So when Dickson prepared his property to plant an orchard in the 1860s, he inadvertently unearthed human remains. His grandson, Thomas, later unearthed more human remains and objects while building his house nearby. Years later, in 1927, Thomas’ son, Don, turned the burial mounds into a public spectacle — and his livelihood.
“I grew up with this knowledge,” Don F. Dickson told an audience of Illinois State Academy of Science members in May 1947. “The burials were in my backyard. I liked those people.”
Dickson, a chiropractor, and his family excavated at least 234 burials and opened the site to the public. While most amateurs, archaeologists and anthropologists of the time fully disinterred and disarticulated human remains during excavations, Dickson chose to leave the burials as he found them in the ground. The novelty of seeing the dead in situ helped make the site a popular Illinois tourist attraction billed as Dickson’s Mound Builders Tomb, or what’s known today as Dickson Mounds Museum.
Inside a canvas tent lay the remains of what Dickson and newspaper reporters believed was an extinct race of people. A 1927 article from one local paper promoted the exhibit under the headline “Excavations in Illinois Reveal Race That Lived and Died Before Indians.” Dickson benefited from the promotion; tens of thousands of people visited the private museum in the late 1920s. By charging 50 cents for admission, the Dickson family made their living.
What visitors learned from the “museum” was the story that the Dicksons wanted to tell. In the remains of two adults placed side by side, their faces turned to face a baby that lay between them, Don Dickson saw a primitive, but loving, family. He speculated about relationships, social hierarchies and the purposes of various possessions. He and his family members served as the tour guides and public interpreters of the site. He rearranged objects to make the burials more dramatic; he removed the mandibles of some people to display them alongside the mandibles of various animals. Many bones and belongings were broken; some were stolen.
The state of Illinois purchased the site from Dickson in 1945 and then hired the Dicksons to run it; Don Dickson continued to interpret the site for the public until his death in 1964.
A few years later, the state built a large, new museum and adopted Dickson’s open-air exhibit as a permanent wing of the facility. Over the years, the burial exhibit saw various interpretations by museum staff, including the addition of audio and multicolored spotlights. Viewmaster reels and postcards were sold in the gift shop.
Hey, at least the state decided maybe this wasn’t such a great idea in……1992. And that was only because the passage of NAGRPA in 1990 meant the state realized it might have liability.