Intentional Impermanence: Excavating the 1893 World’s Fair

Three hundred miles northeast of the ancient city of Cahokia, another urban archaeological site at Chicago’s south side Jackson Park marks a historical turning point eight centuries later. But whereas great effort and resources went into maintaining Cahokia’s mounds for generations, the “White City” fairgrounds of the 1893 World’s Fair were designed to be spectacular but ultimately temporary and subject to demolishment, reflecting the increasing consumerism of a developing industrial Gilded Age America. Catering to over twelve million tourists who visited the fair, the board of architects under Daniel Burnham sought to design and build a magnificent city in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts design as cheaply as possible, balancing expected opulence and expensive infrastructure (including 56 miles of sewers and an electrical system powering over 90,000 lights) with financial constraints (Graff 2011:222; Graff 2012).

In order to achieve this, they used “staff”, a plaster mixture containing jute fibers and horsehair whose particular recipe is often attributed to the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Also appropriately known as “counterfeit marble”, it was the ideal material for the imitative gilding of finishes and facades on the main buildings of the White City. Over 50 large fragments of these plaster columns, urns, and volutes were uncovered in a 1.5 meter deep trench (likely a utility or builder’s trench) in a 2008 archaeological excavation at Jackson Park led by Dr. Rebecca Graff, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College. These fragments (Fig. 1) were positively identified as part of the fair’s Ohio Building based on comparisons with historical photos (Graff 2012).

Figure 1. Staff fragments discovered in Graff’s 2008 excavation of the former grounds of the Ohio Building. Photograph by R. Graff.

The Ohio Building (Fig. 2) was built to the scale of a grand home or small hotel in a neocolonial style, based on historical documentation. Like many of the state buildings, the Ohio Building was intended to showcase local materials in the design, including terracotta roof tiles found in association with the staff fragments. However, it also functioned as a temporary “pseudo-domestic space” in which tourists could reorient themselves in a space evocative of home when the novelty and excitement of the fair proved overwhelming, as evidenced by associated artifacts like porcelain fragments, pipe stems, and glass cruet tops from bottles of oil and vinegar (Graff 2011:228-229).

Figure 2. The facade of the Ohio Building at the “White City” of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Photographer unknown.

The archaeological significance of the 1893 fairgrounds has been roped into recent local controversy over the planned construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (TCLF 2018). A 2017 Illinois State Archaeological Survey on the proposed site found 9,841 artifacts, but state officials say these don’t provide sufficiently significant new knowledge to challenge construction on the basis of the National Historic Preservation Act (Kamin 2018). But regardless, the archaeological evidence of this urban tourism provides insight into a changing American society at the turn of the century as it shifted to a mindset characterized by cheap mass-production and consumerism.

Additional information on the 1893 World’s Fair or concerns over the Obama Center.


References –

The Cultural Landscape Foundation                                                                                2018  More Concerns About the Obama Center as Archaeological Report on Jackson Park Faces New Scrutiny. Electronic document,, accessed November 17, 2019.

Graff, Rebecca S.                                                                                                            2011  Being Toured While Digging Tourism: Excavating the Familiar at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 15(2):222-235.

Graff, Rebecca S.                                                                                                            2012  Dream City, Plaster City: Worlds’ Fairs and the Gilding of American Material Culture. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 16(4):696-716.

Kamin, Blair                                                                                                                      2018  Artifacts from 1893 World’s Fair found beneath Obama center site, but report signals construction won’t be blocked. Chicago Tribune 25 March. Chicago.

The Newberry                                                                                                                  2018  The Vanishing City: Excavating the World’s Fair (A Lecture by Rebecca Graff). Electronic document,, accessed November 17.

Neolithic DNA in the Modern Day?

