Indiana State University Newsroom

Getting down and dirty: Students excavate Allison-Lamotte site

August 20, 2010

As Shannon Rosser ran her hands through the dark brown dirt, it sifted through a screen and fell on top of a cone-shaped pile that reached to her knees. Occasionally, her hands would pick out a piece of bone or charcoal that she dropped into a labeled brown paper bag.

When all of that dirt fell through the screen onto the pile, she turned around and picked up another bucket of dirt to start again.

"I dug a lot of holes in my grandma's yard, and little did I know that I'd still be digging holes now 20 years later," said the senior anthropology major from Kansas City. "I swear I'm the dirtiest one here, too, when we go home. I'm like Pigpen. It's just glorious."

Rosser was one of 17 students who spent five weeks excavating a Native American site north of Terre Haute as part of Indiana State University's archeological field school. Students learn proper archeological excavation and data collection techniques while conducting research on the Allison-Lamotte prehistoric culture.

"We're interested in the nature of this Native American site," said Russ Stafford, ISU anthropology professor. "It's a site that dates to about 1,500 years ago and would have been occupied around A.D. 400 or 500."

The people living there hunted deer, collected shellfish from the Wabash River, gathered nuts and tuber plants. They planted gardens of goose foot (a starchy annual now thought of as a weed), sunflower and squash.

"They probably lived here virtually year-round and we know that because of the very large pits, some of which were storage pits," Stafford said. "From our geophysical survey we know that there's a village area that we're excavating, but then to the south there's a plaza where they would have held ceremonies, dances, that kind of thing. This is when we first started seeing planned communities."

Students used a ground penetrating radar to create an underground map of the plaza area to see what could possibly lie underneath.

"If there is a prehistoric pit or a foundation or even a modern pipe it will register in the instrument on our screen here as well as save that data," Stafford said. "We do a series of transects with it across the site and then we have software that puts that together and gives us a plain view map of the potential historic pit that is below the grounds."

While excavations haven't shown direct evidence of houses, they have found different types of deep pits filled with Allison-Lamotte trash.

"For us, it's a gold mine because that's where the really neat artifacts come from," Stafford said.

In the pits, the students slowly, painstakingly with trowels carved through layers of history to uncover deer bones, spear points, broken ceramic pots and stone tools.

"At the end of the day, you're tired, but you know you've done a lot work, you've got to experience cultures that have happened thousands of years ago and you got to touch a piece a pottery that a Native American has touched 2,000 years ago. It's very exciting," said Martin Maynard, sophomore anthropology major from Terre Haute.

Those artifacts were taken back to Indiana State where during the fall semester they will be cleaned, sorted, measured, identified and ultimately written about in a report about the site.

From lying on their stomachs on hard-packed dirt to crouching in pits, the students searched for clues to the past, and in doing so, they learned for their futures.

"It's finally getting hands-on experience after being in the classroom setting and going through textbooks. The field school definitely gives you the hands-on experience that you read about in classes," said Maynard. "This class is actually essential to doing the archeology work in the future. So this is our first experience getting our feet wet and our hands dirty in the archeology field."

"As we're doing this, we're analyzing as we go, judging what is an artifact, what isn't," Rosser said. "So it's just been first-hand, hands-on educational experience."

That experience is necessary for the future anthropologists and archeologists, according to Stafford.

"They gain some really essential experience in that the training they get here they can then go on to use in their careers," he said. "If they're going to graduate school and specializing in archeology, you have to have this kind of field experience to be able to do that."

While the field school may help the students with graduate school admission or finding a job at another dig site, the students also take away more than just skills.

"When you're actually seeing the tools that they had and compared to the tools that we have today and how far we've come in 2,000 years, it's quite amazing to think of the significance of what they had and what we've got today."

"I feel like it really enlightens me as to why humans are the way they are," Rosser said about studying anthropology. "I know we have psychology for that, but it kind of gives us an idea, a perspective of our origins."

Shannon Rosser, senior anthropology major from Kansas City, sifts through soil looking for remnants of the Allison-Lamotte culture. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

ISU Anthropology Professor Russ Stafford assists students at the dig site north of Terre Haute. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Martin Maynard, sophomore anthropology major from Terre Haute, covers an excavated pit at the site. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Contact: Russ Stafford, Indiana State University, professor of anthropology, at 812-237-2261 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or