Southeast Students Dig into Past at Archaeological Field School

Photo of students digging at the Summer Archaeology Field School

Students unearthed and recorded the remnants of cultures that once inhabited the area at the Summer Archaeology Field School.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,

Sept. 1, 2010 – Five Southeast Missouri State University students participated in the University’s Archaeology Field School for five weeks this summer braving the sun and heat to uncover clues about life in Mississippian period villages. 

The field school, offered annually by the Department of Foreign Languages and Anthropology as a credited class, teaches archaeology students the methods and techniques needed to carefully unearth and record the remnants of cultures that once inhabited the area. Eleven students were enrolled in the Field School this summer that also attracts students from other colleges and universities.

This summer, participants had the opportunity to excavate at two different sites – Kincaid Mounds of southern Illinois, and South Cape of southeast Missouri.

The South Cape site occupies about 2.6 hectares of land approximately one half mile west of the Mississippi River. This site is best known in Cape Girardeau as the Hunze-Evans site and is often referred to as the “Hunze Mound” which is located on the property owned by Cape Girardeau businessman and Southeast supporter Charles Hunze Jr. and family. 

Both sites, Kincaid and South Cape, are Native American villages dating to the era immediately prior to European contact, a time-period spanning up to 1,000 years ago and referred to by archaeologists as “Mississippian.”

Mississippian peoples subsisted on the foods that they hunted and gathered most notably white tailed deer, waterfowl, and local nuts, seeds and fruits, and on the crops that they grew, including corn, squash and sunflower. 

The surplus that these people created through farming allowed for a more sedentary lifestyle than had previously been possible. As a result, many densely occupied Mississippian villages span the southeastern portion of the continent. These sites range from small and relatively isolated villages, such as South Cape, to enormous towns replete with large earthen mounds, surrounded by a protective fortification wall, such as the Kincaid site.

Students at Southeast had the opportunity to work at both types of sites and with a variety of soil conditions as part of their field school experience.  Participants in this year’s class represented six different institutions from across the country, all brought together with one common goal – to learn about the past. 

They did just that by uncovering the remains of ancient houses and garbage pits at both sites, now only visible as stains in the soil littered with broken pottery, chipped stone and other day-to-day refuse.  Amongst the mundane artifacts were a few more remarkable finds, including several nearly complete pots, many small triangular arrowheads and a very large knife crafted out of a type of stone native to southern Illinois. 

Dr. Dieter Jedan, chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Anthropology, said “The Hunze-Evans site has an important story to tell. … Southeast’s field school is a unique tool for understanding how the earlier inhabitants of the ‘Hunze Mound’ lived, traded and emulated, providing the 11 field school participants with professional experience and a window into the 14th century Mississippian landscape.” 

For some students, field school represents a foot in the door towards their chosen career path.  For others, such as Southeast alumna Sarah Stephens, this hands-on class is a way to “try on” archaeology, which is just one of the four subfields within the anthropology major. Stephens chose to pursue archaeology seriously after completing a field school at the South Cape site in 2008, and earned a master’s degree in anthropology from Mississippi State last spring. 

For everyone involved, the opportunity to be the first person to see or handle an artifact that another person crafted by hand more than 700 years ago was a definite highlight to a memorable season.