A piece of pottery made by the Oneota people about 700 years ago was found on a Sangamon River sandbar May 27. Photo by Chris Young.
Fragment of Indian pottery creates mystery
The State Journal-Register
A mysterious fragment of American Indian pottery discovered on a sandbar in the Sangamon River has archaeologists wondering about its origin and the people who made it.
Michael Wiant, director of Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown, says the pottery, made by the Oneota people, is a significant find.
“It is extraordinary,” he said. “There is no doubt.”
Scott Hewitt, who routinely guides canoe and kayak trips on the river, found the artifact May 27 on a sandbar in a bend in the Sangamon between Springfield and Petersburg.
At first he thought it was a rock.
“I really thought it was a cobble,” he said. “There was (only a small portion) of it showing, and I thought, ‘What is that rock doing on my sandbar?’”
When he stopped to dig it up, the rock turned out to be part of a pot created by the Oneota people, a group that once lived in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of northern Illinois. The Oneota inhabited Illinois about 700 years ago, 300 years before the first French traders arrived.
Hewitt, who has a background in archaeology, contacted Wiant.
“I’ve been having trouble sleeping,” Hewitt said about his discovery.
Wiant joined Hewitt on the river last week to take a look at the place where the pot was found.
“The Oneota culture is something we know arrives in Illinois circa 1300,” Wiant said. “We’ve known about four or five sites on the Illinois River and had a hint there was one on Salt Creek.”
However, he said, “Both this find and the Salt Creek find are well out of the range where we expected to find this material.”
Using an old mussel shell, Wiant began gently removing sand from around the spot where the pot was found. But there were no other fragments – just sand, pebbles and shells.
Wiant said he isn’t sure how the pot came to rest on the sandbar located on a bend in the river between Springfield and Petersburg.
“Here is a large piece of ceramic that is very thin,” he said. “It just speaks to you that it is fragile.
“Therefore, the events leading to it getting to a particular place just don’t appear to me to be natural.”
When he found the piece of pottery, Hewitt was walking the sandbar looking for bones or other items that sometimes are exposed by scouring floodwaters.
“It’s not the kind of thing that would erode out of the bank of the river or come washing down,” Wiant said. “Because it is on a sandy deposit, you would think surely the thing would be cracked or broken.”
How it got there remains mysterious. Wiant speculated someone found it elsewhere and dropped it on the sandbar.
“I think when you begin to read it that way, there are other circumstances to how it came to be on the sandbar.”
Hewitt said he plans to give the piece to the Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown.
Reading the past
The Oneota people who made the piece of pottery found on the Sangamon River left their own distinctive signature in its design.
“People tend to make things in a way that is consistent with their culture,” said Michael Wiant, director of the Dickson Mounds Museum. “What you tend to see (in Oneota pottery) are these bold, incised lines in a variety of geometric forms.”
The artisans used small sticks to make lines, points and shapes in the wet clay.
“They are taking the end of a round stick and poking it into the clay and taking the broad end of a stick about 1/8th inch broad and making nested triangles,” he said. “So the design pallet and sequence of Oneota is quite distinctive.
“This particular pot has some of those distinctive markings,” Wiant said. “There are (markings) on the loop handles that go from the rim to the vessel side, and notches on the inside of the rim and bold marks on the shoulder of the pot.”
Village excavation under way
Researchers are in the fifth year of a study examining a village site overlooking the Illinois River Valley that at one time was home to both Mississippian and Oneota cultures.
Excavations are under way in the second week of a six-week field season at the site, which is known as the Morton Village.
The village is perched on the bluff near Illinois 78/97, above The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve near the Dickson Mounds Museum and the city of Lewistown.
Researchers want to know if the two cultures inhabited the site at the same time about 1300 A.D.
The Oneota were known from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Michael Connor, assistant curator of anthropology at Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown, is working with Jodie O’Gorman of Michigan State University and with the cooperation with The Nature Conservancy to try to understand more about the Oneota and their expansion into Illinois.
The Mississippians and Oneotas used slightly different building techniques, so when remains of buildings are found, it can be determined who built them.
But researchers are finding some overlap.
Some Mississippian buildings had Oneota artifacts inside, while other buildings were built in Mississippian style, but rebuilt later with Oneota techniques.
“If the buildings were abandoned and rebuilt later, they weren’t abandoned for very long,” Conner said. “Soon, we should be able to say if they were there together or not.”
If the two cultures occupied the site at the same time, the question is whether they got along.
A cemetery excavated in the 1980s, before a road project came through, revealed that many buried there had died violently.
“The Oneota were in conflict with someone, but we don’t know with whom,” Conner said. “They had a complex social structure. They may have allied with some Mississippians while they were fighting with others.
“Or they may have been fighting with some groups from outside.”
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.