Pre-Cahokia community found

By Angela Fornelli
Of the Post-Dispatch


The glass and steel skyline of St. Louis rises just 10 miles from the excavation pits in Glen Carbon, where archaeologists are sifting through the soil for pottery shards and flint chips, clues to another civilization that vanished a millennium ago.

The 1 1/2-acre excavation site is one of only a few sites in the Metro East area dating to the end of the Woodland period. The village that archaeologists are poring over preceded the Mississippian culture, which produced the fabled Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville.

The end of the Woodland period is "a time period we don't know much about," said Thomas Emerson of Champaign, Ill., director of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, which is conducting the excavation. "The events that took place a bit before (Cahokia) are kind of a mystery to us."

Archaeologists began excavating the area last fall, when landowner Ken Knoll sought permission to build on his 72 acres at the northwestern corner of Illinois Routes 157 and 162. Plans call for a mix of senior housing and retail businesses on the site.

State and federal laws mandate developers to protect archaeological sites before building. Archaeologists first identified the site in the 1960s when Interstate 270 was being built. But it wasn't until the 1970s that laws took effect to protect archaeologically significant sites. As a result, part of the community was lost to the construction.

Although they knew about the site, archaeologists have been surprised to find such a large and structured community, said Brad Koldehoff of Belleville, regional coordinator for the group.

He estimates that the community consisted of 12 houses, two courtyards and 167 storage or cooking pits.

"There was a house right here," Koldehoff says while pointing to a rectangular pit in the ground. "Over there, we found a post, so we think we have a courtyard," where about five houses circled.

Koldehoff can imagine life in this community as he looks across the excavation pits: He can see smoke wafting through the air as women boil corn in the fire pits. He can see kids playing a game in the field and men sharpening their hoe blades to prepare for the summer harvest.

They would live in houses made of thatch and wood. They would be in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and depend heavily on growing crops such as corn and squash. And they would often use bows and arrows to hunt deer and smaller animals.

Their dead were probably laid on elevated wooden platforms rather than buried. Koldehoff said this site is strictly a village site and no remains of the dead have been found. Earlier Woodland cultures did bury their dead in mounds, but their mounds were much smaller than those the later Mississippians built mainly for ceremonies and residences for the elite.

What happened to the village is unclear. Koldehoff theorized that villagers may have simply relocated or were absorbed by the then-rapidly growing Mississippian culture at Cahokia Mounds.

Eventually, soil washed off the nearby bluff and buried the remains of the village. Because later inhabitants of the land didn't dig down that far, the site provides a "snapshot in time" for archaeologists, Koldehoff said.

"It's sealed off from the later Mississippian culture," Koldehoff said. "It's not mixed in like when somebody moves into an old farmstead and you get stuff from the 1800s mixed in with the 2000s."

Thus far, the archaeologists have found broken pottery, charcoal for burning fires, flint chips from arrowheads and broken ax heads.

Koldehoff said analysis of these items, particularly of the pottery decoration and material, gives archaeologists clues to what time period the culture existed.

"It's like how every few years, cars change," he said. "You can tell the difference between a car from the '50s and '40s."

Koldehoff said the site is also helpful in learning more about the culture because archaeologists are able to see the boundaries of the community.

"How a city or village is organized and how big it is gives us clues to how complex their society was," he said.

Like the later Mississippian culture, the Woodland culture built mounds although they were mostly for burial. Archaeologists debate whether people of this period, formally called the Terminal Late Woodland period, eventually became part of the Mississippian culture, Koldehoff said. He said one of their research goals is to determine similarities and differences between the cultures to bring more information to this debate.

Koldehoff said archaeologists will be excavating the site for the next two to three months. The artifacts will eventually become part of the state's collection.
Reporter Angela Fornelli