LEWISTOWN - One of the nation's premiere archaeological sites and museums profiling ancient Americans is almost hidden next to the Illinois River 40 miles southwest of Peoria.

Mention Dickson Mounds Museum and people might assume "Dixon." That makes for an unsuccessful Google or map search. Modern-day explorers who find it are rewarded with a look at the birthplace of American archaeology and a 12,000-year walk back to the end of the Ice Age.

"The simple matter of the fact is, it's off the beaten path," said archaeologist Michael Wiant, director of the museum. People who visit often say: "We had no idea that such an extraordinary place was here."

"There are not many places in Illinois that tell the story of native people on the landscape," he said.

The site in Fulton County has 11 overlapping burial mounds, temple mounds and effigy mounds, constructed by Native Americans in and around large villages. The three-floor state museum is shaped like a platform mound, with slanted sides.

Office manager Kim Dunnigan said the museum is organized by the stories the artifacts tell.

"We look at it from an artifact standpoint," Dunnigan said. "We have a lot to offer the visitor. We have three floors of exhibits."

The third floor includes an outdoor observation deck, with signs and pictures orienting viewers to ancient features that dot the landscape below and beyond.

One mound flanked by oaks is visible due south, part of the Ogden-Fettie site in the floodplain of the Spoon River. This 2,000-year-old site contains about 30 mounds and the remains of an extensive village.

Wiant advises visitors to begin on the observation deck.

"The past in a sense is still alive in the landscape," Wiant said. "We're looking at the world that these people lived in," he said.

The Illinois River's bottomlands and wetlands immediately to the east attracted and sustained Native Americans beginning 12,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age glacier receded. Emiquon Preserve, a river wetland east of the museum, is a fish propagation area where no fishing is allowed.

Emiquon was the native people's word for place of the ladle, or place of the spoon, Wiant said.

Every artifact

The museum's artifacts are astounding. Almost every aspect of ancient American life - farming, food preparation, religious ceremony, play, fishing, hunting, even tattooing - are explained through actual artifacts unearthed nearby or in the state.

There are long thin bones used by tattooists. Utensils and tools, and the tools used to make them, are displayed.

There are fish hooks made of bone, and fishing lures and fishing decoys made of clam shells. Remains show that people ate longnose gar, channel catfish, bowfin, buffalo, freshwater drum and largemouth bass.

The museum emanates sounds appropriate for each section. In the tool-making area, visitors will hear Native American voices and the muted sounds of scraping, hammering and polishing, the sounds of rock, wood and bone.

Pendants strung onto thongs and worn around the neck often have crosses in the center of circles. One pendant made of clam shell shows a spider, with a cross on its back.

Spear-points are arranged on a timeline, from the earliest Clovis (Paleo-Indian) points to those of only 300 years ago.

"Every one of these objects has a story," Wiant said.

Workers have been digging one site nearby the past two summers, yielding artifacts from 700 years ago, Wiant said.

Curiously, less is known of the native people's modern history, Wiant said.

"The late 1600s up to the Blackhawk War of 1832 is still a period we don't know a lot about," Wiant said.

The exhibit, "Reflections on Three Worlds," invites visitors into a dark room, where audio, video and silhouetted images explain Indian belief systems. A sign on the wall quotes Black Elk: "At the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit and this center is really everywhere. It is within each of us."

A walkway around the dark room emerges into a final exhibit, with the words: "You see, I am alive." It shows photographs of Native Americans in modern American culture.

Private beginnings

The museum had 38,000 visitors last year. That's about 100 per day. But over the decades, it has been host to millions of international visitors.

In 1927, Don Dickson, a local chiropractor and farmer in the Lewistown area, excavated and displayed an Indian burial site on his land. The mound was 9,000 years old. In 1928, his uncle, Marion, and Ernest Dickson excavated and displayed remains of log tombs at the nearby Ogden Mounds. Marion Dickson, one of the last surviving family members from this era, last lived in Granville and died in February.

The excavations and displays thrust this secluded location into the spotlight of international archaeology.

The Dickson family sold the site to the state. Dickson Mounds became a state park in 1945 and a state museum in 1965. The display of Indian burial sites and remains angered Native Americans and made news in the late 1980s and early 1990s, causing the museum to close the display.

The University of Chicago established a school of archaeological field techniques at Dickson Mounds. This generated new archaeological procedures and eminent archaeologists.

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