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MC receives Native American artifacts

Barry McNamara
01/29/2010
Monmouth College’s new Midwest Studies initiative has received a substantial boost with the gift from an anonymous donor of an important collection of Native American artifacts.

Most of the artifacts were found in western Illinois, particularly in Henderson, McDonough and Warren counties. Valued at approximately $50,000, the collection includes arrowheads, ax heads, scrapers and broken pieces of pottery, some of which are as old as 13,000 years.

Larry Conrad, a retired Western Illinois University professor who specializes in local and Native American archaeology, called it “the largest collection from this area that scholars have had access to. We’re very excited.”

Conrad said the collection has numerous “Dalton points,” which date back 10,000 years, as well as a few “Clovis points,” which are more than 3,000 years older. The characteristically-fluted projectile points date to what is called the Paleoindian period and are named after Clovis, N.M., where examples were first found in 1929. Conrad said Clovis points differ from other points, in that they were made for a spear used in thrusting into big game, such as mastodons.

Most of the artifacts range in age from several hundred to several thousand years. Clovis points are on one end of the spectrum, said Conrad, while musket balls and ornamental tinkling cones from the 1800s are on the other.

He also said the collection presents a “rare opportunity” to develop an overview of the prehistory of the region.

“The hundreds of culturally diagnostic artifacts that the collector can place precisely on the landscape and the thousands which can be placed more generally within the region will allow for the first time an understanding of the region. Our understanding will now begin to approach that which has been developed for the west central Illinois counties from Peoria to East St. Louis.”

“This collection will be an invaluable learning resource for Monmouth College students,” said Tom Sienkewicz, the Minnie Billings Capron Professor of Classics and coordinator of the Western Illinois Society of the Archaeological Institute of America. “They will be able to learn about the life and culture of early inhabitants of western Illinois by viewing material culture from that period, but even more valuable will be the opportunities students will have for hands-on work with these artifacts. Students interested in archaeology, history and museum studies will have ample opportunity to catalogue artifacts, put them in cultural context and prepare public displays.”

It is also planned that students will do GPS mapping of the collection sites, which will be further examined to attempt to discover more artifacts.

Assistant professor of history Fred Witzig said he is looking forward to using the collection in his “History of Illinois and the Midwest” course.

“This will be a good link to things I’m doing,” he said. “We’ll be able to bring the artifacts in close and have the students see them, touch them. This gift also enables the Midwest initiative to expand its focus with emphasis on the study of the archaeology of western Illinois.”

Witzig is leading a team of students who are boxing the collection for transport to the college, one of several opportunities that Monmouth students will have to use the collection for educational purposes. Nichole Brants, a senior from Hooppole who is president of the History Club, was instrumental in assembling the student team.

“The donor is a very interesting person, and he’s led a very interesting life,” said Witzig. “The stories he has about how he found the items and where he found them are fascinating – he has such a remarkable memory.”

Both Witzig and Conrad commented that although there is nothing in the collection that scholars haven’t seen before, it provides “nice examples of things that exist in other places.” An example, Witzig said, is a nutting stone that Conrad has only seen two other times in his half-century of western Illinois archaeology.

Witzig expects that the collection will be completely transported to campus by March. It will eventually be housed in Hewes Library, where a permanent display area and archaeological research lab are being planned.

“This is a wonderful addition to our college,” said Mary Phillips, curator of college art collections. “I am very happy that this collection will find its home at Monmouth College.”

“Collections such as this one are widely recognized in the archaeological community as treasure troves of data,” Conrad said. “Unfortunately, it is rare that one is preserved intact or even minimally documented. This gift to Monmouth College is a gift that will keep on giving to everyone who is interested in west central Illinois archaeology for the foreseeable future.”