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Illinois hunting and fishing

Alan Harn recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with Dickson Mounds Museum. Photos by Chris Young.

Alan Harn has been unraveling the mysteries of Dickson Mounds for 50 years

March 04, 2012 at 07:26 AM

The State Journal-Register

In the big picture, 50 years is not a long time for a person to study and comprehend 12,000 years of human history.

Alan Harn, assistant curator of anthropology with Dickson Mounds Museum near Havana, recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with the museum, where he has worked practically since he graduated from high school.

“It took them 12,000 years to leave this story that’s here in the Illinois River Valley,” Harn said. “And if we are diligent, we might take another 12,000 years to unravel it.”

Harn has been collecting artifacts since he was a boy and knew Don Dickson, who was excavating mounds on the site where the museum stands today overlooking the broad flood plain of the Illinois River.

The Dickson Mounds complex is a series of 10 American Indian burial mounds (there probably are many more) that include the remains of 1,068 people.

Harn has devoted his professional life to trying to understand the story of the people who lived and died in the area before European settlers arrived.

He was born a mile west of Dickson Mounds, and along with a friend spent his boyhood days hunting, fishing and collecting artifacts, an activity that got him in trouble when he started skipping school.

“I could not stand the confines of the classroom,” he says. “I got expelled every year during my first three years of high school because I was out collecting artifacts.”

He never went to college, although he worked for Southern Illinois University for two years as a “salvage archeologist” on highway projects.

“I don’t remember exactly when I started coming to Dickson Mounds,” he says. “But I remember the first time I was really conscious of the impact that it would have on my life.

“I went on a tour by myself and it was with Dr. Dickson,” he says. “There were other people there, but he talked to me. He spoke to me in a way that touched me so deeply. From that moment on, I had to know more about those people who were buried there. It became a fascination with me.”

Don Dickson was a chiropractor who exposed a series of American Indian burials on his farm starting in 1927. He removed only the dirt, leaving the bones and the artifacts in place. At first he covered the burials with a tent, and later a building, and opened a makeshift museum.

Thousands of people came to the new museum, including 40,000 in its first year of operation.
Attendance declined due to the Great Depression and World War II. After the war Dickson sold the museum to the state of Illinois.

In the 1980s, public attitudes were changing about the excavation and display of American Indian remains, so the site was covered and the museum was remodeled in the early 1990s.

Michael Wiant, director of Dickson Mounds Museum, says it is impossible to place a value on Harn’s 50 years of knowledge and experience.

“It is like sitting next to a book and opening that book to the first page then the book starts reading itself to you,” he says.

Harn says he just has to look at his first pay stub from 1962 to put a value on his worth. Wiant came across the paperwork in the museum’s files and presented it to Harn one day at lunch.

“He brought up my first year’s pay — every week,” Harn says. “I made $1.35 an hour. My whole first year’s salary was $2,800.

“Now I make three times that much.”

Harn can be funny and self-effacing, but Wiant says it would be wise not to underestimate him in a scholarly debate.

“Alan will ‘aw-shucks’ you all day long, but at the end of the day, when you come over the hill, Alan will have his cannons all lined up to defend his position.”

Illinois hunting and fishing

Puzzle pieces

Currently, Harn is writing up 50 years of research and discovery related to the Dickson Mounds excavation.

Wiant says the work is significant because there is nothing else like it in the country.

“When I first came here, I thought, ‘Someday the excitement of being here and doing this work is going to diminish,’ but it never has,” Harn says.

Harn says he mistakenly thought he’d have a pretty complete picture of life in the valley assembled by the time he was 40 years old.

“When I got to be 40, I realized if the universe is a big puzzle, I had two or three of the little pieces of the puzzle stuck together here, and a few other pieces there, and a few floaters.

“I thought if I worked until I was 80 I could connect a few of those pieces,” he says.

But as people age, time seems to speed up.

“Your whole focus changes when you get into your 60s, because you realize there is so much to do and you have so little time left. So you begin to try to figure out the best things you can do that would be most beneficial to people so you can leave that legacy behind.”

Wiant says looking back over a 50-year career provides Harn with a unique perspective.

“Imagine a scholar who has been curious about a subject for a lifetime,” he says. “As we become older, more engaged and continue on with our own curiosity, the thing we discover is there are bigger, more complicated questions we have the ability to explore.

“Someone with Alan’s tenure has a fresh look at what has been done and what needs to be done,” Wiant says.

There are always new discoveries to be made.

“There are still going to be mysteries,” Harn says. “And that is what we live for in this institution.”
He says Dickson Mounds document a cultural shift.

“It’s very important because these mounds are stretched from the late 1000s to 1260 AD according to carbon dates,” Harn says. “It’s a time when these people were making a transition from basic hunting, gathering gardeners to end up becoming urban farmers.

“Every aspect of those changes are indelibly stamped in each of those mounds,” he says. “And it’s the only place you can go that I am aware of in America where you have that kind of signature of people changing through time.”

Illinois hunting and fishing
Dickson Mounds Museum overlooks the Illinois River Valley.


Artifact Identification Day

Dickson Mounds Museum, between Lewistown and Havana off Illinois 78 and 97.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today
What’s going on:
Bring artifacts, fossils and other items to be identified by experts. Also, flint knapping demonstrations in the museum’s lobby. Free. (309) 547-3721.


The land gives back

The Illinois River Valley has never stopped giving up clues about the lives of ancient people that once lived here.

And when people find artifacts, they head for Dickson Mounds Museum for identification and information.

The museum is across the Illinois River from Havana, a little more than an hour northwest of Springfield.

Today is the museum’s annual Artifact Identification Day, a time for the museum’s experts to gather and for the public to bring in artifacts and questions.

Museum employees like to call the event the “Antiquities Road Show.”

Archaeologist Alan Harn says modern tillage practices (no-till or minimum-till) turn over fewer arrowheads and other items these days. Some fields still produce artifacts, though, as do eroding stream banks and construction sites.

“When this museum first opened and we had our ‘J Case’ out there — that’s the main case with the artifact timeline. You might go out there on a spring day and see a couple of guys in muddy boots and old clothes standing at the J Case looking and then reaching in their pockets and pulling out some things and saying, ‘This thing is 5,000 years old,’” Harn says.


In his own words

During an interview, Alan Harn shared some of the insights gained over his 50-year career at Dickson Mounds Museum:

The other end of the telescope: “When I first started out, you tried to interpret cultures on a broad basis because not a lot of work had been done. You looked regionally, even outside Illinois.

“Then you begin looking in smaller research universes, like the Illinois River Valley. My main focus now is trying to find out what happened at the smallest sites. It’s only from understanding the little things that move them about their everyday lives that we are going to understand the more complex umbrella of religion and government and how those things broadly affected the people. We are looking at things from the other end of the telescope.”

A career spent opening doors: “You answer a question and it opens the door to a new room that is full of questions and then doors leading off of that room everywhere. It is a never-ending proposition. You are caught up in it and you go and it becomes your whole life. If I ever retire, I’ll be here every day probably until my health won’t let me get around anymore, because there are so many things to find out. It’s just so fascinating.”

Thousands of years apart, people are mostly the same: “There’s very little difference between people 5,000 or 10,000 years ago and people today. We have the same needs. We have the same problems. We face the same challenges of dealing with life. We just do it on a different scale.”


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