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Flashback

Bishop Hill Historical Archaeological Project

Bishop Hill Archaeology Project


When we chose last issue's Flashback photo, we had no idea that the father of John Eisemann '10, one of the students profiled in the magazine's feature section, was included in the photograph. Thank you to Carolyn Anderson Anderson '73 for pointing this serendipitous fact out to us and to Eric Eisemann '74 for sharing the story behind the photo.

Carolyn was the first to respond: "I got home this evening and immediately saw the photo from the Bishop Hill Historical Archaeology project. Then, to my amazement, I saw the article about John Eisemann '10. The young blond fellow with glasses in the Bishop Hill archaeology photo just happens to be Eric Eisemann '74. The fellow with his back to the camera on the right is the late Ron Nelson '61, who was the director of the Illinois state historic site at Bishop. The man in the sunglasses (barely visible) is John VanNess, who taught anthropology at Knox in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of the other student with a shovel, but maybe Eric remembers.

"The story behind this is that for two summers (1972 and 1973) students from Knox did historical archaeology at Bishop Hill (current anthropology professor Jon Wagner knows the history). The first summer we dug the site of a privy, or outdoor toilet, behind the Bjorklund Hotel (now a museum). The second year we dug the site of a stables or barn associated with the hotel. I worked on both of these digs, graduating as an anthro major in 1973. I went on to grad school in anthropology at Indiana University, continuing to do ethnohistorical research at Bishop Hill in the summers.

"The photo is from the 1973 dig, I'm pretty sure. An existing barn ca. 1860 was moved and placed on the site of the dig."

Eric wrote: "A week before the fall Knox Magazine arrived on the ‘Left Coast,' friends and family e-mailed asking my reaction. What a hoot to discover both son and father sharing space in the same issue. (I am proud of you, son)."

"In the picture from left to right are Ron Nelson '61, then Illinois curator of Bishop Hill; Professor John Van Ness (anthropology/sociology)' me, and Neal Shaye. The photo proves that Knox once embraced the manual arts as well as the liberal arts. (Students dig and faculty theorize.) Knox alumni not in the picture, who shared equally in the Bishop Hill experience, include Hiram Wilson '73, Carolyn Anderson Anderson '73, Joe Westerdale '74, Greg Abbott '75, Janet Howell '74, Chris (Abe) Kirton '75, and of course, Professor Jon Wagner, our mentor and still my friend.

"For several beautiful summers we ‘diggers' sited the black prairie soil looking for clues about the recent past. Our exploration tools ranged from backhoes and shovels to trowels and toothbrushes; from family photo albums to the local archives to, best of all, oral histories. It was like being in field-hippie heaven to sit in the shade of the front porch with two octogenarians, Helen and Ione, collecting their family stories while enjoying home made lemonade and Swedish rusks.

"The State of Illinois wanted information about the location and configuration of several lost Colony structures, and our team of faculty, the State Historian, and students annually designed a work program for two or more digging sites. Over the course of several summers, we excavated a coal shed and stairwell near the Colony Church; we re-opened the soft brick-lined Colony well to a depth of 28-feet and removed a treasure trove of artifacts (trash to those who chucked it into the well) before we hit water. Thankfully, OSHA never inspected our ventilation system (vacuum cleaner hose) and escape system (a rope hung from a pulley with one end tied to the lone digger's waist). We uncovered the hotel's communal privy (calculating which gender sat on which side of the privy based upon the artifacts recovered), and we excavated the hotel stable. We found the location and dimensions of an old bandstand in the city park and uncovered a forgotten entrance to the hotel.

"What the Knox students uncovered and discovered allowed the State to re-erect the stable building, privy, bandstand, and communal well. Of equal importance, our below-ground discoveries gave Ron Nelson a much better understanding of the Colony's material culture and resulted in a richer interpretation of daily life in a mid 19th-century utopian experiment and a once thriving prairie village.

"The Bishop Hill project helped us develop professional skills through in-ground and above-ground practice; skills such as planning and conducting an archaeological investigation, collecting oral histories, and using those stories to support or refute common beliefs or honing archival research skills. At least four Honors projects grew out of the Bishop Hill experience. The daily interactions with the Colony descendents and newcomers gave us a chance to learn their songs and stories, how to turn local clay into pots or plates, dye wool using local plants, fire a blacksmith forge, drink coffee through sugar cubes clenched in your front teeth, or forecast the weather the way the Old Swedes did (sooner or later it will rain). By chance, we were there to pitch in to help clear the debris after a tornado ripped through the heart of the small village.

"From my distant perspective, the Bishop Hill project was the quintessential Knox experience, involving exploration, discovery, creativity, analysis, individual and team responsibility, an amazing amount of personal growth, and a whole hell of a lot of fun -- similar to what my two sons are experiencing at Knox today. Thanks Knox."