Ancient America Lies Under An Illinois Cornfield and Professor Struever Digs It
What has come to be known grandiosely as “the Koster site” is little more than a hole in the ground about 100 feet square, 34 feet deep. It is smack in the middle of cornfields in southern Illinois, which can hardly rival Athens or Ephesus as a tourist attraction. Yet to Stuart Struever, a professor of anthropology and archeology at Northwestern University, the site is a dig of profound historical impact and personal fascination. “We are,” says Struever, “starting to destroy the terrible semihuman image of the prehistoric American Indian.”
Since 1969, when Struever organized the first excavations at Koster (so named for the farmer who then owned the cornfield), he and his staff have painstakingly unearthed evidence of Indian settlements that began “five minutes after the last glacier pulled out” (about 8000 B.C.) and continued until 1200 A.D. And by sifting the earth literally lump by lump, student archeologists have proved that the ancient inhabitants lived peaceful lives in organized communities. The discoveries have caused archeologists to revamp their theories that prehistoric North Americans were warlike nomads.
Struever’s finding of the site was itself pure serendipity. In 1968 he became lost while driving from North-western’s campus outside Chicago to St. Louis where he was to lecture. When he passed a farmer digging among some Indian mounds, the archeologist excitedly forgot about directions. The farmer told him that large quantities of Indian artifacts had been turned up at the nearby Koster farm, and Struever, who had been exploring southern Illinois since childhood, knew he had found the rainbow’s end. “It scares the hell out of me,” he says, “that my whole life was changed because I went off the main highway.”
Finding the Indian site was one thing, keeping the dig going has proved another. It is in an isolated area, muggy in the summer, freezing cold in the winter. When Struever tries to recruit field-work classes, he does not mince words. “I can promise you lots of squatting,” he says. “You’ll measure until you go blind. It’ll be dirty, rough work, and you can’t turn off your mind, because you aren’t a laborer; you’re a scientist.”
During peak periods in late spring, summer and early fall, as many as 250 students, faculty members and miscellaneous volunteers swarm over the Koster dig. Their presence raises the population of nearby Kampsville (450) by 50 percent. In town, Struever’s Northwestern Archeological Foundation owns 29 buildings for scholars, artifacts, records and archeology’s newest tool, computers.
Koster’s farm is about 150 miles south of Peru, Ill. where Struever was born into a prosperous family in 1931. First trying medical school, he returned to his youthful enthusiasm—archeology. After teaching two years at the University of Chicago (where he got his Ph.D.) he joined Northwestern in 1965.
Because Northwestern supplies only 20 percent of the annual $298,000 budget for Koster, he has had to scrounge for foundation support and private contributions. Says one archeologist friend, “We meet ladies at cocktail parties who swoon over archeology but when they find out you’re digging American Indians, they say, ‘Why aren’t you doing something interesting, like Mesopotamia?’ ”
One of the periodic financial crises threatened the program this fall, cutting the number of full-time students in the field from 15 to eight. Struever’s life has become a frantic round of Evanston-Kampsville commuting, sunrise meetings with students, candy-bar breakfasts, afternoon fund-raising and late-night bouts with paperwork.
“It’s a small price to pay if Koster succeeds,” says Struever, as he scoffs at the idea that the PR and administrative demands of the dig must be wearing him down. “When people say I’m on a treadmill, I tell them this ain’t no treadmill. It’s the goddamndest, most exciting 100-yard dash ever run.”