In the late 1960s southern Illinois farmers reported finding arrowheads and bits of pottery — signs of an ancient civilization — when they plowed their fields.
Around the late 1960s Ted Koster and his wife, Mary, agreed to let Northwestern anthropologist Stuart Struever ’60 MA conduct an archaeological excavation on their farm. Within the next few years, Northwestern opened an archeological field school along the banks of the Illinois River. For around a decade, dozens of Northwestern students and archaeologists ventured to Kampsville, Ill. — a five-hour drive southwest of Evanston — to conduct excavations at the Koster site, uncovering thousands of artifacts, including bones, remnants of prehistoric houses and other items.
Struever’s dig led to the discovery of 25 distinct “horizons” — layers of artifacts from specific cultural time periods — dating back to the Archaic Period (8000 B.C. to 600 B.C.). The Koster site, which at one time drew more than 10,000 visitors annually, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 1972. Struever founded the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville.
“Struever was a really good salesman,” recalls Jim Carper ’79, who took the professor’s introductory anthropology class his first year at Northwestern. “He painted this image of the summer program — going to the Koster dig and uncovering all these artifacts and exploring past civilizations. He spun a pretty good tale about being an archaeologist and why it was important to do the science. It sounded like a lot of fun.”
Carper says he was surprised by the rustic living conditions. “Kampsville was a little town of about 400 people on the Illinois River in farm country. It had a bank and a bar and not much else.
“We would get up in the morning, eat breakfast and get on a school bus. We had to cross the Illinois River on a ferry, so that was always exciting, maneuvering the school bus onto the ferry.
“I was there in the summer of 1977, and by that time the site was a big open pit. We descended two stairways down to the bottom. And once there, it was all divided into grids, 3 feet by 3 feet. The assignment was to excavate an inch at a time. It was kind of painstaking.”
In the evenings, after dinner, professors from Northwestern and guests from the Museum of Science and Industry and other institutions would offer lectures at the Center for American Archeology.
“I learned a little bit of geology, biology, ecology and human behavior,” explains Carper, who now lives in Glencoe, Ill. “I liked the perspective that all these different scientists came together and explained what had happened there. I found that very interesting.”
Around the same time, Donald Albertson ’73, ’79 MA and his colleagues discovered human remains at the nearby Helton Mounds. Field school students at that site, under the direction of former Northwestern professor Jane Buikstra, excavated skeletons as well as pottery and stone tools.
Albertson worked in the Helton Mounds osteology lab, where he meticulously labeled and preserved skeletal remains. The following year, Buikstra hired Albertson as her lab supervisor.
When federal funding for the excavation and preservation projects dried up, “I got out of archaeology,” says Albertson. But the work at Koster and Helton “was a huge turning point in my life, even though I didn't realize it at the time. Being part of the program gave me a lot of flexibility and knowledge that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise and allowed me to adapt to whatever circumstances people threw at me.”