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Prehistoric art in stone, clay and metal

beaver effigy bowl

Photographs courtesy of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, University of Illinois


Archaic Period 9,000–1,000 B.C.

Early Woodland Period 1,000–300 B.C.

Middle Woodland Period 300 B.C.–300 A.D.

Late Woodland Period A.D. 650–1000

Mississippian Period A.D. 1000–1400


Illinois Issues, December 2008


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This exhibit, from the archives of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, highlights the artistry evident in objects manufactured in stone, clay, metal and shell that were produced by several native groups in Illinois from about 3,000 B.C. to A.D. 1400, several centuries prior to European expansion.

The native groups produced everyday objects such as spear and arrow points using controlled fracturing or “flintknapping” to achieve the desired shape, but the craftsmanship evident in the final product often exceeded what was required for a functional tool, according to ITARP, which is a joint program of the University of Illinois and the Illinois Department of Transportation. ITARP assists the department in the preservation and protection of Illinois’ historic and archaeological resources, carries out research activities and ensures information about the prehistory and history of Illinois is disseminated.

Pottery, which was introduced into Illinois about 1,000 B.C., provided a very elastic medium for artistic expression. Many of the motifs and complex geometric designs sometimes encountered on pottery were probably similar to those executed in basketry but which no longer survive. Many design elements were often repeated several times on the same vessel. These elements of design, by themselves or in combination, no doubt made reference to a special grammar of meaning, which is unavailable to us but presumably held special significance for the producers and consumers.

They were also adept at portraying animal and human forms in either realistic or abstract styles. Animals (birds, turtles, frogs, snakes, beavers, etc.) are among the more commonly portrayed subjects, either occurring in effigy form as pots, or as vessel adornments.

Elaborately carved stone figurines and pipes have also been found that were no doubt used for ceremonial occasions and passed from generation to generation. Comparatively little is known about the people who lived and died thousands of years ago in Illinois, but the aesthetic qualities evident in artifacts that survive often touches a responsive chord from our own experience.

ITARP staff