Saturday, February 27, 2010


I'm the co-author with Professor Tim Pauketat in a Oxford University Press volume called "Cahokia Mounds" so I was delighted to find the following:

About 800 years ago, in a large room lit by a wood fire, fierce-looking men bedecked in bright feathers and polished copper ornaments gathered to smoke and talk. Their intricate jewelry -- fanciful objects hammered from chunks of naturally occurring raw copper -- reflected the firelight. A variety of these ancient Mississippian-era copper decorations have turned up throughout Illinois and the Southeast United States, including triangular, 8-inch long-earrings embossed at the ends with a human face, headdress ornaments depicting stylized birds, even diminutive but carefully crafted copper ovals that may have been applied to a ritualistic leather belt or cape. When they are unearthed, these antiquities are covered with a green or gray patina.

Today, traffic on Collinsville (Illinois) passes a short distance from the collection of over more than 80 mounds where, archaeologists say, this American Stone Age scene is thought to have regularly occurred.

But there is something unique about a particular excavated area beside a rather plain looking mound -- Mound 34 -- that lies about 200 yards east of the world famous and huge Monk's Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. The carefully sifted soil at this excavation has revealed evidence of the only known copper workshop from the Mississippian-era, a culture that peaked about 1250 A.D. throughout the middle and southern portions of America. The overall Illinois state site was the location of a large, prehistoric city of perhaps 20,000 that archaeologists call Cahokia.

"It's the only one (copper workshop) that's been discovered," said James A. Brown, professor of archaeology at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Brown and his research partner John Kelly, a lecturer in archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, have for eight years led an investigation into finding the workshop and then carefully excavating the often minute particles and bits of copper that were left behind. Brown said that the copper workshop was purely for religious purposes, to produce ornaments for those who participated in significant ceremonies that probably occurred atop the mounds. "They are all depictions of other worldly beings," he said of the symbols and figures found in copper as well as on pieces of pottery and decorated shells.

The irony is that a self-taught archaeologist, Greg Perino, who grew up in Belleville and pioneered a sometimes heavy handed excavation style that featured bulldozing, actually discovered the copper workshop and another nearby nearly 60 years ago. Perino died in 2005 at age 91. However, his mapping was rudimentary and it took years to relocate his find. The rediscovery of the copper workshop has gained national attention. The National Geographic Society is helping to fund the research.

The overall purpose of most excavations at the mounds site, according to Kelly and Brown, is to determine the true role of Cahokia in the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, the string of ancient cities and mounds that stretched from Wisconsin through Illinois and on into Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.

And in turn, the workshop and the shell cup fragments hint that Cahokia may have been the center and not just an outlying fringe of the ancient Mississippian culture. The true role of Cahokia undoubtedly still lies buried. Unlike many other Mississippian sites that have been heavily excavated, less than 1 percent of the mounds site has been dug. While many artifacts have turned up, scientists working the site say what is left buried may greatly change current views of the civilization, and reinforce the theory that Cahokia may have been the center of it all.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know if National Geographic is doing a TV special for Cahokia Mounds?

10:37 AM  

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