Ancient Suburb Near St. Louis Could Be Lost Forever

Archaeologists and crew members from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey work at an East St. Louis dig site, which is believed to be a suburb of the ancient city of Cahokia. Black plastic sheeting protects the excavations. In the distance, construction crews are building a stretch of interstate freeway leading to a new Mississippi River bridge.

hide captionArchaeologists and crew members from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey work at an East St. Louis dig site, which is believed to be a suburb of the ancient city of Cahokia. Black plastic sheeting protects the excavations. In the distance, construction crews are building a stretch of interstate freeway leading to a new Mississippi River bridge.

Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio

Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis' famous Gateway Arch is a part of Illinois that's a post-industrial wasteland.

Some hope the construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River will help revitalize the area. But archaeologists worry future development could destroy what's left of another neighborhood — one that flourished there almost a thousand years ago.

This figurine found at the East St. Louis dig site is made of a type of pipestone called Missouri flint clay. It portrays a kneeling woman holding a marine shell cup — possibly a fertility goddess. i i

hide captionThis figurine found at the East St. Louis dig site is made of a type of pipestone called Missouri flint clay. It portrays a kneeling woman holding a marine shell cup — possibly a fertility goddess.

Courtesy of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, University of Illinois
This figurine found at the East St. Louis dig site is made of a type of pipestone called Missouri flint clay. It portrays a kneeling woman holding a marine shell cup — possibly a fertility goddess.

This figurine found at the East St. Louis dig site is made of a type of pipestone called Missouri flint clay. It portrays a kneeling woman holding a marine shell cup — possibly a fertility goddess.

Courtesy of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, University of Illinois

Working just ahead of the cranes and earth movers that are building a stretch of the interstate freeway, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a sophisticated American Indian settlement no one knew existed.

There are remnants of more than a thousand prehistoric houses and the base of an earthen pyramid — one of dozens that would have towered above the original settlement.

This East St. Louis dig sits halfway between a crumbling meat packing plant and a now-closed strip club. But Joe Galloy, who is coordinating research here for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, says 900 years ago, visitors paddling here by canoe from the Mississippi River would have seen the tall wooden temples that stood on top of many of the pyramids. And at their bases, rows and rows of thatched-roof huts.

"One of the things that I imagine an ancient visitor to this site would have experienced was kind of a sense of awe and wonder," Galloy says. "There would be fires and things like that. People cooking stuff — all sorts of activity. And you'd see this huge village. And it was probably a very impressive site, one of the largest settlements that people had seen if they hadn't been around this area before."

Galloy says archaeologists knew about the pyramids from old maps and excavations, but they were all outside the bounds of this new dig site. "So for us it was a really big surprise to come out and discover that we have this big residential area for this ancient city."

Cahokia: A Bustling, Ancient City

Galloy and others believe that what they've found here near East St. Louis is a prehistoric suburb of an ancient city known as Cahokia, once the largest American Indian city north of Mexico. Its remains are five miles away.

What's left of Cahokia is now part of an Illinois State Park. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cahokia is considered the greatest achievement of Mississippian culture, which once spread throughout the Central and Southern U.S. Here, there were 120 massive pyramids of earth — more than twice the number of any other site.

Now those pyramids are eroded, grassy mounds.

Rising 100 feet above the ground, Monks Mound is the tallest of the 80 or so mounds remaining at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois. Around 900 years ago, it was a carefully maintained earthen pyramid, supporting a large wooden temple that would have been several stories high. Cahokia'€™s leader may have lived here.

hide captionRising 100 feet above the ground, Monks Mound is the tallest of the 80 or so mounds remaining at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois. Around 900 years ago, it was a carefully maintained earthen pyramid, supporting a large wooden temple that would have been several stories high. Cahokia'€™s leader may have lived here.

Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio

I've come to climb the tallest one with site manager Bill Iseminger. Monks Mound, as it's called, is 10 stories high, with a base that would cover about a dozen football fields. And Iseminger says it was all built by hand.

"The mounds were built a basket-load at a time," he says. "They didn't have horses or wagons or carts — all done with human labor."

