Share Tweet Share Email

Digging into history

August 18, 2010
Macktown field camp 1

NIU senior Joann Losavio, a Lake Barrington resident, sifts through soil that was taken from an area of Macktown where students are taking part in an archeological dig. The dig is part of a summer camp sponsored by Midwest Arechological Research Services. Losavio is studying history and anthropology.

They scrape and claw at the earth with trowels and hopes of finding a clue – any clue –  that will give them an idea of what stood on this spot hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Some days the bugs eat them alive and the sun bakes their dirty arms, necks and legs.  But these NIU students don’t mind. They paid good money to dig and poke around the Macktown Settlement, near Rockton, Ill., this past summer.

NIU seniors Joann Losavio, a Lake Barrington resident, and Leanne Wright, a Rockton resident, say that the three-week field camp was a great way to apply the knowledge they learned in the anthropology classes they took at NIU’s DeKalb campus. And to make sure they learn the correct way to search the ground for remnants of past inhabitants, NIU graduate student Jay Martinez guided the students through the camp.

“That’s how I learned – at field camp.” Martinez said. “Two years ago I did the same thing they are doing. It can be hard work, but when you find something, it will pump you up.

Martinez works for Midwest Archeological Research Services in Marengo. MARS conducts the camp and partners with area colleges to give students real-world experience. In return, the students – six total this summer – help the small company look for artifacts at Macktown, an abandoned town across the Rock River from Rockton.

Losavio, who is a senior at NIU, studying history and anthropology, signed up for the camp while taking summer classes at Harper College in Palatine. Wright enrolled though Elgin Community College.

“You can’t match what we learned in the field,” Losavio said. “In class, we learn principle. At field camp we learn procedure.”

And sometimes that procedure can be painstakingly slow. While Losavio spent some time sifting through piles of soil taken from an area Martinez believes was the site of a home, Wright was scraping it from the ground with a hand trowel.

“Sometimes you have to go a centimeter at a time,” she said stopping to wipe the sweat from her face. In between scrapes, she stopped to determine if the square hole she was digging in was level.

If Wright went faster or scraped a larger portion of dirt in one sweep, she could have missed a piece of broken glass or china – any piece of history she and her classmates were searching for.  So, she searched for history a handful at a time.

Macktown was never the bustling town its founder, Stephen Mack, had hoped it would be in the early 1850s. He planned to create a community the size of Rockton, which now has a population of 5,500. A handful of homes, a general store and a bridge were constructed within a time span of 15 years.

However, before Mack’s dream could take shape, he learned the hard way that his settlement was on the low side of the river. Heavy rains and spring thaws flooded the area and washed out the bridge. Residents looked at the dry land across the river and decided to resettle there.  A handful of families stayed, but some of their stories were buried with time. The students were digging where they believe Shores home was built more than 150 years ago.

In the 12 or so year MARS employees have been examining Macktown, they have found broken dishes, tools, and remnants of buildings, Martinez said. They have also found stone tools; stone drills bits and relics of people who lived on the site more than 3,000 years ago.

“Every time we find something, we want to keep going to see what else we can find,” Martinez said. “Through the years we’ve found quite a collection of artifacts.”

Already, so much has been discovered about Macktown, said Rochell Lurie, MARS director. Not only is it rich in history and unfulfilled dreams, but it’s a natural for piquing the interests of historians and anthropologists such as Losavio and Wright. Both said they wanted to take part in the camp because of the potential to gain real-world experience at an unfolding chapter in northern Illinois history.

by Gerard Dziuba