In the 1960s, archaeologists from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale found some unusual fired-clay objects in an excavation ahead of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' construction of Carlyle Lake, on the Kaskaskia River. The artifacts were found with charred food remains that had been discarded after meals were consumed. They dated to about 2,000 years ago. The archaeologists were perplexed.
This month, Illinois State Archaeologist and ISAS director Tim Pauketat visited two artifact enthusiasts who have picked up dozens more of the unusual fired-clay objects from two archaeological sites along the Kaskaskia River in south central Illinois. Like those found in the 1960s, the finds consist of simple, palm-sized, “biconical” lumps of clay that were baked hard and, we believe, used to boil food indirectly during an early era in Illinois’ history.
Indirect boiling or cooking in this way is truly ancient, and was done around the world by people who had not yet invented or adopted pottery containers. The ancient cooking process in Illinois, however, almost always involved heating rocks, not clay objects, in a fire, followed by transferring the red-hot stones to a pouch filled with water in order to bring the contents to a boil. Known as “stone boiling,” it was a common cooking technique in ancient Illinois. The use of clay objects instead of stones, however, was not.
Of course, rocks are easily found across Illinois, thanks to Ice-Age glaciers and bedrock outcrops. They are not common in much of America’s Deep South, where “Archaic-” or “Early Woodland-” period people did make and use fired-clay objects to cook with instead.
So, were the cooks who lived at the Kaskaskia River sites originally southerners who had migrated into Illinois 2,000 or more years ago? It seems likely, in part because migrants in all ages are known to hang onto their culinary traditions even in their new homes. Millennia ago, some Native people may have begun their lives in Mississippi, Arkansas, or Louisiana, only to marry into Midwestern tribal communities and then move to southern Illinois.
Thanks to the observant Illinoisans who shared their finds with ISAS, helping to shed light on our state’s cultural history. If you have questions about an artifact, you can Ask an Archaeologist using our short online form.