National Geographic Society Rock Art Grant

Mark Wagner of  the Center for Archaeological Investigations (CAI) at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has been awarded an $8,150 National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation grant for the portable X-ray fluorescent (PXRF) analysis of prehistoric and historic period rock art paintings in southern Illinois. Project participants include Dr. Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK) and Mary McCorvie and Heather Carey of the USDA Forest Service. All four of the main researchers in this project (Wagner, Simek, McCorvie, and Carey) are ESRARA members.

PXRF analysis is a non-destructive technique  that involves taking a portable instrument (the PXRF machine) to rock art sites where it essentially provides an “X-ray” picture of the chemical elements in the pigments used to create the paintings without causing any damage to the paintings. The machine that we are going to use to conduct the survey belongs to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Jan Simek and several of his students are going to bring their PXRF machine to southern Illinois where Mark Wagner, Heather Carey, and Mary McCorvie will co-ordinate access to rock art sites located on state, federal, and private land.

What we hope to learn from this project is what are the chemical compositions of the paintings found at the various rock art sites in the region and do these vary from site to site or all the same pigments being used at all the sites? Also, do the chemical compositions of the paintings vary through time? for example, are the pigments in prehistoric Mississippian period (A.D. 1000-1500) paintings the same as those in historic period (A.D. 1700-1800) paintings in the region that were created by Great Lakes Algonquin peoples who first entered Illinois in the mid-1600s or is there a change through time?

This project is scheduled to begin in August, 2012.


Shawnee National Forest National Register Nominations

The Center for Archaeological Investigations (CAI) is preparing National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) nomination forms  for five rock  art sites located on the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois as part of an agreement between the USDA Forest Service and the CAI. The six sites for which forms are being prepared include the ca-A.D. 1700-1800 Buffalo Rock site (11Js49); three Mississippian period (A.D. 1000-1500) sites in the form of the Korando (11J334), Whetstone (11J17), and Bay Creek (11Pp52) sites; and the  Trestle Hollow sites (11J364), which is of unknown age.

There currently are only  four state-owned and  one federally-owned rock art site (Millstone Bluff, 11Pp8) listed  on the NRHP so completion of the nominations forms for these sites will double the number of Illinois rock art sites listed or eligible for the NRHP.  The purpose of having sites listed on the National Register is that it alerts planners  or agencies involved in federally funded, licensed, or permitted projects of the existence of nationally important sites in their areas that may be affected by a proposed project. This allows federal officials  to protect such sites by, for example, in the case of the Forest Service, not constructing a trail too close to an important site and inadvertently causing damage to  it through increased visitation and possible vandalism.

British Archaeologists Tour Southern Illinois Rock Art Sites

On June 21, 2012, as part of their tour of prehistoric earthen mound sites in eastern North America, over 20 members of the Prehistoric Society of Great Britain visited two prehistoric rock art sites—Piney Creek Ravine and Millstone Bluff—in southern Illinois. The tour was organized and led by Pete Topping of English Heritage. ESRARA members Mark Wagner (Southern Illinois University) gave them a tour of the Piney Creek site, the largest rock art site in Illinois in terms of the number of images, while Mary McCorvie and Heather Carey (USDA Forest Service) led the tour at the Millstone Bluff site, an unplowed Mississippian-era bluff top village with three associated rock panels.

It was a great opportunity to show off some of our Midwestern rock art sites to a very appreciative group of visitors who confessed they were “mounded out” after visiting the Aztalan, Cahokia, and other mound group sites in the several days before they reached southern Illinois. Even the humidity, heat, ticks, snakes, and poison ivy (which was especially bad at the Millstone Bluff site) of early summer in southern Illinois did not deter them from looking at rock art on a very long day that started at the Cahokia site at 5:30 in the morning and ended at about 8:00 in the evening at Evansville, Indiana. They were especially appreciative of the hats bearing images of southern Illinois rock art designs that were given to them by Mary McCorvie at the Millstone Bluff site as a souvenir of their visit. We (and I think they) were only sorry that they did not have more time to visit additional rock art sites in our region. Hopefully, now that they are familiar with what we have to offer, they will make a return tour to visit additional rock art sites in the eastern U.S. in the future.


