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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Archaeological Dig near East St. Louis points to widespread fire - CAHOKIA AMERICA'S LOST CITY (VIDEO)


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BY TERRY HILLIG  post-dispatch.com

Archaeologists who have found the remains of a prehistoric city beneath present-day East St. Louis have also uncovered a mystery: Why did Native Americans abandon the city of 3,000 or more people around the year 1200?

A much larger settlement to the east — at Cahokia Mounds, center of the Mississippian culture — would survive 200 more years, experts say, before it also ended abruptly and inexplicably.

One thing is clear from the archaeological work begun in 2008 ahead of the construction of a new Mississippi River bridge — the East St. Louis settlement was ravaged by fire in the late 1100s.
"We see evidence of a widespread fire around 1175," said Joe Galloy, coordinator at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey's American Bottom Field Station in Wood River.

He said an attack from outside, rioting or a ritual burning are among theories for the cause of the blaze. But nobody knows if the blaze ended the community. Continuing archeological investigation may provide more clues.

The archaeological survey is part of the University of Illinois' Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability and has conducted pre-excavation surveys for the Illinois Department of Transportation for more than 50 years.

When construction projects are planned, the agency surveys sites for archaeological value. If significant remains are found, a full excavation is done.

Work began this year on the planned new bridge to carry Interstate 70 and related projects that will cost about $670 million. The bridge is expected to open in 2014.

At the St. Louis end of the planned new bridge, archaeologists with the Missouri Department of Transportation are engaged in a similar project, one that is providing new insights into life in the city in the 19th century. Other than earthen mounds that survived into the mid-19th century, no clear evidence has been found that the Mississippians lived in what is now St. Louis.

No one knows what those Indians really called themselves. Mississippians is a modern name given to provide a frame of reference.

Cahokia Mounds, not near the present-day city of Cahokia, was the administrative center for the mound-building Mississippians, who flourished from around 700 to around 1400 over a vast reach of what is today the Midwest and Southeast.

Galloy said that in 1100, Cahokia Mounds had approximately the same population as London: 15,000 to 20,000 people. The United States would have no city as populous until Philadelphia in the late 1700s.

Galloy said Cahokia Mounds, the East St. Louis settlements and mounds in St. Louis were in near alignment. The only surviving mounds are in the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site at the western edge of Collinsville. Others on both sides of the river were lost to development long ago.

Most of the recent excavation has been focused along Collinsville Avenue, near downtown East St. Louis, and in and around the site of the old St. Louis National Stockyards, off Illinois Route 3. For security, archaeologists prefer not to be specific about dig locations.
Galloy said the project is the largest-ever archaeological dig involving the Mississippian culture and probably the most significant archaeology of any kind currently under way in the country.

About 50 people are working full-time on the project, and that number swells to about 90 each summer.
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Throughout most of the nineteenth century, it was believed that the tens of thousands of earthen mounds that dotted the central United States were engineering feats created by a mysterious, lost race - a race that had been destroyed by the less civilized Indians. Poet William Cullen Bryant, in 1832, expressed the sentiment of the period:


The red man came,
The roaming hunter tribes,
warlike and fierce,
And the moundbuilders vanished from the earth.


By the late 1880s, it was becoming clear that the mounds were actually built by ancestors of the numerous native American groups that still inhabited the central states, such as the Natchez. This film reconstructs the history of ideas associated with the mounds and their builders, from the mid-nineteenth century explorations of curious citizens, to contemporary archaeological research in the Illinois River Valley. It is now known that there were at least two major mound-building cultures: the Hopewell, which flourished between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., and the Mississippian, which peaked around 1200 A.D. Hopewellian mounds are usually conical, earthen structures concealing burials in which marvelously carved stone pipes and mica cutouts are found along with skeletal remains. The later Mississippian mounds tend to be square or rectangular, massive, flat-topped, mesa-like platforms on which houses or temples were erected. Archaeologists believe that a shift to settled maize agriculture had occurred by the time the Mississippian cultures appeared. Such an economic base permitted the growth of veritable metropolises, such as Cahokia, near East St. Louis, where the largest mound stands 100 feet high and covers an area of almost 15 acres. At Cahokia, over 100 mounds formed the heart of a city-state that may have had a population of 20,000 and dominated an area about the size of New York State.
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