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Archaeological Explorations in Lower IL River Valley

In 1970, I acquired a book entitled Early Ar­chaic Projectile Points and Hunting Patterns in the Lower Illinois Valley written by Kubert Lucterhand. This Illinois Archaeological Survey monograph was based on the private collections of individuals who had collected from this logically rich area and who had kept some records and site locations of their finds.

This study is evidence of the value of pri­vate collections when provenance is recorded.  It turned out, this book was also the inspiration problem for 30 years of extended weekend trips to Greene, Calhoun and Pike counties. This area, just north of where the Illinois and Mississippi River come together, was an attraction to most prehistoric groups.

My 29 years of annual trips into this area began in 1971 along with two friends, Ed Butkus ­and Terry Schultz. Our hunting finally came to an end in the year 2000, due largely to the change in farming practices and competition from local over­collectors. Mostly gone was the older practice of mold board plowing, with chisel plow and no-till farming resulting in fewer intact artifacts being brought to the surface.

One of the collections utilized in the hand study was that of Kermit Suhling of Kamps­ville, Illinois. Artifacts from his collection have been featured in this publication.  It was always a highlight to view his large collection displayed in his basement hobby room. He was always eager to see what finds we made, and viewing his frames of classic points gave us inspiration to hit the fields again the next day.

During the first trips we made, many hours were spent exploring the hollows of the Illinois and Mississippi River Valley bluffs in the inner “V” of both rivers. Finding open fields was the biggest problem. Bluff tops and areas overlooking ravines were our main focus, and this is where many classic Archaic and Paleo points were found.

We gradually migrated further north into the Pike County area, mostly around Pittsfield, Illinois. There was more plowing in the area and we received permission from most of the farmers we approached. Most of our hunting was concentrated “back in the hills” as Greg Perino used to say, where hunting camps were located. We looked for the darker, brownish soil on the high areas overlooking the ravines, creeks and river bluffs. The larger villages were located along the river edges.  We hunted these too, particularly Hopewell sites.

In the early 1970’s we hunted the Knight Site. In the first year just after it had been mold board plowed but not washed. We found a few points, which we showed to Kermit the next day. We learned he had found on the edge of a furrow, a nice granite Jersey Bluff style discoidal and flared bit celt side by side the day before we arrived. We were one day too late!

Mostly what we found in “the hills” were the clas­sic Archaic knife forms. We didn’t spend much time on the main river sites, as they were so acces­sible they were hit very hard by the local collec­tors. Eventually, these collectors moved into “the hills” and our finds decreased sharply.

Terry found perhaps the best find of all the trip years, a complete seven inch Sloan Dalton. I’ll never foget Terry calling Ed and I over to see it in the ground before he picked it up. It was complete­ly exposed. This ridge was over a ravine about a mile west of the Illinois River in Pike County. It produced other Archaic and Woodland artifacts, including a Jersey Bluff style discoidal.

Ed’s best find was a large wide Paleo knife near Milton, Illinois. The site was a high area overlooking a low swamp which may have been a lake in prehistoric times.  My favorite finds were a serrated Dalton and a Thebes knife, both found on a ridge overlooking a small creek valley near Detroit, Illinois.  I also count a fine Synder point variant with a concave rather than a convex base as one of my best finds. It was found on a bluff above the Mississippi River at the Synder Site on our first trip in 1971. This turned out to be the last year it was plowed before being acquired by the state.

On the Illinois River we located a Hopewell Site which we later learned was the Ina Knox Site. While communicating with Ken Farnsworth, Se­nior Research Editor for ITARP (Illinois Trans­portation Archaeological Research Program), we learned that this site seems to have been a center for the utilization of obsidian. We found numer­ous obsidian flakes on the site over the years, sug­gesting the manufacture of tools out of this exotic material. Gregory Perino dug here when he was excavating the nearby Bedford Mound Group in 1955-56 and found a couple of obsidian bifaces. He also found obsidian flakes and lamellar blades in the Bedford Mounds. At Ken Farmworth’s re­quest, I plotted the areas where we found obsid­ian, as well as a small copper celt and a Hopewell pottery sherd with an incised duck effigy. These finds were marked on several US Geological Sur­vey aerial photographs of the site. I’m happy these significant finds could be recorded and preserved for the archaeological record.

If all of the broken classic pieces we found over the years had been perfect, they would make an unbelievable grouping of choice points. We saved most of these classic pieces and cataloged the provenance for study purposes. I have two frames of these broken points which I display, and sev­eral boxes of others put away, as do Ed and Terry. Each artifact is marked with my site number and the county or nearest town. I also write the same information on the frames. The knowledge of cor­rect form, materials, workmanship and patination found on these pieces are a valuable source of in­formation for the collector concerned about what authentic pieces should look like.

I feel privileged to have found and curated these prehistoric pieces. Often, when Ed, Terry and I get together, we view our collections. We comment on where and under what conditions certain pieces were found. These fond memories will be with us to the end of our collecting days.