Ongoing volunteer work with the Herb Mangold donation continues to produce important new information about Late Woodland ceramic technology in the Sny Bottom locality south of Quincy, Illinois. Aimee Roberts, a staff archaeologist at the Western Illinois Field Station, recently reconstructed a La Crosse fabric-marked vessel as part of the documentation of this collection.
In this case, “fabric-marked” is a misnomer, since the exterior of the vessel is textured with a rolled cord-wrapped stick that produced a faux fabric-marked treatment. While this practice is widely known among archaeologists working in the area, what is truly exciting is that this vessel represents the first documented example of a bowl from early Late Woodland (ca. 1700–1300 years ago) La Crosse phase contexts. Prior to this, only jars were recognized as being part of the ceramic inventory produced by these native peoples. Some of the smaller examples known are similar, shaped like a wide-mouthed cup, but with a weakly pointed bottom.
The reconstructed vessel section (above) is steep-sided, with incurving walls and a flattened to gently rounded base, much like a modern cereal bowl. In light of its wide mouth or opening, this particular La Crosse vessel likely functioned as a serving dish, whereas jars typically were used to prepare, process, and/or store food and liquids.
Since bowls are rarely found in other western Illinois Late Woodland ceramic assemblages, this find reaffirms the importance that amateur archaeologists, citizen scientists, and everyday people can play in the study of the past. As a result of Herb’s generous gift, and Aimee’s patient reconstruction, archaeologists working in the Midwest now have definitive evidence that ceramic bowls played a role in La Crosse society.
This small piece of the puzzle contributes a great deal to the understanding of these people. The faux fabric-marked ceramics and Ansell projectile points that are the calling cards of this distinctive native culture seem to appear suddenly in the region at the beginning of the Late Woodland period. Other contemporary groups located immediately up and down river did not texture their cooking vessel surfaces the same way and made and used other types of projectile points.
Thus, one must look further afield to find other native people who exhibit a similar material culture and perhaps communities of practice. Baumer is the name archaeologists apply to the Ohio valley expression of the southern Illinois Crab Orchard tradition, which has a number of important parallels with La Crosse despite being located nearly 250 miles (ca. 400 km) apart. This includes the production of fabric-marked jars and bowls, as well as the shared use of distinctive, stemmed projectile points or knives (called Copena in southern Illinois and Ansell in the Sny) and elongated chipped stone digging tools, to name a few. Although Baumer dates slightly earlier, this group may ultimately prove ancestral to La Crosse and denote a northward migration of people, ideas, and/or lifeways in the Mississippi valley sometime around 1650–1700 years ago.
While only a single La Crosse bowl is currently known, it provides a much-needed infusion of insight into the cultural history of this distinctive society. Researchers working with La Crosse ceramic collections, as well as those from other contemporary groups, will likely view and analyze these early Late Woodland assemblages somewhat differently going forward, which can only further broaden and enhance the view of the vibrant diversity of native lifeways, traditions, and relationships that have long existed across Illinois.