The Basque region on the border of Spain and France (Fig. 1) has long posed a puzzle to linguistic anthropologists: the local native language, Euskara, is a linguistic isolate unrelated to the languages of the Indo-European family surrounding it. Although now only spoken by 25% of the modern-day Basque population, toponymic evidence suggests that the ancient Basque population previously occupied a much larger territory, reaching from the Garonne River in the north to the Ebro River in the south (Behar et al. 2012). One dominant explanatory hypothesis holds that Euskara descended from a now otherwise extinct Paleolithic linguistic family no later than 6-7 thousand years ago and was relatively isolated by the Pyrenees Mountains, minimizing the cultural impact of farmers from the Near East whose westward migration sparked the European transition from mobile hunter-gatherer societies to segmentary and sedentary agricultural settlements in the Neolithic period, including, potentially, the spread of Indo-European languages (Cavalli-Sforza 1988).

Figure 1: Map of the Basque region on the border of France and Spain (Hoe 2017).

Archaeological data and genetic analyses have both complicated and broadened our understanding of this mystery. Comparisons of contemporary and ancient DNA have disproved any claims that the Basque people are a “living fossil” of the first Paleolithic European inhabitants. Genetic haplogroup J, often considered to be a marker of the Near Eastern Neolithic population expansion, was found to be present at an average frequency of 16% at two prehistoric Basque archaeological sites (Coffman 2005:44). This suggests a partial Near Eastern lineage in the ancient Basque population that mixed with local Mesolithic hunter-gatherer inhabitants between 7.3 and 6.8 thousand years ago, negating the concept of total Basque isolation (Günther and Valdiosera 2015).

Figure 2: The El Portalón cave site in Atapuerca, Spain (Frankel 2018).

However, recent studies on the modern European population have identified six related mitochondrial DNA H haplogroups found to be exclusive to Basque-speaking and immediately adjacent populations, while absent from other populations in Western Europe, suggesting that these haplogroups are autochthonous or indigenous to the region. These mtDNA variants are estimated to have separated from the pan-European gene pool 8,000 years ago, predating the putative arrival of Near Eastern farmers (Behar et al. 2012). This contradicts the evidence of haplogroup J and supports a theory of partial genetic continuity in the modern Basque population from earlier Paleolithic and/or Mesolithic populations. Furthermore, genomic sequencing of eight individuals from the El Portalón cave site in Atapuerca, Spain (Fig. 2), dated to between 5.5 and 3.5 thousand years ago and in association with archaeological remains of an early European farming culture (domestic animals and pottery vessels), demonstrated that these individuals, who carried mtDNA haplogroups associated with both early European farmers and hunter-gatherers, were most closely genetically linked to modern-day Basques than to any other modern-day population (Günther and Valdiosera 2015). This evidence bridges the multiple hypotheses and suggests that the Basque population descended in relative isolation from Neolithic migration, compared to other Iberian populations, from an admixed group of early farmers and hunter-gatherers who spoke a non-Indo-European language.

Additional information on the Basque language or the Atapuerca burial grounds.


References –

Behar, Doron M., Christine Harmant, and Jeremy Manry
2012 The Basque Paradigm: Genetic Evidence of a Maternal Continuity in the Franco-Cantabrian Region since Pre-Neolithic Times. PubMed Central. 90(3):486-493.

Cavalli-Sforza, Luca L.
1988 The basque population and ancient migrations in Europe. Munibe (Antropologia y Arqueologia). 6:129-137.

Günther, Torsten, and Cristina Valdiosera
2015 Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112:11917-11922.

Levy-Coffman, Ellen.
2005 We Are Not Our Ancestors: Evidence for Discontinuity between Prehistoric and Modern Europeans. Journal of Genetic Genealogy. 1:40-50.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn
2018 Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice with 303 Illustrations. Fourth ed. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.


Images –

Frankel, Joseph.
2018 Pottery Shard Shows Early Humans in Europe Were More Connected Than Archaeologists Thought. Newsweek. Accessed from:

Hoe, Wen.
2017 From Open Data to Open Government: Citizen Participation in the Basque Country. Government Innovators Network, Harvard University. Accessed from: