“Forget re-creating the past,” says historical archaeologist Robert Mazrim. “You can’t do it. But what you can do is build a time machine that will take you back in time for, say, fifteen seconds.” Mazrim plans to open his time machine in late June, 180 miles southwest of Chicago.
Whenever the government builds a highway or an airport, it has to hire archaeologists to check out the ground first, a process institutionalized through the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program (ITARP). But private landowners who dig basements and swimming pools are under no such restriction. Every now and then a historically conscious owner or bulldozer operator will see something and call Mazrim’s Sangamo Archaeological Center. Then he has a few days or hours to gather volunteers and salvage what he can of the artifacts before construction continues.
Most of these finds stem from the time when Illinois was the western frontier, which Mazrim dates roughly from 1780 to 1850. And they tell some surprising stories about that frontier. “What the early settlers decided to drag out into the woods is very interesting,” he says. “It had nothing to do with buckskin and wooden plates. The single most common artifact type, outside of nails, is English tea ware”–evidently a transatlantic hot commodity 200 years ago. “Within three years of the time that midpriced Staffordshire cups and saucers were introduced in England, they’re in log cabins in Illinois, and in five years they’re broken and in the ground,” he says. “It looks like we’ve always been consumers.”
Nowadays, our consuming nature is expressed in suburban decks and pools and second homes, and it’s endangering the evidence of its own past. “Suburban development is threatening frontier relics terribly,” says Mazrim. “But you can’t pass laws to prevent people from building basements. This is history, history is ongoing, and we have to roll with the punches.”
When he’s not called to work for ITARP as a historical archaeology consultant, Mazrim is implementing a scheme for the fruits of his informal salvage operations. In a big storefront in the tiny town of Elkhart, Illinois (population 475), he has the makings of a museum–box after box of carefully collected and professionally labeled assemblages of pottery, ironware, bottles, and farm tools. He hopes to run the storefront as Under the Prairie, a museum of frontier Illinois.
Mazrim doesn’t think he’ll be competing with other Illinois museums. “The average Illinois resident can get a good idea of the state’s prehistory by visiting Cahokia Mounds, Dickson Mounds, and the Illinois State Museum in Springfield,” he says. But he feels there’s no place that offers a comparable picture of the state’s more recent history.
He’d like 10 percent of the tourists heading south to New Salem to stop by his time machine on the way. He figures that would generate enough in admission fees (and purchases at an associated bakeshop) to support the process of salvaging, recording, and displaying the relics.
Elkhart is just off I-55 at exit 115, six miles north of the New Salem exit. The town is at the foot of Elkhart Hill, a large, low, tree-covered rise–a landmark that has served travelers for at least 300 years and remains visible on the east side of the interstate for miles. Turn left at the end of the exit ramp and you’ll see the town next to the hill. For more information contact the Sangamo Archaeological Center (217-947-2522).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.