholarly article: “Protohistoric Marine Shell Working: New evidence from Northern Illinois” that details how marine shell from Florida was procured and worked at Middle Grant Creek.

Professor Schurr and Dr. McLeester will be working with Passport in Time volunteers at Middle Grant Creek through August 9.

Archeological excavation in Midewi NF
Volunteers with the USDA Forest Service – Passport in Time program explore in a six-foot-deep storage pit that was likely used by Huber people in the Middle Grant Creek area around 1600. Professor Schurr and Dr. McLeester with the University of Notre Dame are leading volunteers in looking for clues about what life might have been like around 1600. USDA Forest Service photo by Veronica Hinke.