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Dickson Mounds Still Yield Clues To Early Native American Life

The clock is ticking down on the number of days left to visit one of the foremost Native American archeological sites in the U.S. The Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, IL is scheduled to close under Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget cuts. Archeologist Alan Harn has spent the past 53 years studying the Native American human remains and artifacts there for clues about these early settlers.


Growing up along the Illinois River, Alan Harn often walked his family farm searching for Indian arrowheads and artifacts. Harn’s boyhood hobby turned into a lifelong passion the day he heard a talk given by Dr. Don Dickson. Dickson was a local chiropractor and self-taught archeologist who had excavated an ancient Native American burial site not far from Harn’s home, and preserved it for public viewing.

“It was the sincerity that he spoke about the people who were buried here and their importance and the things and experiences we still share with them in time. That had a profound effect on my life and it’s one of the reasons why I went into the study of man,” Harn says.

Few know more about the Illinois Valley’s early Native American inhabitants than Harn.  He started as a 21-year-old in 1962, working alongside Dickson. Harn has explored all 10 Dickson mounds and mapped 1,104 sets of their human remains.

“When we look at these places and excavate these sites we don’t see death. We don’t see death and dying, we see life.”

Now at age 74, Harn still approaches his work at the museum with wonder.

“Every day I walk through that door, I step into an ineffable world. And you realize daily how Howard Carter must have felt in 1922 when he broke into Tutankhamun’s tomb and someone asked him, what do you see? And he said, ‘There are wondrous things.’ This building is filled with wondrous things and wondrous stories.”

From an exhibit at the museum: “At the center which is here and everywhere, is the great spirit of the universe …” 

The current day museum, set  to close September 30, was built over one of the main burial mounds. Until 1992, visitors could still see some of the actual skeletal remains, exactly as they had been positioned in their graves some 700 to 900 years before. Public displays of Native American remains are now widely discouraged. At the Dickson Museum, extensive exhibitions now tell their story.

“This is one of the few places you can come and get an appreciation of the wonderful cultural heritage left by the American Indian," Harn says. "The important thing about this place is that people lived and stayed in the same area, They didn’t move, so we have an unbroken record through time.”

With the museum closing, it seemed like a good time to talk with Harn about the most surprising facts he’s learned over five decades of exploration. The first groups were woodland people who survived by hunting, gathering and rudimentary gardening.  As their original community grew into a kind of urban farming village, problems surfaced.

“At that point you begin to see your first evidences of violence. It wasn’t until they developed a concept of land ownership and control," Harn says.

Evidence of violence remains stamped onto the remains.

“Two of them had arrows still stuck in the bodies that showed no healing. Two of them were buried together, their heads were missing. They had sun bleaching of the bones, and had some carnivore destruction of the bones. They were probably killed away from the protection of the village."

Why would their heads be missing? “They take them as trophies," Harn says.

Also, as more outsiders arrived, a new social structure emerged. 

“The newcomers brought with them a new idea of hierarchy, tiered hierarchy. And so there were people here after 1100 with power over life and death.”

Harn says leaders emerged who were believed to have mystical, almost divine qualities. Once again the human remains tell a story.

“We find, in fact, in the Dickson excavation two burial pits that contain  human sacrifices. When people were sacrificed, they clamored to come forward to be sacrificed to go with that important person and be a part of the next life.”

But there is also much evidence of tenderness and respect for the dead.  

“There are infants here buried with equipment. They’re two or three months old. They could never use that pipe buried with them or little food bowl, but these people had a belief in the after-life, much as we have a belief in the afterlife today.”

In his office, Harn keeps a photo of Don Dickson holding one of his favorite artifacts from the excavation: a carefully crafted bowl with a duck head on it, found packed away in a child’s burial site. Like Dickson, Harn has been more interested in what these artifacts show about the daily life and psychology of early Native Americans. Here’s Dickson speaking in a 1969 interview about his goal in excavating the mounds.

“The fact is it’s the first time I believe anyone ever took the time to uncover prehistoric man and leave the material in its original position.” 

In fact, violent deaths among the Indians living in the area of the mounds were relatively few. Disease and malnutrition took a far greater toll. 

What has (this work) taught you about human nature, about human beings?

“Man hasn’t changed through time," Harn says. "We are mirror images of all of the people who have come before. We have the same fears, same hopes same needs and same prejudices. It’s mirrored here clear back to the beginning of time.”

Even when the museum closes its doors to the public, its artifacts and exhibits locked inside, Harn says his archeological research will go on.

"I have moved my library, I’ve duplicated my personal scientific records I’ve made on my own time,  I’ve transferred all of those to my home over at my farm. And the day this place closes, my research will continue.”

Harn plans to continue his research on what is known as the Larson Site. It was an Indian settlement of about a thousand inhabitants dating from the mid- 1200s located on a bluff a mile west of the Dickson mounds. The houses all burned, but now buried partially beneath a modern-day cemetery, a treasure trove of artifacts and history wait to be examined. 

Harn: “The great thing about that site is when the village burned, no one was able to get back in and save anything, so all the artifacts are lying on the house floors in the positions in which they were being used in life. It essentially fossilized a segment of the community where you can view it at one time in its history when that day stopped and time stood still, much like in Pompei.”

It will be a return in time of sorts for Harn as well, who first worked on the Larson Site in 1964. He says an archeologist’s work is never really done. That's because the work, according to Harn, is not a job. It's a passion."