Archaeologists wonder about stone forts

Staff Writer

CARBONDALE (February 8, 1996) - Two Southern Illinois archaeologists believe they have found a connection between some ancient rock art sites and stoneforts and the system of early trails and roads used by prehistoric Indians.

The husband and wife team, Mark Wagner and Mary McCorvie, have been studying two general types of rock art and the region's ancient stoneforts. The first type of rock art is rock paintings which are known as pictographs, and the second type is rock carvings known as petraglyphs.

Wagner is director of the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University. McCorvie is staff archaeologist for the Shawnee National Forest.

The two have noticed that rock art that has religious symbolism is usually found in remote hidden places while other art, especially rock carvings of footprints are found close to the old trails.

Footprint Rock in Johnson County is one of the best known sites, but other footprints can be found in other places. One on Sugar Creek just outside Creal Springs was a tourist attraction back when the springs made the city a resort town.

Wagner said earlier scientists believed that these footprints were formed when an Indian had stepped in mud that later hardened into rock.

Wagner and McCorvie aren't sure what the footprints were supposed to represent, but they're found along the same ancient trails as many of the stoneforts along the ridge of the Shawnee Hills.

When the first settlers came to Southern Illinois, they followed the existing trails that had originally been laid out by the Indians. Since trails couldn't go up rock walls, the routes were laid out to cross the hills only at certain places. One of the best remembered spots is a place called Moccasin Gap south of Ozark.

McCorvie said that the stoneforts were not placed on the highest hills, but on the foothills north and south of the ridge. Both she and Wagner pointed out that although they're call "stoneforts", there's no evidence that they were necessarily used as forts.

"The stoneforts were normally high isolated bluffs," Wagner explained, "They're called forts, but we don't have any indication that they were used as such."

The best known stonefort is the one that gave the village of Stonefort its name. It is located about three miles east of the village. Early settlers found walls of an enclosure that were still six feet tall.

Up until a few decades ago, residents believed the fort had either been built by the Spanish explorer Hernado de Soto or the American Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. At least one early Spanish map shows an ancient fort on the Salinas (Saline) River in Southern Illinois.

McCorvie says the stone walls are much older than that and may date back to the Middle Woodland period which could make them 2,000 years old. Even then, archaeological digs have provided items that prove those early residents of Southern Illinois were part of an extensive trading network.

The two scientists believe that the trading network followed the trails in Southern Illinois that later became the early pioneer roads centuries later. Wagner suggested that the stoneforts could have existed to possibly control the trade goods that passed through the area. McCorvie thinks that the forts could have simply been community sites.

Another one of the stoneforts that show evidence of being more than a simple enclosure is Millstone Bluff in Pope County. This is also the only prehistoric site in the region that is on the National Register of Historic Places and is interpreted with a walking trail and signs.

Besides the remains of a rock wall, the Forest Service has discovered the building sites, ancient graves and a collection of rock paintings that may have some religious connotations. Millstone Bluff is open to the public and is located off of Route 147 about a mile west of the intersection with Route 145.

The couple's work is part of a third wave of discovering ancient Indian sites. The first wave took place when the first pioneers reached the region. Early local histories written in the last century would mention a site that many of which can no longer be found today.

The second wave took place during the 1930s through 1950s when the Shawnee National Forest was developed and people were able to explore the ancient hollows and rock shelters. Like the first wave, these scientists recorded their discoveries. Yet even so, many can't be found.

"It's important that we find them, because we have a number of sites that were recorded in the '30s and '50s and we don't know where they're at now because the people who found them are dead," Wagner said.

"For years, there was only 17 known sites [in Southern Illinois], yet across the river in Missouri they had several hundred sites," Wagner added, "Within the last few years we've probably added 20 additional sites."

Recently, Wagner said that new sites were being discovered at places where there had already been a lot of work done. Two examples he gave was Cedar Lake and another rock shelter location.

He said that when Cedar Lake was built there were extensive archaeological studies conducted, yet within the last few years one of his former students was fishing near the shore when he noticed something. When he took Wagner to see it they realized it was a rock carving a few feet above the water line. The rock art was located above a rock shelter which is now underwater.

Wagner said while visiting another rock shelter he was told about he noticed a dark area in the back of the shelter. Walking through it he discovered he was in a room with about an eight foot ceiling. Around the room were a dozen faint carvings of a winged bird man often found at religious sites.

One of the biggest problems the couple have found is what they call mindless vandalism. Ever since the pioneers arrived people have either tried to remove the rock art, carve their own initials over the art, or in the case of scientists earlier this century, destroy the original art in an attempt to save it.

In the last case Wagner used the example of Buffalo Rock in Johnson County and Fountain Bluff in Jackson County. At Buffalo Rock there is a painting of a buffalo. Wagner believes that the original painting was done sometime after 1650, which is about the year scientists believe buffalo arrived in Illinois. It was certainly painted before the earliest settlers arrived. However, Wagner has found at least two references of the buffalo being repainted by someone after it has faded.

While Wagner said this destroys the original art and any chance of scientists learning anything about the original color, he said at least the recent painters were using natural materials. That can't be said at Fountain Bluff where one of Wagner's predecessors at SIU repainted some fading rock art with yellow house paint.

While presenting a lecture on rock art at a Sierra Club meeting Thursday, Wagner stressed how much even making chalk outlines can damage the chance of further scientific study.

McCorvie noted that damaging or robbing archaeological sites on federal lands is prohibited and persons doing so can be prosecuted, fined and even put in jail. Artifact hunting on private lands can also be against the law. Without the property owner's permission a person can be tried for trespassing, criminal damage to property and theft. More serious state charges can be filed if the site includes any human burials.

The preceding article was printed in the Saturday, Feb. 10, 1996, edition of the Harrisburg Daily Register.

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