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McQuiston: Flood Plain Archeology

10/04/11 7:55AM By Timothy McQuiston
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(HOST) Commentator Tim McQuiston says that the question of whether to build - and potentially rebuild - in a flood plain, is one that people have been asking themselves for thousands of years.

(MCQUISTON) In one of my jobs as a contract archeologist many years ago, I worked out of Kampsville, Illinois. This is in the southern part of the state near the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Across the Mississippi on the west side is Hannibal, Missouri. To the east is a whole lot of nothing. The spring rains create annual floods and good bottom land for crops. It is hot and humid out there in the summer and the corn and the mosquitoes love it.

When I first went there it was just recovering from the annual flood, albeit more severe than usual. For a period of time, there was no running water. I asked myself then, why would anyone live here? It became obvious before too long that the residents of Kampsville lived there for the exact same reason ancient people had lived there.

The archeological finds we worked on were in two distinctive locations, near the rivers and high above them on the limestone bluffs. The flood plain was where the living sites were, and the bluffs supported the burial grounds. While no one would consider this patch of the world pretty, and that would go for the towns currently dotting the area too, at sunrise or sunset, looking across the expanse of prairie from high on the bluffs, you could understand why these people would want to spend eternity there. These were sacred places, of course, and we surmised that pre-Columbian peoples didn't want them to be washed away by the annual floods, nor was that land useful for agriculture.

Down below along the rivers, the land is flat and in some areas expansive. It was a natural place for ancient people to plant their maize. It was also convenient to live there. The rivers themselves offered transportation.

For archeologists, the thousands of years of occupation by these peoples were easy to mark. Every year the rivers spilled their banks and covered the living space. Time was measured in layers of silt. The deeper you dug, the older the finds. Ordinary stuff was buried, which was treasure to us.

Over the last couple of hundred years, Vermonters have also put their towns and villages along the waterways and their cemeteries on higher ground. Alas, during Hurricane Irene, even the high ground was not always safe enough as the rain came roaring down the slopes of the Green Mountains.

Our ancestors put roads and then the railway along the rivers and streams. It was convenient to do so. The decisions early Vermonters made were similar to the decisions made by Native Americans

In Vermont today , the villages represent a connection to the past, which is vital to our identity and to our commerce. But we might rightly ask, "What do we do now if this flooding is going to happen at random and devastating intervals?"

Likely we will do what the Archaic and Woodland peoples did on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers thousands of years ago: rebuild over and over, do what we have to do, because it’s still the best place to live.
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