The grass was still wet from dew when a dozen anthropology students trooped out early Monday morning to a farm field where they had been toiling for weeks.
What they found shocked them, said Gregory Vogel, who directs the Archaeology Field School at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. A series of precisely excavated squares, each protected by a plastic awning from the weather, were caved in, apparently by would-be looters.
“They were very disheartened. They put in so much work, and it was gone,” Vogel said of the vandalism and theft thought to have occurred Friday evening after the students finished yet another day excavating a site once inhabited by people of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures.
The site is near the southern end of the campus.
The carefully dug “squares,” or excavations, where soil is removed by scraping literally one layer at a time, were caved in or marred by large holes where vandals hastily tried to dig for artifacts with shovels stolen from the site.
Vogel, an assistant professor, said the students will have to clear away the caved-in walls, level the holes and start again. All dirt at the site is sifted through screens, many of which were stolen Friday night.
A large, locked equipment storage box, too heavy to carry off, had been pried open just enough for a thief to reach in and pull out a $200 Brunton Pocket Transit, a piece of surveying equipment.
Three large “blocks” or excavation areas were affected. A fourth, which was nearer a street, was left untouched, said Lt. Kevin Schmoll of the SIUE Police Department. Heavy rain on Friday night erased tracks left by the vandals.
The department stepped up patrols in the area, Schmoll said, but could not guarantee that this would prevent more damage or theft.
Most people do not understand that few Illinois archaeological sites contain artifacts that have any commercial value, Vogel said.
He said that tiny pieces of pottery and bits of food items such as burned hickory shells and animal bones could greatly add to the story of people who lived nearly a thousand years ago, if the excavation is done in a precise manner.
“But there is nothing of commercial value here. You couldn’t sell it,” he said.
In one square, students reached a stage in the excavation, after spending numerous days digging in the hot sun, where they could “sample” a portion of the site. This is a way of helping to date and identify a site’s inhabitants.
The Mississippians lived in the area from about 850 A.D. to around 1250 A.D. The Woodland people were much earlier, having appeared around 3,000 years ago.
The site is important, Vogel said, because all of its inhabitants appear to have farmed the area including an early 19th-century farm that once stood in the field.