Bits of shell, pieces of pottery, and slivers of bone. It’s the job of the archaeologist to take these fragments of the past, carefully sifted from the earth, and piece them together to offer a glimpse of ancient civilizations. Cahokia Mounds archaeologist William Iseminger may not have traipsed across the deserts of Cairo to uncover the Ark of the Covenant like Indiana Jones, but he has spent his career uncovering the remains of one of the most sophisticated prehistoric civilizations in the United States.
I stopped by Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois, to chat with Bill and see what it’s like to piece together the past at one of the world’s most treasured prehistoric cities.
How long have you been at Cahokia Mounds? I have been at Cahokia Mounds for 44 years, starting in 1971. I went to the University of Oklahoma and as a freshman and sophomore worked at a dig site in South Dakota. While I was in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1967, I was a part of a dig at Dickson Mounds. In 1968, I did my first dig here in Cahokia. In 1969 and 1970, I was part of a survey in southern Illinois for the Illinois State Museum where Kincaid Lake is now when they were straightening out the river for barge traffic. In the 1970s, I ran into my former supervisor at Cahokia Mounds. I had just finished my Master’s degree, and he offered me the position of Associate Curator of Anthropology at Cahokia Mounds. I have been here ever since.
My kids love digging in the dirt, and they always think they have found some kind of fossil. When did you know you wanted to be an archaeologist? [chuckles] Well, I probably didn’t know I wanted to be an archaeologist until seventh or eighth grade. My father’s family had a farm in Heyworth, Illinois, where we would go for vacation. My uncle would take us out into the cornfield to find artifacts, and I knew then that this was something I wanted to do.
As you were studying, did you have that one site in your mind that you considered to be the “dream” dig? When I was first thinking of archaeology, I was interested in the Mayans and Mesoamerica. But, all of my work has been here in North America, particularly in Illinois. My interests shifted to the Mississippians. Once I landed a job at the largest site in America and a [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)] World Heritage Site, I didn’t even think of going anywhere else.
What’s a dig like? Hot and dirty! [laughs] People think it is like Indiana Jones, and it’s not. It is more than just digging; the digging is a small part. You have to dig and sift. The artifacts are then bagged, documented, photographed, and a number of forms are filled out. Once you are done at the excavation site, the work moves to the lab where you separate the bone, shell, pottery and other things found in order to catalog and code the items. Analysis can take several years as you put all of the pieces together to tell a story. Once complete, reports are written and findings are published.
Personally, in the span of your career, what was your most memorable or impressive find on a dig? It’s difficult to define a most memorable or most impressive find, as all the work was memorable and impressive. Perhaps when I worked at Dickson Mounds and uncovered whole pots in the excavations. [Finding a piece in its entirety is rare.] When working here at Cahokia, revealing the complex super-positioning of pits on houses on pits, indicative of the long and continued use of the site over centuries, and trying to unravel the sequence of the activities. Or, it was impressive when we located the last three post pits for the Woodhenge so we could reconstruct it at the original location. As memorable moments, I might think back to the early to mid-70s when we had as many as five different excavations going on by different institutions with the camaraderie and social interaction among all the participants. Being involved in the planning and development of the new museum here at Cahokia Mounds was very memorable. And, finally, I feel writing my book about Cahokia a few years ago is part of my legacy here.
Is Cahokia Mounds still an active dig site? Are you still involved in digs? Yes, we are still digging and excavating. Almost every summer there is a project here. In 1972, I was involved in various projects – primarily the Stockade, Mound 50, and Woodhenge. Now, I do more museum work and less digging. I sometimes miss it.
What has kept you at Cahokia Mounds for 44 years? Permanent jobs in archaeology are hard to find, especially jobs that keep you in one location. I have been able to be a part of a major archeological site. A large part of my career has been public archaeology – transmitting information to the public. I have led public field schools, worked on exhibits, and given talks. I have written a book about Cahokia – “Cahokia Mounds: America’s First City.” It’s important to me to be able to be with the public and explain how we work and what we find, while dispelling the myths about archaeology.
What makes this site so special? Why should I load up the car and bring the kids to the site? It starts with scale. This is the largest Native American settlement in the United States. You won’t find anything like this site, other than in New Mexico. There were between 10,000 and 20,000 residents at the settlement. We call Cahokia a city. It was a metropolitan center and settlement system. People don’t think about Native Americans as having this kind of complex society and settlement. And, Monk’s Mound itself is the largest man-made mound in North America.
The existing museum opened in 1989. We have something for everyone – all ages, levels of education, and areas of interest. We have a full calendar of events with activities for families, lectures, craft shows, etc. People also come out to explore the trails and climb the stairs of Monk’s Mound as a means of training and weight loss.
Do you have any unique events coming up that people should plan on attending? On September 12, we will host the Missouri Atlatl Association for their annual throwing competition. The atlatl is a spear device that was used before the bow and arrow. The World Atlatl Association also participates in the event. Visitors can watch the competition and try throwing the atlatl. It takes an amazing amount of skill. People don’t realize how difficult it really was to use. In the fall, we will also host the Indian Market Days. It’s a great event for those looking for holiday gifts. We will showcase more than 30 Native American artisans, representing a number of registered tribes, and presenting beadwork, sculptures, arts, crafts, and more. The site also hosts a number of events, including artifact identification days, nature and culture hikes, education days, lectures, and more.
Cahokia Mounds is located at 30 Ramey Street, Collinsville, IL, 62234. On August 16, the site will unveil a new exhibit, “Wetlands and Waterways: The Key to Cahokia.” This is the first new exhibit added to the museum in more than 20 years. Learn more.
As a mom of four busy little boys, Suzanne Halbrook knows life with a growing family is always an adventure. Suzanne and her family love going to the Saint Louis Zoo, Pere Marquette State Park, Gateway Grizzlies games and the Magic House.