The Prairie Research Institute recently honored two Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) staffers for their contributions to a long-running collaboration with the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC).
Paula Porubcan, coordinator of the Northern Illinois Field Station (NIFS), and Paula Bryant, an archaeological technician at the field station, are recipients of PRI’s 2020 Outstanding Collaboration Award.
FPCC encompasses more than 69,000 acres, making it the largest public land-holding entity in Cook County. These lands include some of the country’s most biologically diverse flora and fauna as well as archaeological sites that provide insights into our state’s history. Since 2014, an interdisciplinary team of experts from across PRI has worked with FPCC to develop and implement a master plan to protect and restore both the preserves’ natural areas and cultural resources. The master plan provides FPCC with a firm scientific foundation for land-management and restoration decisions and prioritization.
Porubcan and Bryant, along with other ISAS collaborators, have surveyed more than 4,000 acres of FPCC lands, identifying 59 new archaeological sites. The ISAS team has worked with FPCC to develop management priorities and protocols for the more than 600 known archaeological sites on FPCC land.
Assessment of the potential impact on cultural resources is now a standard component of FPCC capital improvements, resulting in the clearance or avoidance of sensitive cultural resources during the construction of multiple canoe launches, biking and hiking trails, visitor centers, and campgrounds.
For example, before construction of the Shabbona Campground, the NIFS team identified seven potentially impacted archaeological sites—and found more than 15,000 artifacts, including pottery and stone tools. Construction plans were adjusted to preserve and protect these valuable sites.
Recently, the Northern Illinois Field Station team was able to quickly examine the intended site of a wetland banking project, determining that cultural resources would not be disturbed by the plans. This enabled the Cook County Department of Transportation to proceed with road construction and FPCC to restore wetlands in the Plum Grove Forest Preserve.
In nominating Porubcan and Bryant for recognition, ISAS assistant director Tom Loebel wrote that the duo has consistently gone above and beyond to promote public awareness and education. These efforts included many weekend and evening events, partnering with local libraries and universities, and mentoring interns and volunteers. During the past year, ISAS staff engaged more than 1,400 people during outreach events, and they have connected with more than 9,000 people since the partnership with FPCC began in 2014.
Porubcan and Bryant answered a few questions about the collaboration and about their careers in archaeology.
How does it feel to have your collaboration with FPCC and with the entire NIFS team recognized?
PP: I am honored to receive this award, both on behalf of myself as well as on behalf of the entire NIFS team. This collaborative program has evolved into something with greater breadth and success than we ever imagined at its outset in 2014.
PB: It is much appreciated! There have been many people over the years that have contributed significantly to this collaboration in addition to those who are currently with NIFS. I am grateful for all the members of our team at ISAS, our sister surveys, and those we work with at the FPCC. I thank PRI for the recognition of all of our work and look forward to continuing our efforts to protect and preserve the cultural resources within the FPCC.
What have you found interesting or gratifying about the collaboration with the Forest Preserves of Cook County?
PP: I continue to enjoy the interdisciplinary aspects of the program. I have the opportunity to learn about natural resource management and work with experts in many different fields of study. It is gratifying to find ways to successfully integrate archaeological and natural resource management programs.
PB: One of the things I have enjoyed is discussing the FPCC project with people from other specialties and viewing the preserves through a slightly different lens. It is through these connections that we are able to add to what we know archaeologically to create a more fully rounded picture of the life and land at any given time and subsequently share that picture with the public.
Part of the excitement of sharing the information of what we have learned with the public is that they often have very localized information that they are interested in sharing, too. Some of these things are local oral histories or even memories of specific events or activities in the FPCC that their friends and families participated in over the years. These can be helpful in interpreting sometimes odd finds in the field, such as dance pads seemingly in the middle of the woods, or curious depressions that were apparently used for paintball cover in the 1980s.
All these smaller parts fit into building a richer history of the FPCC lands, Cook County, and part of northeastern Illinois from the more recent to the distant past. It is something that we can do because of the partnerships and connections we have made over time, in addition to adding to previous work conducted in the preserves. Through the interpretation of our findings, we can aid in connecting the current residents to the unique resources that the FPCC presents and strengthen a sense of place and community.
What is archaeologically significant about the FPCC lands?
PP: To date, over 610 recorded archaeological sites are preserved within FPCC lands, sites that contain the record of human occupation of Cook County and northeastern Illinois, from 10,000 BC through the present. Prehistorically, this region was an important crossroads of people, technologies, and ideas, just as it continues to be today. And the only means to understanding our shared past is through the information contained in these important sites.
PB: The FPCC lands are particularly significant in that they retain most of the undeveloped or reclaimed land within Cook County, which is situated at a crossroads at the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan. The early establishment of the FPCC has helped to preserve archaeological sites that range from about 12,000 years ago that include small camps, pre-Contact villages, early settler homesteads, Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and sites that date beyond the post World War II era. The majority of Cook County sites that are outside of the FPCC have been destroyed by urban sprawl. It is important to identify and protect sites within the FPCC as they are some of the last remaining in the county. The extant sites within the FPCC allow us an opportunity to preserve them where possible and investigate where necessary.
What would you like people in Illinois, and particularly in Cook County, to know about the state’s cultural heritage?
PP: People have been living in Cook County for at least 12,000 years. What they ate, what their houses looked like, who they traded with, even glimpses into their thoughts about spirituality and the afterlife, can be understood through data preserved within the sites protected and managed by the FPCC. Both ISAS and FPCC share a strong responsibility and desire to disseminate this information to the residents of Cook County.
PB: That there is so much out there to explore! Many places can be visited; some have a bounty of reading material on them. Be it maritime history, big events like the 1893 World’s Fair, Cahokia (the largest pre-Columbian city in North America north of Mexico), or learning about how people adapted to live in a changing climate, there is something out there for everyone’s curiosity.
There are a great many sources from which people can learn more about their local and state cultural heritage. The ISAS website has updates on projects that we have been working on throughout the state. Other places to check out include local museums, historical societies, and some nature centers. The Illinois State Museum has several locations of interest, including Dickson Mounds and the Lockport Gallery. Discover Illinois Archaeology has a brief rundown of cultural periods within Illinois. Several museums also have online exhibits or information about their exhibits and sites (i.e. Field Museum of Natural History, Pullman National Monument, Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, Chicago Maritime Museum, Clarke House Museum, and Museum of the Grand Prairie) that can be a springboard for further investigation.
What do you most enjoy about working at ISAS?
PP: The most enjoyable part of working at ISAS has always been working day to day with my coworkers at NIFS – they are such a curious, engaged, hard-working, and very knowledgeable group of scientists and citizens. The broader ISAS organization provides me with the resources and opportunities to pursue professional academic interests as well as to apply expertise to solve real-world problems.
PB: I enjoy the people with whom I work and the efforts that we make to be proactive in identifying and best preserving the cultural resources found in Illinois. Included within this is the important aspect of public outreach events as people generally will not care about something if they do not understand it. Through the work we do we are able to look at the whole range of human occupation within the state and share those findings with the people to hopefully foster continued stewardship of our shared cultural heritage in Illinois.