Indigenous Illinois: Ancient Stone Tools Join the CCHM Collection
By Sara Pfannkuche
In July 2019 CCHM published an article entitled “Indigenous Illinois'' that was written by Jason Peterson detailing the stories of some of the earliest local tribes. It went on to become a reader favorite. This year the museum is planning to start an ongoing series of the same name devoted to discussing local Native American artifacts and ancient history with archaeologist Sara Pfannkuche. Pfannkuche is the Senior Collections Specialist for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. This first article hopes to explain some of the newest archaeological findings and to detail a new set of ancient artifacts that recently became part of CCHM’s collection and to update some of the findings of our earlier work.
Local history museums traditionally showcase the story of an area from when an area was “first settled,” meaning when people of European descent arrived, set up houses, and started farming and making towns. But that focus precludes the first true settlers of an area, Native Americans, who have lived in Illinois for at least 13,000 years. The area “settled” by pioneers had already been altered by the thousands of generations of people who spent time on the same landscape. The Champaign County History Museum (CCHM) has several artifacts that represent this earlier time. Comprised of stone tools (Figure 1), these artifacts can help tell the story of how Native Americans interacted with their environment with their families and communities.
Figure 1. The Native American collection owned by the Champaign County History Museum.
Since people made their first appearance in what has become Champaign County 13,000 years ago, people have taken advantage of the natural environment to provide for the needs of their families and communities, just as we do today. Never static, the area’s population has ebbed and flowed in response to climate change and new technologies, ideas, and conflicts. During this time, people lived as nomadic family groups, extended family groups that gathered with other families during the summer when food was readily available, and multiple family groups that moved around the landscape based on the season availability of food, living at three or more locations a year.
Currently, there are 717 archaeological sites in Champaign County reported on the Illinois Inventory of Archaeological Sites (IIAS). Of these, 565 (78.8%), contain artifacts from Native American occupations across all time periods. Although this number sounds like a lot, parts of northern Champaign County are considered areas lacking systematic surveys by archaeologists to understand better how people in the past lived. Most of the archaeological work done in Champaign County by professional archaeologists has occurred along roadways, pipelines, or other linear infrastructure projects. Still, many of the county’s archaeological sites were reported to the IIAS during the 20th century by farmers who found and collected artifacts on their or neighboring properties. Many collectors worked with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign staff to record their collections so knowledge of the artifacts and where they were found could be shared. At least fifteen sites south of Champaign, along the Embarrass River, were recorded this way in 1958.
Exactly where the collection owned by CCHM was found is unknown. The collection was donated in 2022 by Mrs. Sidney Turner, and it was put together by her late husband Leland Van Koten’s grandparents, Clarence and Jessie Roberts. It is believed that the collection was found on the land farmed by the Roberts, although that exact location is unknown but thought to be in Champaign County. An examination of the federal census from 1910 to 1930 shows that Clarence Roberts lived in Champaign with his wife Jessie, whom he married in 1910. At that time, the couple lived with Frank N. Norton, who Clarence worked for as a farm laborer. The Norton farm was located along the northwest corner of Crittenden Township, approximately 1.5 miles west of the Embarrass River. Although Clarence Roberts is a farmer/farm laborer on both the 1920 and 1930 census records, plat maps from those times do NOT show a location for a farm owned by him. It is assumed that the CCHM collection came from the general area listed as Norton’s Farm, near the Embarrass River. Native American sites are often found along waterways, which would provide a good mix of food resources, drinking water, and a transportation route.
The collection’s seven bifacial projectile points range in age from 2,500 to 11,000 years ago. They are called “bifacial” because the stone they were made on was worked on both sides before the edges were sharpened. These are not arrowpoints. Bows and arrows were not used by Native Americans until approximately 1,500 years ago. The points in the collection are spear or dart points. The points would have been attached to a spear or a short foreshaft that was then attached to a spear. The spears were either thrown by hand or using a throwing device called an atlatl.
Figure 2. Drawing of a man using an atlatl to throw a spear. The atlatl is depicted in the upper left, with a hook at its end to hold the spear in place, a stone weight to help balance the atlatl, and the spear on top. The person throwing the atlatl still holds it after the spear is thrown, as shown on the right. Drawing by Eric Parrish. Copyright © E. James Dixon; used by permission. From Bones, Boats, and Bison. University of North Carolina. Image in the upper lefthand corner is from “The Pathfinders: Ancient North Carolinians” by the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The oldest points in the collection are a Thebes and two Kirk Cluster points, all which date to approximately 9,500 to 11,000 years ago (Figure 3). Thebes Point, the older of the two, is found throughout the Midwest, while the Kirk Stemmed Point is found throughout the eastern United States except for the far northeast. The Thebes point has been heavily worked, meaning that it has been resharpened numerous times on alternating sides, creating a beveled look to the points’ edges. Although the point is currently about two inches long, the point, when first made, was probably twice this size. Resharpening of the edges over time shortened the point. It was probably discarded because it could not be resharpened again and still function as a projectile.
