In the light morning drizzle, misty, low-lying clouds hover between two of the highest points of the Kincaid Mounds Archaeological Site, yards away from the Massac–Pope county line.
Paul Welch, associate professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University, says it is the spirit of some of the Native Americans who lived there a thousand years ago.
If that was true, who knows what they would think of the recent finds Welch and his archaeological dig team excavated this summer on private land on the Pope County side?
As far as the summer archaeological digs go, this summer's work at the Kincaid Mounds has been exciting.
In a bedroom-size section of land at Kincaid, seven undergraduate archaeology students, two graduate assistants and Welch unearthed quite a few artifacts, stones believed to be used in jewelry and jewelry-making tools.
Talking about the finds brings an almost-smile to the face of Paul Welch, the lead instructors on the dig. The project is actually the field school class for students in Southern Illinois University's archaeological program. The program has existed for 40 years.
"It wasn't exactly what we were expecting to find, but it is the kind of stuff we were expecting to find," he said. "This was a real interesting excavation."
Welch said he decided to search in a portion of the grounds that had not yet been previously explored by SIU students. That piece of land was one private property owned by the Lewis family.
He said the unexpected finds kept the students and staff engaged and asking lots of questions about the meaning and uses of the found items.
“One of the big questions we had was whether the building we were looking at was a house — a residence that people lived in, who were also making this jewelry — or whether this was a building that was not a residence and was instead a devoted specific-use only for this kind of craft-making activity,” Welch said. “And the answer is clearly, it is not a residence.”
The settlement of the Kincaid Mounds
The Kincaid Mounds are located near the Massac-Pope county line, in a mile-long oblong-shaped area of fields divided by stretches of wood and bordered on the south by Avery Lake. There are five mounds that are recognizable as mounds, ranging from about six feet to 30 feet high. Welch said there are 22 more mounds, most appearing as gentler rises and slopes in the land.
The state property has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Mounds are known by scientific designations: From the observation deck, they are Beehive (Mx7), the third tallest; Mx8, which once housed the Kincaid family home and is the second highest; the next one, known as Barn Mound, because it housed the Kincaid family's barn; the tallest one, called the Conical Offset Mound because of its shape; and the smallest one, simply known as Mx4.
The mounds are almost encased by a line of trees; to the east of them are a line of trees that mark the Massac's boundary with Pope. Just over that thicket of trees, to the north, was the small plot of land cleared for the archaeological dig this summer, Welch said. In their midst is low, flatter land known as the plaza, space for public use.
Jon Muller, Welch's predecessor at SIU, estimated 400 people once lived in the settlement; Welch puts the figure at 1,200, and believes even that is a low-ball number.
Researchers refer to the Native Americans who once lived there as the Mississippian or Kincaid Indians, but Welch noted it's unknown what they called themselves.
“We don’t know exactly where they went, and we don’t know where the descendants of those people are today," Welch said. "Some of them may be among the Osage in Omaha, the Quapaw of Arkansas or the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma."
"We lose sight of them when they abandon a portion of the Ohio River floodplain," he said. "They went somewhere else, and they blended in somewhere else so thoroughly, we have not been able to track them.”
Digging in new area
Using maps that identified concentrated areas of organic material, Welch was able to identify where the group would dig. Welch used a magnetometer, an instrument that detects minute variations in the strength of the earth’s electromagnetic fields; this can be caused by different amounts of organic content left by fired clay or by some kinds of rocks.
Based on magnetometer work he'd done in the past, Welch decided to choose a spot that he believed once housed a building-like structure that was apparently partially burned. It's not clear why, but the Native Americans frequently burned these structures; evidence of 180 such burnings were identified in the area.
"We know it was intentional, because the building was cleaned out before they were burned," he said. Prior, unrelated research indicates that an individual would have about 15 seconds to remove items from a similar thatch-roofed, clay-walled structures, before the fire would make it impossible to stay inside.
On a map he created, Welch points to the dotted outlines, indicating the place where the settlement's original walls, or its palisades, were thought to have stretched. The wall's details became evident because of traces of higher organic content from the wooden walls that deteriorated over time.
The summer's biggest find is that the structure being evacuated was likely a special-use building and not a house, based in part on the lack of pottery and food remains found.
Welch and the students excavated two to three dozen pieces of fluorite, unfinished or broken scraps left over from the making fluorite beads.
They also excavated 50 to 75 drills, inch to two-inch long rocks crafted to make holes in the rocks. The drills were made using a kind of flint not previously seen at the site, but similar to flint in southeast Illinois.
"We're not even sure where it comes from," he said.
He's not sure what was the intended uses of the beads.
"It could be that they're just ornamental," Welch said. "It could be that they are part of a ritual costume the priests wore in ceremonies."
The excavation crew also found what they believe to be a saw, made from a thin stretch of sandstone; a reamer; and files, shaped like an actual nail file.
They also found evidence of a greatly deteriorated shell, perhaps a marine whelk shell that is found in Florida and also used in jewelry-making, Welch said.
The group also found charcoal — remains of the burned wood — in the borders of the building and plan to send it for testing to University of Georgia Radiocarbon lab.
"We hope to get a more definite date by using some of the charcoal sample," he said.
The materials will be analyzed and curated for a collection at SIU, Welch said. That facility is not open to the public.
The Kincaid Mounds Support Organization has supported the possibility of an interpretive site and finding a location for a Kincaid Mounds artifacts exhibit or museum.