The Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) recently collaborated with landowners in northwest Illinois to investigate a pre-contact village and associated mound using non-invasive geophysical survey. Originally recorded in 1961 as a Late Woodland site, a brief revisit to the McKeown site in 1974 showed that the site actually dates to the Upper Mississippian Langford Phase and contains not only a mound, but intact house pits and other features. The Langford Phase spans 1000-1400 CE in northern Illinois, and village sites that can be attributed to this phase are quite rare. Despite this, the McKeown site has received relatively little attention from professional archaeologists in the six decades since it was first documented.
This spring, the McKeown family reached out to ISAS to gauge interest in re-investigating the site. The McKeown siblings had known about the mound since their father had purchased the Whiteside County farm and adjacent woodlot in the 1950s, and the family was interested in finding out more about the site and exploring options to make sure that it was preserved far into the future.
ISAS archaeologists jumped at the chance to learn more about this important site. Because known Langford villages are so rare, little is known about key aspects of how these groups organized space at habitation sites. The arrangement and layout of houses and storage features at villages and how these sites articulate with the surrounding landscape are important clues to the rich social, economic, and subsistence practices of past groups. Knowing more about the McKeown site could help answer questions that are difficult to get at in other contexts.
Non-invasive geophysical survey techniques using equipment like magnetic gradiometers or electromagnetic induction allow archaeologists to map buried features across a wide area without disturbing archaeological deposits. These methods use subtle differences in the magnetic or electrical properties of buried features like storage pits to distinguish them from the surrounding soil. In May of 2023, ISAS archaeologists and other volunteers worked alongside the McKeown family to conduct a geophysical survey of the woodlot and adjacent field. Initial results are quite intriguing, and show the site extends well beyond the original limits, with several intact pits and several lines of houses flanking linear features that may be walls or stockades.
The work this spring at McKeown was made possible by collaborative funding between ISAS and a grant from the US National Park Service, and just as importantly cooperation with proactive landowners who are invested in the long-term preservation of this site. Cooperation between professional archaeologists and members of the public who see themselves as stewards of the archaeological record is already a key part of how we do archaeology in the state, and will need to become increasingly common if we are to preserve our shared cultural heritage for future generations.