Feature News

“Diggin’ the dig:” anthropology students get their hands dirty at important archaeological site

Jacob Imm

Oct 26, 2021

North Central College anthropology students taking the class “Stones and Bones” are getting a rare opportunity for hands-on experience at an archaeological dig site thanks to Dr. Dale Simpson, adjunct associate professor of anthropology. The site dates back around 9,500 years and is part of the DeWulf Paleoindian Project (DPP). Located in Colona, Ill., it is a ritual offering site near the junction of the Mississippi and Rock Rivers, approximately two hours west of the North Central campus.

Simpson has been teaching remotely and broadcasting class sessions from active digs and archaeological sites, in what he calls “From the Field.” Simpson has virtually taken his students to dig and walk sites in Illinois such as the Winfield Mounds, Rockwell Mound Park, and Dickson Mounds as well as his sessions at the DPP.

Simpson refers to the activity at the Colona site as “public archaeology.” DPP has created a community of archaeologists, artifact collectors, local citizens and college students who all come to work on the site together. Simpson says it is a “late Paleoindian offering site where members of the Renier Ceremonial Complex made a trek from Wisconsin into the site where they ritually smashed and burned (we say killed) thousands of stone tools.” Simpson was also “lucky” to find the 11th piece of copper in situ, which was  another raw material used in the ritual offering. “This copper use may relate some of the earliest use of metal in North America.”

Simpson delivered a lecture from the site and sensed it would be an opportunity his students would want to take part in, but it was the students who took the next step.

North Central College anthropology students working on the Colona dig site.

“We talked about the archaeological process from finding a site … to reconnaissance survey to digging to interpretation to outreach,” Simpson said. “It motivated them, by seeing that, because by that Saturday we had 18 North Central students come (to the dig site) along with three other students from the College of DuPage. On their own, driving, they brought their own lunches, and they worked super hard.

“I wanted to make an instant impact for the North Central community, and I knew the best way to do that was to get my students’ hands dirty. When you're an archaeologist, that's the goal, is to be a little bit of a dirt junkie and get these folks interested—get them doing the hard work.”

Opportunities to work on projects like this were rare even before the COVID-19 pandemic and are especially scarce now, according to Simpson. They are extremely valuable to students in their journeys to professional success.

“They may not be going into archaeology, but all of these individuals can put this as experience on their resume,” he said. “I feel that within one weekend with me, I help these individuals improve their career. Someone going through their resume (is sure to say), ‘Oh, wow, you did an archeological dig?’ It's a conversation starter.”

Simpson welcomed his students to try numerous tasks and techniques they would not normally be able to do until becoming professional archaeologists, giving them invaluable experience.

“They were able to sieve (and) do raw material identification,” said Simpson. “Dirt is processed through the sieve, and you then have to hold the different types of archaeological material and know the difference of the material compared to other things that get added to the soil that aren't artifacts. They (also did) shovel scraping and trowel digging.”

Julia Vitucci ’24 was especially enthusiastic about getting the chance to dig. Her motivation was clear to Simpson, who graciously lent Vitucci his own flat top shovel that had been given to him by his father. The anthropology major made the most of the gesture.

“When I got there, I was thrilled to be sieving dirt, but I also really wanted to experience digging,” Vitucci said. “I was already there so I (thought I) might as well make the most of my experience! Digging is a LOT harder than it looks. Being able to try it myself gave me a newfound respect for the field.”


Vitucci appreciated the chance to participate in the DPP, recognizing it was a rare opportunity.  

 “I was always worried that I would one day graduate and have no experience,” she said.  “I feel extremely grateful to be a part of the DeWulf project. It is somewhat surreal to have participated in uncovering a piece of history, dating back almost 10,000 years.”

Vitucci will soon capitalize on what she has learned in another venture with Professor Simpson. She has been named the Fall 2021 Mack Collection Project Intern at the Warrenville (IL) Historical Museum. During the two-month internship, she will be measuring a collection of 1,400 stone tools and recording data to help with analyzing and interpreting the pieces. She will also create educational and outreach assets for the museum.

Simpson hopes to bring more of these experiences and a diverse range of tasks to his students in the future, including field walking and lab analysis. He has worked in a wide range of locations in the United States as well as in Canada, Russia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Australia, and Easter Island and will give a keynote address at the 10th International Conference on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Pacific in June 2022 in Leiden, The Netherlands. Even with all of that extensive international experience, Simpson’s ultimate goal to is to also bring more awareness to the richness of archaeological research right here in Illinois.

“I'm trying to give students legitimate field experience, theory and practice so they can go right into a job in archaeology in Illinois,” Simpson said. “Because the jobs are here. Everyone wants to go to Egypt and Mesopotamia and Peru and Mexico, but people don't realize we have this rich archaeological record right here in Illinois (of) 11,000 years.

“If we want to really start really understanding what American history and prehistory is, we need to go back 11,000 years, we need to reset that clock, and have a better understanding of these archaeological phases: the legacy of these past people, the triumphs, but also the failures. The failures sometimes really help us as humans, because in short, we can learn from that. And that's exactly why we do archaeology, is to basically learn from the past and the present for the future.”

North Central College anthropology students working at the Colona dig site.