Buried Beneath a Farmstead
In the state of Illinois, in the middle of the continental United States, in the river valley named for the Native American group and from which the state takes its name, near where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi, lies the archaeological site known as Koster. Koster's importance to the recognition of the existence of deeply buried sites is not often articulated, but it should be.
In 1968, Stuart Struever was a faculty member in the anthropology department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was a "down-stater," however, having grown up far from Chicago in the small town of Peru, Illinois, and he never lost the ability to speak the language of the down-stater. And so it was that he made true friendships among the landowners of the Lowilva, the local name for the Lower Illinois Valley, where the Mississippi River meets the Illinois. Among the life-long friends he made were Theodore "Teed" Koster and his wife Mary, retired farmers who just happened to have an archaeological site on their property, who just happened to be interested in the past.
It's really not coincidence, you know.
Koster: 26 Human Occupations
It's what happens, sometimes, when landowner and archaeologist meet on a plane that has more to do with an intense curiosity than anything else. For, beneath the Koster farm lies evidence of 26 different human occupations, beginning with the early Archaic period, around 7500 BC, and ending with the Koster farm. Village after village, some with cemeteries, some with houses, beginning some 34 feet below the modern Koster farmstead. Each occupation was buried by the flood deposits of the river, each occupation leaving its mark on the landscape nonetheless.
The year 2001 marks the twenty-second year since the original publication of the report of the Koster site written for the general public, surely one of the first and most successful of general public archaeological texts. And, to celebrate, the Waveland Press has produced a third edition of the book entitled Koster: Americans in Search of their Prehistoric Past. I first read Koster as a graduate student, and until I read it again, was unaware of its impact on me as a public archaeologist. Koster provides an intimate glimpse into how archaeology works, into its human aspects, into the importance of identifying our collective past.
Reading the Koster site book will remind the working archaeologist of how much has changed since 1968; how safety issues have changed, and how interaction with Native American communities has changed, both for the better. But the essence of the book and the importance of the site hasn't changed: because of the Koster site, we are aware that an immense prehistory lies beneath us.
This article is a part of the About.com Guide to Archaic Period.