Students prepare for summer dig

While many SIU students go home for summer, a group of anthropology students prepare for a hands-on class that features the digging of land where a large group of Native Americans once lived.

The class, titled “Field Methods in Archaeology,” will teach students the ins and outs of excavation, a process of carefully digging up artifacts in the ground and determining their relevance in accordance to the Native Americans that once lived there. The class, which starts Monday, will station students at the Kincaid Mounds in Brookport, a location owned by the Illinois Preservation Society.

This stretch of land was once home to a large group of Native Americans and many homes and other objects have been discovered in past field schools. The site has been researched by SIUC students since 2005 and was also excavated by the University of Chicago in the 1930’s.

The goal is also to prepare students for life as an archaeologist and give them the skills and field experience needed to land a job in archaeology. Both sessions consist of a four week time period where the students live near the site and dig everyday.

Paul Welch, field school director and associate professor of anthropology, said the course is designed to train future archaeologists on how to properly dig and recognize characteristics in the ground that would determine if and how a spot should be excavated.

“A lot of people as a result of looking at Hollywood movies or TV shows think ‘Oh, I can be an archaeologist, all I need is a shovel and I’ll go out and dig something up’, but it turns out that in order to do excavation well, you have to be able to recognize things in the ground that ordinarily people wouldn’t even notice,” Welch said.

Maddie Hall, a senior from Champaign studying anthropology, said when she went to field school last summer she left with more knowledge of archaeology and the kind of work goes into excavation.

“It was the excitement, the connection that we were making towards the first inhabitants, the people that were here so long ago,” Hall said.

Hall said while she does have her reservations about her major, field school put everything into perspective for her and made her hopeful for the future.

“After going out of field school I was like ‘yes, I want to be an archaeologist, this is what I want to do, I’m going to buy a whip and a hat just like Indiana Jones,’” Hall said.

Welch, whose first excavation was in 1972 when he was a high school student, said the  course has trained aspiring
archaeologists on the specifics of modern field work for more than 30 years.

At the site, there will be a graduate student and two teaching assistants to aid Welch in retaining a higher level of work from the 16 students that may never have taken part in an excavation before.

Welch said most of his students leave the class with a broader understanding of how excavation works and gain some modern methods of excavating that are less destructive to the ground.

He said using less destructive methods of excavation is important because it aids in preservation of the land, as well as items that may be buried in it.

Geophysical survey is one of the newer, safer techniques the class will use. This method of excavating employs the use of remote machines that survey the land from the surface and display readings of what’s below the ground.

“These instruments record physical characteristics of the near surface deposits. What these instruments can tell you is that something in the ground here is different from what’s in the ground around it without actually disturbing the ground surface, so it’s non-destructive,” Welch said.

While the field school is optional, the sessions go towards a total of four excavations that are required of archaeology students before they enter a professional career after graduation.

There are eight archaeology courses offered as a part of the Anthropology major, only two of which are below 400 level classes.

Both four week sessions offer two separate classes within them, the first being a 400 level course that teaches students how to excavate, and the second is offered to only graduate students and  teaches students how to manage and be in
administrative roles on an excavation site.

However, as popularity for these courses have grown, the classes have filled up quicker during the last four years.

Welch said the course has gained popularity among students and enrollment is the highest it’s been in the past 10 years.

Andrew Lambert, a senior from St. Louis studying anthropology, said he is excited to get out onto the field and start excavating this summer because he’s never had the chance to before.

“Field work is basically a lot different from anything in the classroom,” Lambert said.

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About Austin Flynn

Austin Flynn can be reached at or 536-3311 ext.252.

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