2011 Buffalo Rock (11Js49) Site Conservation

Mark J. Wagner and Mary R. McCorvie

The Buffalo Rock site is a historic period pictograph site in southern Illinois that contains the states’ only known bison painting as well as several smaller paintings of a crescent moon, star, and cross (Figures 1 and 2). These paintings are believed to have been created between ca. AD 1700-1800 by Native American peoples traveling along the Golconda-Kaskaskia Trace, which is a dirt trail linking the Ohio and Mississippi River whose origins may extend back into the prehistoric period (Wagner et al. 2010;89-106). The site is now owned by the federal government as part of the Shawnee National Forest of southern Illinois.

The bison painting is a well-known landmark throughout southern Illinois and the shelter containing the paintings is frequented by campers, hikers, and horse back riders. One such group of visitors  defaced the site in 2010 by using charcoal, probably from a camp fire, to write the lyrics “we were meant to eat each other” and other phrases from a post-heavy metal band song across the bison and other paintings (Figure 3).

The Shawnee National Forest (SNF) archaeologists consulted with various rock art conservators who  advised that the best way to remove the charcoal would be by using distilled water. As part of the ESRARA biennial meeting held at Giant City State Park in southern Illinois in March, 2011, ESRARA members traveled to the site to clean the charcoal from the rock face using this technique (Figures 4 and 5). ESRARA member Jim Duncan, who has had experience in cleaning soot and dirt from murals in the Missouri state capitol building, provided instruction on how to clean the charcoal from the paintings  without touching the rock face (Figures 6 and 7). The distilled water was sprayed on the charcoal, causing it to dissolve, with the runoff caught on a sponge held below the sprayed area (Figures 8-10). By using this technique it was possible to clean the rock face without having to touch it with either cotton balls or a sponge and possibly smear the charcoal over the rock face.

The cleaning was successful and the site now once again appears as it did before the vandalism (Figure 11). Unfortunately, the vandalism at Buffalo Rock is not an isolated incident with several sites on both private and public land in southern Illinois having been vandalized by chalking, spray painting, or other methods in the past several years. Although the Forest Service protects rock art sites on the lands it manages by a combination of concealing their locations as well as yearly monitoring to check on their condition, the locations of many rock art sites in the region passed into public knowledge decades ago. As such, we anticipate that rock art conservation and restoration techniques will become an increasingly important aspect of the management and protection of rock art sites within Illinois.


Wagner, Mark J., Mary R. McCorvie, and Charles A. Swedlund

2010   The Buffalo Rock Site (11Js49): A Historic Period Native American Rock Art Site in Johnson County, Illinois. In Pottery, Passages, Postholes and Porcelain: Essays in Honor of Charles H. Faulkner, edited by Timothy E. Baumann and Mark D. Groover, Report of Investigations No. 23, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Possible Historic Period Native American Petroglyph Site Discovered in Central Illinois

In May, 2011, Mark Wagner (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale) and Heather Carey (Shawnee National Forest) traveled to central Illinois to meet Hal Hassen (Illinois Department of Natural Resource) and Dawn Cobb (Illinois Historic Preservation Agency) to inspect a possible rock art site located on state land near, Pekin, Illinois. The site had been reported by several local men who stated that they had seen engraved designs on a glacial boulder located on a steep hillside.

Inspection of the boulder (Figure 1) revealed that it contained at least two finely engraved anthropomorphs, two bird-like images, and a number of engraved lines on the top and sides of the boulder that might represent additional images (Figures 2 and 3). Although the age of the images is unknown, they are dissimilar from prehistoric petroglyphs in the state which typically pecked or ground into the rock face, not engraved.

Several lines of evidence indicate that the images may be historic period (post AD 1673) Native American carvings. First, the images are so finely engraved that they appear to have been incised in the rock face using metal tools. Second, they are stylistically similar to engraved images seen on bone and metal artifacts dating to the proto-historic and historic period in Illinois. Third, the hill side containing the boulder is located adjacent to a river floodplain that reportedly contains a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Potawatomi settlement. This does not indicate that the carvings are necessarily Potawatomi in origin, however, as these and other late eighteenth to early nineteenth century Native American peoples in central and northern Illinois often situated their villages on ones formerly occupied by the Illini prior to 1760.

IDNR and SIU archaeologists are tentatively planning to record the boulder in detail at some point this fall using a combination of mapping and side-light flash photography at night to illuminate the designs on the boulder. If the designs indeed do date to the post-1673 historic period, this will be only the third historic period Native American rock art site recorded in the state and the first petroglyph (as opposed to a pictograph) site dating to that period.