Exhibit to focus on archaeological history of Illinois

By Paolo Cisneros

When people ask Thomas Emerson, professor of anthropology, where he makes his living, they are often surprised by the answer.

“When I tell people I’m an archeologist they expect me to tell them that I work in South America or Egypt or something,” Emerson said. “They’re always flabbergasted when say I work in Illinois.”

Illinois has never enjoyed the famed archeological reputation that other areas worldwide have, but Emerson said a new exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum is trying to change that. “The Archaeological Heritage of Illinois” running through June 1, will showcase artifacts that are representative of the diverse and largely ignored story of human life in Illinois.

Co-curators Emerson and Sarah Wisseman and Andrew Fortier, the special project coordinator for the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, helped bring the exhibition to the University.

The three anthropologists hope the exhibit will help educate a population largely unaware of its state’s history. Wisseman said that her ultimate goal was to help create the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the archaeological history of Illinois.

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“We talked about how we’ve got all this great stuff on campus, but nobody ever gets to see it since most of it’s shut away in a research facility,” Wisseman said.

She added that the group chose the Krannert Art Museum as the site for the collection because of its outstanding South American exhibit.

“Why not display our things here so people can truly appreciate the richness of the Americas?” Wisseman said.

The exhibition showcases an array of artifacts, the oldest of which date to more than 9,500 years old. Spear heads, clay figurines, jewelry, pots and other artifacts provide a more complete understanding of the human experience in Illinois.

Artifacts on display come from seven separate archaeological time periods and are representative of cultures that existed exclusively within Illinois. A large portion of the items came from Cahokia, a city outside of St. Louis, which was home to 20,000 people during the 11th century.

“We really tried to focus on items that had artistic appeal to the general public,” Emerson said.

Wisseman said that visitors should try to look past the items’ physical appearances.

“You’re also getting evidence of trade from far away and other signs of highly advanced societies,” she said. “That, to me, is what makes archaeology exciting.”