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Sangamo Archaeological Center Donates Significant pre-Civil War Urban Artifact Assemblage


Sangamo Donation Image 1The Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) has recently accepted the donation of one of the largest pre-Civil War urban artifact assemblages ever collected in the Midwest. The Sangamo Archaeological Center (SAC) Springfield, donated thousands of artifacts from nearly 100 archaeological features that were filled prior to the Civil War. The heart of the assemblage includes 172 boxes of specimens collected between 1995 and 2003 in downtown St Louis, as part of the SAC’s Urban Deep Feature Salvage Project.

When archaeologists excavate sites in Illinois that were abandoned prior to the Civil War, the majority of the artifacts that they unearth probably spent time as consumer goods in warehouses along the Mississippi River in St. Louis. St. Louis was the principal distribution point for the majority of wholesale and retail goods entering Illinois between 1800 and 1860. The city represented the principal link between communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin to the wholesalers of Philadelphia and New Orleans and to European dealers and manufacturers. It was not until after the development of the rail system during the mid-1850s that Chicago began its ascent toward a prominent Midwestern distribution and manufacturing center.

Sangamo Donation Image 2Although the history of St. Louis stretches back to the 1760s, very little professional archaeology has been conducted in downtown St. Louis. The interstate highway development that cut through the heart of the city predated the historic preservation laws of the early 1970s. The construction of the Gateway Arch and the surrounding park grounds also received no archaeological attention, destroying 80% of St. Louis’s colonial footprint. More recently, massive construction projects such as the Cervantes Convention Center Expansion (1992), the Trans World Dome Stadium (1993), and the New Busch Stadium (2005) have destroyed the archaeological records of entire neighborhoods—including hundreds of features and tens of thousands of artifacts dating at early as the 1820s. Only recently has professional archaeology begun to address large-scale construction projects downtown, such as the 2005–2006 work at the Cochran Gardens Housing Complex.

The excavations conducted by bottle collectors, prior to and during large-scale demolition projects, have been the principal form of artifact salvage in St. Louis for over 30 years. In many cases, this digging—primarily of deep features such as privies, cistern, or wells—is conducted legally with landowner or developer permission, and is sometimes aided by construction crews themselves. Unfortunately, this type of digging consists of uncontrolled excavations designed only for the retrieval of intact specimens. These objects and their contexts are rarely recorded, and the fragmentary artifact assemblage of which they are part is not generally collected or maintained.

Sangamo Boxes Ready for ISASDuring the mid-1990s, the Sangamo Archaeological Center attempted to address this problem through the creation of the Urban Deep Feature Salvage Project. SAC’s director, Robert Mazrim (who now serves as Professional Outreach Coordinator for ISAS), said that the goal of the project was to “turn a negative into a positive by salvaging artifact assemblages [that were being] unearthed and then discarded by collectors.” Professional archaeologists instructed selected collectors or avocational archaeologists in basic collection techniques, allowing for more controlled excavations. These efforts focused on pre-Civil War sites facing destruction by private development, which would not receive attention by professional archaeologists through state or federally-funded salvage programs. The result was the creation of one of the largest data sets ever collected in the Midwest, from sites that have now been completely destroyed.

In 2011, SAC donated 172 boxes from 61 features salvaged in St. Louis, dating circa 1840–1865. Included in the donation were materials from an additional 36 features salvaged in the city of Quincy, Illinois as well as material from several other towns across Illinois and Missouri. Most of these items have yet to be analyzed. However, a forthcoming report by Mazrim focuses on a sample of ten St Louis collected features, which produced a conservative minimum of 1,198 ceramic and glass vessels. Averaging 120 vessels per feature, the entire St. Louis feature collection may contain well over 7,000 vessels, all discarded before the end of the Civil War. Such a sample will offer regional archaeologists an unheard of opportunity to study marketing practices and consumer choices made by residents of the Midwest over 150 years ago.

For more information about the Sangamo Archaeological Center, visit:



[posted August 12, 2011]

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