You are standing on a spot that has witnessed thousands of years of human habitation as well as some of the most important prehistoric archaeological excavations undertaken in the Eastern United States, overlooking a valley that will soon undergo important large-scale wetland restoration.
This bluff top site, named the Morton site after former landowner Joy Morton, is a sprawling mortuary and habitation site covering over 40 acres which encompasses 16 burial mounds. The primary habitation area, the Morton Village, located to the northeast. Evidence of small living areas are scattered all along the Morton site bluff. Archaeological excavations at the Morton site have yielded unprecedented information about the prehistory of central Illinois, and provided a training ground for some renowned North American archaeologists.
The University of Chicago excavated eight of the Morton Mounds between 1930 and 1932. Returning to the site in 1980, Dickson Mounds Museum archaeologists conducted salvage excavations between two of the mounds, and in 1984 and 1988, undertook extensive salvage excavations at the primary habitation and cemetery area of the site in conjunction with the widening of Illinois Routes 78 and 97. Because prehistoric Indians of several cultures lived at Morton over a timespan of about 2000 years, the site is a premier location for archaeological research and interpretation. The rich and well-preserved archaeological record provides a unique window into past lifeways in Illinois
Drawn by the discoveries made by amateur excavators at the nearby Dickson, Ogden, and Gooden mounds, archaeologists from the University of Chicago came to the area in 1930 to excavate the Morton mound group. Here they established one of the first schools in archaeological field technique. The early field schools at Morton set the stage for a new era of archaeological innovation, and led to the development of a cultural sequence for the area that is still used today.
The headquarters for the University of Chicago field school was at the Thompson Lake farm, located in the bottom near the shore of the recently drained Thompson Lake. Today all that remains of the headquarters are the sidewalks. The crew used four upstairs rooms and a building attached to the rear as quarters for the men, and as the laboratory. They set up a photographic darkroom in a basement washroom. The instructors and women field students were quartered at the Morton Hilltop Lodge that was once located here on the bluff just to the southwest.
Archaeologists throughout America recognized the significance of the University of Chicago's Fulton County project. In addition to important archaeological discoveries, the project offered excellent training in field techniques, which attracted many students. From the ranks of this field school, a new generation of archaeologists emerged, many of whom shaped modern archaeology.
The floodplain below was once characterized by large shallow lakes, marshes, sloughs, and streams with forest bordering their shores. The largest of these wetland features was Thompson Lake. Before it was drained to create farmland in 1923, this bottomland was a hunter's and fisherman's paradise, providing an abundance of waterfowl and aquatic plants and animals that complemented the wealth of resources in the bordering forests and grasslands. Few areas were more ideally suited for human habitation.
Though the work of The Nature Conservancy's Emiquon Project, the farmland below will soon be restored to natural wetlands. When restored, it will provide backwater lake, bottomland forest, upland forest, prairie, seasonal wetland, and marsh habitat for migratory birds, fish and resident wildlife.
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