Illinois State Archaeological Survey crew members scrape the soil in search of Cahokian artifacts. The crumbling smokestacks of a 19th century meat packing plant are visible in the background, along with a bulldozer working on the current interstate freeway construction. i i

hide captionIllinois State Archaeological Survey crew members scrape the soil in search of Cahokian artifacts. The crumbling smokestacks of a 19th century meat packing plant are visible in the background, along with a bulldozer working on the current interstate freeway construction.

Courtesy of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, University of Illinois
Illinois State Archaeological Survey crew members scrape the soil in search of Cahokian artifacts. The crumbling smokestacks of a 19th century meat packing plant are visible in the background, along with a bulldozer working on the current interstate freeway construction.

Illinois State Archaeological Survey crew members scrape the soil in search of Cahokian artifacts. The crumbling smokestacks of a 19th century meat packing plant are visible in the background, along with a bulldozer working on the current interstate freeway construction.

Courtesy of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, University of Illinois

Most of these mounds, or pyramids, would have supported wood and thatch buildings 900 years ago. From the towering temple on the top of this mound, we would have looked out over more pyramids, more temples, elite homes, meeting halls and charnel houses, where the dead were prepared for burial.

And spreading out below us, a vast ceremonial plaza, bustling neighborhoods, and in the distance, the rich floodplain of the Mississippi River, where the Cahokians caught deer and fish and harvested corn, squash and other crops.

Archaeologists estimate that as many as 20,000 American Indians lived here. And now, with the discovery of the East St. Louis site, they think there may have been thousands more. But Iseminger says exactly what attracted so many people here is still a mystery.

"Was there a powerful leader here, or charismatic leader, that drew people in, attracted people? Did something happen here that drew them in? Or something about the location was more significant? Those kinds of things we just don't have answers for directly," he says.

Much Of Cahokia Still Buried

Some scientists think Cahokia was a powerful spiritual center, like Jerusalem or Mecca. University of Illinois anthropologist Tim Pauketat, who has studied Cahokia since the mid-1980s, says it once attracted thousands of visitors — possibly religious pilgrims.

"We can look around the eastern United States and just see a huge area in which we can identify Cahokian objects, suggesting that people from Wisconsin, Louisiana, over to Georgia even, Oklahoma, at least, occasionally came in and then went home with something from here," he says.

Research coordinator Joe Galloy looks on as crew members excavate a large storage pit at the dig site. Archaeologists are not sure of its original function, but the Cahokians may have used it to store corn or other food. Later on, they threw their trash into it, including the bones of deer and fish, and pieces of broken clay pots and bowls. i i

hide captionResearch coordinator Joe Galloy looks on as crew members excavate a large storage pit at the dig site. Archaeologists are not sure of its original function, but the Cahokians may have used it to store corn or other food. Later on, they threw their trash into it, including the bones of deer and fish, and pieces of broken clay pots and bowls.

Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio
Research coordinator Joe Galloy looks on as crew members excavate a large storage pit at the dig site. Archaeologists are not sure of its original function, but the Cahokians may have used it to store corn or other food. Later on, they threw their trash into it, including the bones of deer and fish, and pieces of broken clay pots and bowls.

Research coordinator Joe Galloy looks on as crew members excavate a large storage pit at the dig site. Archaeologists are not sure of its original function, but the Cahokians may have used it to store corn or other food. Later on, they threw their trash into it, including the bones of deer and fish, and pieces of broken clay pots and bowls.

Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio

Until the surprise discovery of the new settlement, archaeologists thought this was pretty much all that was left of Cahokia — that almost everything else had been destroyed by development.

And Pauketat is worried: By the time the East St. Louis dig wraps up later this year, only about a tenth of the ancient settlement will have been excavated. He says once the new Mississippi River bridge is finished, the other 90 percent, which is still buried under private land, could be destroyed.

"Because East St. Louis is right across from St. Louis, it's prime land for any kind of commercial development," he says.

Pauketat and a number of other archaeologists are trying to get the federal government to buy the land around the dig site. They want to see the new Cahokian settlement combined with the larger state-run site and protected as a national park. But Pauketat admits that so far, that doesn't seem likely.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: