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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006 09:46 am

Scratching the surface

Promise of The Sangamo Frontier never realized

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The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln By Robert Mazrim, University of Chicago Press, 352 pages, 2006, $20

For many central-Illinois natives, the subject of Robert Mazrim’s new book, The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln, is a surprise — the concept of archaeological research in Springfield seems as remote as the idea of growing soybeans in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But, as Mazrim notes, archaeology is everywhere — even in our own back yards.

The Sangamo Frontier is about “recollections and debris of a particular place at a particular time,” the part of central Illinois centered on the Sangamon River drainage, historically known as the Sangamo Country, during the 20 years between the War of 1812 and the Blackhawk Wars. “This place (like many places) was once much different,” Mazrim points out, adding that archaeology can enhance and challenge the veracity of the historic record and generate “new points of view and new ways of seeing the past.” It is his intention, he says, to tell us just how different central Illinois was during the period when Lincoln was a clerk, surveyor, and unsuccessful merchant.

Soon after his introduction, Mazrim loses his way. He presents a lengthy discussion of American Indian and colonial French history that seems extraneous to the Sangamo Country. Central Illinois archeology is not introduced until almost halfway into the text. When it is addressed, the subject is confined to Mazrim’s own mostly avocational excavations; no acknowledgment of contributions made by professional academic archaeologists is offered.

The Sangamo Frontier struggles to bring the archaeological record to life, but it never really resurrects the pioneer lives that are part of the subject. Mazrim’s writing style flows from saccharine to overly technical — and, at times, it’s difficult to follow. The technical archaeological and historical discussions are weakly referenced, and few citations are supplied to support the data. Visually the book is weak. Many photographs are indistinct, and at times it’s unclear what Mazrim intends to show or how the illustrations relate to the text. This is particularly disappointing, for Mazrim’s credentials include a fine-arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and archaeology, by its nature, is a visual science that lends itself well to illustration.

It is unfortunate that the promise of The Sangamo Frontier is never realized and that the “new points of view and new ways of seeing” the world in which Lincoln walked never materialize. Mazrim is an enthusiastic amateur historian and archaeologist, but he stumbles when he explains how archaeology has enhanced our understanding of the people whose lives produced the shattered dishes, broken bottles, and rusty nails he describes.

For a description of the everyday lives and struggles of the people Lincoln considered neighbors and countrymen, John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie remains the definitive social history. For local archaeology, The Sangamo Frontier is a starting point, but it is not the synthesis it promises to be. That book is yet to be written.

Joseph Craig is a professional archaeologist with a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University. He is president and owner of Environmental Compliance Consultants Inc., a firm engaged in primarily prehistoric archaeology for public and private clients.

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