Southeast Students Use Geophysics to Map Local Archaeology Site


Thirteen Southeast Missouri State University students recently participated in a Geophysics in Archaeology Workshop to uncover clues about life in pre-Columbia Mississippian culture in southeast Missouri.

The three-day workshop March 21-23 was a collaboration between Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, associate professor of anthropology at Southeast; Dr. Tamira Brennan, curator of Southern Illinois University’s (SIU) Center for Archaeological Investigations; and Dr. Bob McCullough of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, to introduce Southeast to using geophysics techniques on a real historical site.

The students learned how to operate geophysical equipment including magnetometers, resistivity meters and ground penetrating radar to map a local archaeological Native American site near Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

“These instruments help us determine what is underground without actually digging, and hopefully will allow us to develop a ‘map’ of the layout of this pre-Columbian village,” said Bengtson.

Southeast student Matt McCauley uses a high precision GPS device during a Geophysics in Archaeology Workshop.

“It’s really a large site and to try to excavate the whole site would be a huge and expensive undertaking,” said Matt McCauley, a Southeast junior anthropology and history double major from Decatur, Illinois. “Using geophysics methods can guide us to see the whole site and what’s hidden under the surface – what structures and artifacts there are and where they’re located so we can make decisions about how we should focus our efforts.”

When complete, the images and data they collected look similar to a bird’s eye view looking down from above the site, said Adam Nelson, a Southeast junior anthropology major from Sikeston, Missouri.

“You can see the history of the site and gain an understanding of what’s underneath the ground,” he said. “With this knowledge, we can know what to look for and where to start excavating if we wanted.”

In addition to learning how to care for and operate the specialized technology, the students also focused on how take their data and use it as  a resource and aid in future interpretations of the site.

Their work will help contribute to the knowledge of the culture and people of this site, Bengtson said.

Southeast students Leticia Tate, left, and Sarah Portell program information into ground penetrating radar equipment during a Geophysics in Archaeology Workshop.

“The Mississippian tradition started near what is now St. Louis almost 1,000 years ago, and spread from there. We want to know how that cultural tradition was expressed in our region,” she said. “The students learned about project planning and research design.”

Southeast and SIU hope to use this data as a baseline for future excavations, which provide further information about the Mississippian culture and give more opportunities for experiential learning for students, Bengtson added.

For Meghan Cook, a Southeast senior anthropology major from Marble Hill, Missouri, the workshop provided an opportunity to get hands-on experiences with technology that is becoming more readily used and important in her career field.

“This is really great to learn and operate the equipment on a real site,” Cook said. “It’s like being a part of something you’d see on National Geographic. We’re doing that right here in Missouri. We can see the site, we can identify what’s underneath this field while conserving the area, and that’s so cool to be a part of.”

The students hope to apply the skills and knowledge they gain from the workshop towards jobs and graduate programs.

These techniques can be applied in multiple anthropology and archeology sub fields,” McCauley said. “There are so many application opportunities, and using this knowledge and equipment can help us understand so much more about our world and history.”