Sophisticated culture: Ancient village in Tazewell County could shed light on life in the 1400s

Though it’s widely known that the Peoria area was well-populated by Native Americans for hundreds of years before European settlers showed up, details about the people who lived here are scant.

That’s about to change. Archaeologists have mapped a large settlement which, around 1400, was located in what is now Tazewell County, not far from the McClugage Bridge. They scanned a 40-acre field with a new type of technology capable of revealing a lot before a single shovel is put into the ground.

“They’re called gradiometers, and they’re essentially really sensitive metal detectors,” said Greg Wilson, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Any time somebody digs a hole in the ground or builds a stone wall or lights a fire, that’s going to have a different magnetic signature than an area that hasn’t been disturbed in any way. This instrument can detect really subtle differences in magnetic properties.”

Magnetic gradiometers work best on old sites, settled before metal implements and architecture became widely used, said Wilson.

“Up and down the valley we have done this with great results," he said. “We have been able to see the foundations of mounds and houses, we can see the rectangular outlines of storage pits and plazas, we can really see everything without digging.”

KDB Group helps expand the project

A scan of a 40-acre field in Tazewell County revealed details of a large Native American village inhabited around 1400.
A scan of a 40-acre field in Tazewell County revealed details of a large Native American village inhabited around 1400.

Wilson’s childhood in southern Illinois led him to a lifelong interest in the Native American culture in the Mississippi River valley. He and Dana Bardolph, an archaeologist based at Northern Illinois University, have been working in central Illinois for several years, but their efforts became more ambitious with help from KDB Group CEO and President Greg Birkland, who introduced himself to the pair last summer when they were working in Woodford County.

“I was going out to our 1840 Ranch, which is north of Spring Bay, and I kept seeing this white tent in a cornfield next to a cemetery. ... I had seen them before COVID hit, and then I didn’t see it again for about a year and a half. When I saw them last summer I thought, I need to find out what’s going on, so I just walked on the site and said, ‘Hey, who are you?’” said Birkland.

Because it’s not unusual for archaeologists to be accosted by people angry about strangers disrupting the land, Wilson was apprehensive at first, but it didn’t last long.

“He was really nice, and within about five minutes he was offering to help us,” said Wilson.

Birkland, who found many Native American artifacts as a kid growing up in Spring Bay, is delighted to foster Wilson and Bardolph’s work. Gaining a better understanding of the native people who inhabited the area dovetails with the conservation efforts at KDB Group’s properties on Spring Bay Road — Sankoty Lakes and The 1840 Ranch.

Birkland has been able to clear the way for the archaeological investigation to expand by connecting with the owners of various properties to explain the project and get permission for the archaeologists to explore what's hidden beneath the topsoil.

What was life like in 1400?

Archaeologist Maria Meizis of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey uses a magnetic gradiometer to map a grid on a cornfield Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 near Spring Bay. A group of archaeologists and volunteers are mapping and doing preliminary work on the future excavation of a large Native American village they believe existed there in the 1400s.
Archaeologist Maria Meizis of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey uses a magnetic gradiometer to map a grid on a cornfield Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 near Spring Bay. A group of archaeologists and volunteers are mapping and doing preliminary work on the future excavation of a large Native American village they believe existed there in the 1400s.

With the help of a few local folks and volunteers from the Illinois Archaeological Survey, Wilson and Bardolph have already learned a lot about the settlement. The gradiometer revealed a dense community with many homes, utility buildings, and a community plaza. The style of the village revealed that it was indeed inhabited by members of the Mississippian culture – there were other ethnic groups in the region at that time.

The inhabitants were likely farmers who lived there year-round and grew a variety of crops, said Bardolph, who specializes in paleoethnobotany, the analysis and interpretation of plant remains

“Primarily they were growing maize, or corn, but they were also growing what we call lost crops – they had some native starchy and oily seeds that were domesticated and grown, things like little barley, May grass, and goosefoot, which is similar to quinoa, sunflower and another plant called sump weed,” said Bardolph. “They are also gathering a tremendous number of wild resources, not only to eat, but also as medicines, dyes, textiles, matting, and thatching.”

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The settlement is fortified by a wall, evidence that the community needed protection. Mississippian people of that time period dealt with widespread violence – perhaps war - and as a result, they lived more closely than people in earlier time periods, said Wilson.

“We can see the process of when people began to nucleate and build walls to make compact settlements. Archaeologists have studied cemeteries and found mass graves, people who died from violence in high numbers. In fact, one site that dates to around 1200 AD in Fulton County has the highest rate of violence-related deaths of anywhere in eastern North America,” said Wilson.

It’s believed that the widespread violence is somehow related to the downfall of Cahokia, which, until about 1350, was one of the continent's largest population centers. By 1400, the approximate age of the Tazewell County settlement, Cahokia was abandoned.

A complex, sophisticated society

Volunteer Maggie Born, a Metamora Township High School senior, middle, writes down information from archaeologist Maria Meizis, left, about a grid in a cornfield being mapped for future excavation Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 near Spring Bay. At far right is one of the directors of the project Dana Bardolph, an archaeologist from Northern Illinois University.
Volunteer Maggie Born, a Metamora Township High School senior, middle, writes down information from archaeologist Maria Meizis, left, about a grid in a cornfield being mapped for future excavation Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 near Spring Bay. At far right is one of the directors of the project Dana Bardolph, an archaeologist from Northern Illinois University.

In spite of evidence of strife, it's expected that excavations of the Tazewell County site will reveal a rich culture.

“They had a thriving culture here in the face of a lot of challenges,” said Wilson.

Similar settlements in the Mississippi River valley have revealed evidence of beautiful artistic accomplishments – pottery and copper repoussé work. The Mississippian people also had a complex religion and trade networks that spanned multiple states.

“These were really complex, sophisticated societies with beautiful artistic and religious expression,” said Bardolph.

Mapping the village is the first step in studying the site. Wilson has already found areas of particular interest, but it's going to be a while before the team decides where to sink the first shovel, he said.

“A lot of obsessing over the map needs to occur first.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at (309) 370-5087 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.

This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Archaeologists study a Native American village in Tazewell County