The taller Kirk Point has also been heavily reworked, which has caused the serration you can see on the edges. Both the tip and part of its base are broken. This damage was suffered from hits by a plow while the point was lying in the farm field. These points date to the archaeological, cultural period called Early Archaic, a time when aboriginal people were nomadic, moving around the landscape in small family groups on seasonal rounds. This movement can be identified by the type of chert used to make the projectile points since the Thebes is made from Attica chert located in east-central Illinois, the shorter Kramer is made of Burlington chert found in west-central Illinois, and the taller Kramer is made from chert found in the local glacial till which covers central Illinois. Large mammals such as deer, elk, and bear were hunted as well as smaller animals. Plants used for food included roots and tubers in the spring, berries in the summer, and nuts, including walnuts, pecans, and hickory, in the fall.
Figure 3. Thebes and Kirk Cluster points.
One point in the collection is a typical “corner notched” Late Archaic projectile point, with notches low on the blade at the base of the point (Figure 4). These notches, like the notches for the Thebes and Kirk Stemmed points, were used to attach the point to the spear or foreshaft. The attachment was done with pitch and lashing with plant fibers, sinew, or leather. The location of the notches changed over time, which is how archaeologists determine how old a certain projectile point is. Since rocks were never alive, the points themselves cannot be directly radiocarbon dated. Instead, radiocarbon dates are generated from the firepit the point lies in or some other nearby organic matter which is thought to be associated with the point. Corner notched points are from the cultural period archaeologists call the Late Archaic, which began approximately 5,500 years ago and lasted until 3,000 years ago. The general population of Native people had increased since Early Archaic times, with larger family and kin groups settling together. In some areas, people might have lived nearly year-round in one location or moved a few times yearly to where food could be easily found. Settlements are often found near river valleys since fish is a vital food resource.
FIGURE 4: Late Archaic corner notched point.
The last three points of the collection are all “stemmed” points (Figure 5). The two stemmed points with curved bases have a variety of names but Adena or Waubesa is the most common in central Illinois. The stemmed point that is more rectangular is called a Kramer. Both points date to the cultural period known as the Early Woodland. The Kramer Point is the older of the two types, often found in association with what archaeologists call Marion Thick pottery, the first known use of ceramics by indigenous people in Illinois. Even when found by themselves, the points are still associated with the people who made Marion Thick pottery which dates 2,800 to 2,400 years ago. Kramer points are found throughout Illinois and Indiana as well as southern Wisconsin and Michigan.
Waubesa points are found east of the Great Plains and west of the Appalachians and date to between 2,600 and 1,900 years ago. They are associated with the pottery type that came after Marion Thick, called Prairie Series. Native people still practiced the same seasonal rounds used by people who lived during the Late Archaic, but edible seeds such as sunflowers and wild fruit became an increasingly important staple in people’s diets as did shellfish. Long distance trade, which started during the Late Archaic, continued but on a regional scale. This trade can be seen by the type of rock that is used for the larger of the two Waubesa points (see Figure 5). While the smaller Waubesa is made from chert that can be found in local glacial till, the larger one is made from Cobden, a rock that is found in southern Illinois, approximately 200 miles south of where the point was found.
FIGURE 5: Two Waubesa and one Kramer point. The point all the way on the left is made of Cobden chert.
Small collections such as the one housed at CCHM can shed light on a part of the human past and help clarify the history of how all people lived in Champaign County over the years. Evidence from long ago is often fragmentary, so even a few small tools can help create a fuller picture on how Champaign County was called “home” for thousands of years.
The CCHM is always looking to expand its collection and understanding of these early communities. Do you have an object with strong local provenance that you would like to donate? Follow this link to learn more about donating local historical artifacts: https://www.champaigncountyhistory.org/artifacts
1. Dixon, E. James, 1999, Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology of the First Colonization of Western North America. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. Figure 2: Drawing by Eric Parrish. Copyright © E. James Dixon; used by permission.
2. Phillips, D., Baudoin, C., Bernard, B., & Lillian Greenawald. (2014, April 21). Atlatls- Maxwell Museum of Archaeology. The Testimony of Hands. https://hands.unm.edu/atlatls.html
3. Bruce, M. W., Bulkley, M. R., Davis, R. P. S., & Erickson, B. (n.d.). The Pathfinders. Ancient North Carolinians. https://ancientnc.web.unc.edu/exhibits/first-peoples/the-pathfinders/