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Researchers look for prehistoric life on prairie

Anthropologists searching Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Mark Schurr uses a magnetometer to map an archeological site Thursday, May 31, at the former Joliet Arsenal in Joliet.
Mark Schurr uses a magnetometer to map an archeological site Thursday, May 31, at the former Joliet Arsenal in Joliet.

Something as unremarkable as a nearby patch of grass could be hiding something prehistoric. 

That is what Notre Dame University anthropology and archaeology professor Mark Schurr is looking for at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Elwood. He and research associate Madeleine McLeester have made multiple trips to Midewin for their research on two matters. 

They wanted to learn more about what life was like for the Native Americans who inhabited the area before the French settlers arrived and began recording history about 1673. Secondly, they are working to find out how to best restore their research sites at the old Joliet arsenal to a natural environment that allows visitors to enjoy and learn from the land. 

Schurr has been all around the Midwest, conducting archaeology projects. He became interested in the late prehistoric period, or the time before Europeans, namely the French, first came to the region.

“We started to wonder what was going on in this area in the prehistoric period right before the historic period started,” Schurr said.

There were sites at Midewin that looked promising to Schurr, so he and his team entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to study the site for three years. The team has traveled to the site multiple times in preparation for the actual excavation planned for later this summer.

In just preparing to excavate, Schurr has utilized new technologies, which have changed the game in anthropology. These include drones equipped with thermal imaging technology to survey the site faster and more broadly than was previously possible. These drones can identify buried structures and artifacts, especially at night because different materials cool at different rates.

“The more you can do in the front end of excavating the better,” McLeester said. “Because excavating is really time-intensive and (requires) a lot of labor. It’s also destructive to the site so you want to make sure where you’re putting in the units is valuable.”

One site last year paid off for the team, which found a vast array of prehistoric pottery, stone tools, different types of animal bones, charred plant remains, fresh water clam shells and more. Schurr said excavating these sites for artifacts can give them an idea of what society was like and, he hopes, what type of social or economic changes were happening before and after the arrival of the French.

“It gives us a real snapshot into what people were doing in that period of time,” Schurr said.

Joseph Wheeler, a prairie archaeologist and Heritage Program manager at Midewin, said it will be very useful for his department to learn more about the history of the lands they manage and better understand how to fulfill their mission.

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