Morton Village Field School Preserves the Human Story for Future Generations
Archeology helps us put together the pieces of what makes us human: what we share, how we got here, how we impact and are impacted by our environment, and what came before us. It's the mission of many cultural institutions to tell the human story, but full-scale archeological digs can be cost prohibitive.
Dr. Jodie O'Gorman, associate professor and chair in the Department of Anthropology, has been collaborating since 2007 with the Dickson Mounds Museum, a branch of the Illinois State Museum System, on the Morton Village archaeological field school, in the Illinois Valley.
O'Gorman's interest in archeology began as an undergraduate student, when she "happened upon" an archeology course that entailed many road trips to various archeology sites. According to O'Gorman, "I was hooked. I began taking classes in anthropology and going to the field with anyone who would take me." Then, as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she began researching the Oneota people, who lived in the Midwest from about AD 1000 to the 1600s.
After graduate school, her research took her to different locations and time periods, before returning to her interest in the Oneota. A new research direction led her to a famous site in the Illinois Valley where the Oneota had violent encounters with the neighboring Mississippian peoples. The village associated with this site is the Morton Village, where O'Gorman, along with her partners at the Dickson Mounds Museum, established the Morton Village field school.
Training for Archeological Discovery
The field school allows students to put into practice the archeological field techniques they learn in the classroom. Student participation is an important part of O'Gorman's research, and they work under close supervision of the field school staff. O'Gorman explains, "Learning to dig in a controlled manner and making the right kind of observations and recording information correctly is key to being able to make meaningful and accurate statements about the past."
She loves watching the students actively engage in archeology and enjoys their excitement when they find their first artifact. "Sometimes they find they love the hot, sweaty, dirty, and physically challenging job and can't imagine doing anything else," says O'Gorman, "and sometimes they...would perhaps like to volunteer occasionally on an excavation. I believe all would agree that the field school experience is one of the most memorable parts of their education."
The field school also benefits the Dickson Mounds Museum by contributing primary research in their field and by creating opportunities for public engagement. O'Gorman explains that, while the museum has extensive educational programming, the funding required for full-scale excavations is prohibitive. However, "the field school is a very visible and engaging resource for public education," she says. "Many visitors stop by the site, giving students the opportunity to explain what they are doing and to put it within the larger context of research at the site." Dr. O'Gorman enjoys this public engagement aspect of the work and says, "Because of the association with the museum especially, people who visit the site are very interested in what we are doing and very supportive—especially after they learn that the artifacts will ultimately go to the Dickson Mounds Museum as part of their permanent collection for the region."
Reciprocally, the museum is a wonderful resource for the field school. Their exhibits give students an understanding of Oneota and Mississippian life and culture, and at the field lab, located in the museum, students have close interactions with well-known archeologists who visit. They also get hands-on exposure to collections management, seeing how their findings are eventually incorporated into the museum holdings.
Collaborative Planning between MSU and the Dickson Mounds Museum
Dr. Michael Conner, associate curator of anthropology at the Dickson Mounds Museum, is co-investigator on the project and helps set the overall research goals and plans. He is responsible for mapping and maintaining the site's GIS, as well as supervising and teaching the students in the field. He appreciates the importance of a project like this, and says, "Morton Village is an incredible site. It is important to the archaeology of the region and a rare opportunity to examine a migration event in prehistory." And he adds, "It is fun and interesting to dig...I've always liked working with student crews, watching them learn about excavation and becoming responsible members of the crew."
The only drawback of the field school, says O'Gorman, is that the field season is too short. "It takes a while to train students and get them to the point where they are really competent and able to work on their own—then we have only a few weeks left and the season is over." She hopes that, with future funding, the research team could hire a paid crew that would overlap with the school and allow the work to progress more quickly. This would enhance the research and give the students an opportunity to see how a professional crew works.
Dr. O'Gorman loves her work. "Discovering the incredible richness of cultural variability, interactions across miles, and the time-depth of the human experience right here in the midcontinent of North America, along the rivers and around the Great Lakes, is what caught my attention initially and what keeps me engaged today," she says.