Digging to preserve the past Joe Harl, who is leading an archaeological project in Chesterfield, has spent 30 years uncovering history and making it come alive.

Digging to preserve the past Joe Harl, who is leading an archaeological project in Chesterfield, has spent 30 years uncovering history and making it come alive.

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CHESTERFIELD - He was on his knees, trowel in hand, scraping away layers of dirt.

It was a familiar position. Joe Harl has spent most of his adult life sifting through dirt to answer questions about the past.

On this day, he was trying to get a better picture of the people who roamed what is now Chesterfield about 800 years ago, uncovering tiny clues on how they lived.

A shell bead. A piece of pottery. The charred remains of a corn cob.

Harl thought the blackened spot of the dirt he was kneeling over was once a fireplace hearth.

"You see all the black," he said. "You got a lot of charcoal. It's the same as if you had a chimney."

The Chesterfield dig is just the latest archaeology project in the St. Louis area that Harl has led or participated in over the past 30 years.

Harl, 54, who helped start and is now vice president of a private archaeological company, has become a warehouse of information - from the Mississippian culture of nearly 1,000 years ago through the 20th century.

He can tell you plenty of stories about the sites he's worked on - about the china plates Daniel Boone's family ate from at their old home in Defiance, about the 19th-century Irish tenements in downtown St. Louis, about the games ancient native Americans liked to play.

But what's unusual about Harl, historians and other archaeologists say, is not only his passion about archaeology, but also his ability to make the sites come alive for the general public.

"He'll drive 100 miles from one side of Missouri to Illinois to share his knowledge," said Tim Baumann, curator of collections for the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University. "He's everywhere, it seems."

Harl mentored Baumann when he was a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Baumann says he learned an important lesson about protecting an area's archaeological treasures.

"The only way we can preserve and protect is through the public's knowledge and participation," Baumann said.

Ever since the dig in Chesterfield began in June, Harl has allowed groups of students to visit the site. A glass case holds artifacts his team has unearthed - arrowheads, pottery shards with different designs, shell beads, pieces of a ceremonial mask and even a round stone resembling a hockey puck.

The stone was used in game called "chunky." Mississippian Indians would roll the stone along the ground, then target it with their spears. Whoever hit the closest won.

"It was the baseball of its day," Harl said.

Harl was supposed to have a group of school students out to the site on Thursday, but the rain made the ground too muddy. He was disappointed - a missed opportunity to teach another generation about the importance of preserving the past.


Harl's passion for the past started sometime around the third grade. He was visiting his uncle, who lived on a farm near Eupora, Miss. One day, his uncle gave him an arrowhead as a gift. Harl put it his pocket and forgot about it - until later that night, when he started looking at all its cracks and crevices.

"I became amazed," said Harl, who grew up in the St. Louis area. "What were the people like? Was it a father who gave this arrowhead to a son thousands of years ago?"

And so began nearly half a century of asking questions.

When his career started in the late 1970s, Harl was interested in ancient Sumerian culture, situated in modern-day Iraq. Once he was scheduled to go on a dig there, but then a war broke out.

So he started concentrating back home, in St. Louis. He was soon involved in teaching, leading an adult education class at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on weekends.

He worked at UMSL until the mid-1990s, when the university closed its archaeology program.

So Harl and some colleagues started the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis. The center does work for the federal government and for developers on projects that are federally funded or have federal permits involved.

Over the years, Harl has become known throughout the region as a leading expert on archaeology.

"He's just the guy you go to," said Barnes Bradshaw, special events coordinator at the Missouri History Museum. "He's just been around for so long."

Bradshaw often hires Harl for presentations at the museum. He marvels at Harl's ingenuity. One of the things Harl and other archaeologists battle is the looting of the areas around prehistoric mounds and other sites.

So every once in while, Harl hosts an artifact identification event at the museum - people can bring artifacts to him and he determines whether they're significant. The process helps him find out about other sites.

"It's reverse looting," Bradshaw said.


Over the years, Harl's wife, Paula Heller, has gotten used to people calling the house about artifacts they've found or suspected ancient Indian mounds. Harl doesn't really have any other hobbies beside archaeology.

"We watch a lot of History Channel and Discovery," she said. "Our home is probably half a library."

The first thing people often notice about Harl is his size. He's 6-foot-3 and roughly 250 pounds, with a full beard. But his appearance belies his gentle nature.

He rarely gets upset, even when he should, said Robin Machiran, another archaeologist at the research center. "Sometimes we get upset for him," she said.

He displays the same calm and patience with school kids. He's an animated, passionate presenter when student groups visit the Chesterfield site, yet patiently answers questions. His teaching experience is evident, as Harl works to keep kids engaged as he talks about the past.

Harl plans on finishing work at the Chesterfield site during the next few weeks. The site, near Spirit of St. Louis Airport, was uncovered late last year, when city construction crews were excavating as they prepared to build retention reservoirs.

Harl and other employees surveyed the land and worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the site, to get $150,000 in government money to conduct the dig.

Harl says the work will paint a better picture of the Mississippian culture, which thrived from about A.D. 1050 to 1400 and then mysteriously disappeared.

And so he's asking questions again. What did the people eat? What gods did they worship? Whom did they trade with? How did they relate to the people of the Cahokia Mounds?

After the dig is finished, Harl will help produce a report, likely to be hundreds of pages. And the excavated areas will be buried again.

While he scraped away dirt on a recent day, bulldozers covered other places he had dug up weeks earlier, leveling the ground for a road. Harl thought he had discovered what seemed to be a temple area and cooking pits.

"We are right in the heart of the community," he said. "People came here to shop and do ceremonies."

He has discovered pieces of copper used as jewelry, the remnants of a stockade wall and deer bones.

He suspects the community's homes were just a few yards away, on private land. He asked the landowner if he could dig there as well but was turned down.

So Harl could only look and wonder. And ask yet another question: What else lay underneath?

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