Monday, November 08, 2010


Ever since I wrote Cahokia Mounds with University of Illinois archaeologist Tim Pauketat, I keep track of new information about the St. Louis area so this news is particularly interesting:

Although, the ancient city of Cahokia is quite well known, there was also a village that several thousand American Indians occupied at the same time in the vicinity of East St. Louis that is not too far from Cahokia.

People lived under similar conditions in both places, growing crops, building mounds and using rivers for transportation. So archaeologists wonder why everyone left East St. Louis about A.D. 1200.

It could have been related to a widespread fire that occurred about A.D. 1175. Or maybe residents moved to the safety of Cahokia with its 15,000 to 20,000 people and protective palisade after being threatened by unfriendly forces.

"Cahokia kept on going until about 1400 A.D.," said Joseph Galloy, coordinator of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey's American Bottom Field Station in Wood River. "We're not sure what happened, but there was some event, something that caused people to abandon East St. Louis."

This is just one piece of a puzzle archaeologists are assembling as they excavate about 75 acres in East St. Louis, including the old St. Louis National Stockyards Co. property. They've found broken pottery, arrowheads and other artifacts, some of which are on display at Belleville's Labor and Industry Museum as part of a new exhibit called "Your Modern Archaeologist."

The Illinois State Archaeological Survey is affiliated with University of Illinois. It's under contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation to gather information and artifacts from land that will be disturbed by the rerouting of Interstate 70 and construction of a new Mississippi River bridge. "It's (not) a research-based form of archaeology where you can pick and choose where you'd like to dig," Durst said. "We really have to check out every single thing along that corridor."

Galloy is focusing on the excavation's prehistoric aspect, specifically Mississippian culture, which lasted from about 800 to 1500 A.D. His crew has found evidence of several hundred structures such as homes and hearths. Durst is looking at the excavation's historic aspect, trying to learn more about people who lived in the neighborhood and worked at the stockyards in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"We really know very little about their way of life," he said. "There was a mix of people from throughout the United States, as well as first- and second-generation European immigrants and Southern African Americans who migrated to the area for jobs."

Durst's crew has found medicine bottles, broken dishes, ceramic marbles and other items in cisterns, cellars and privies. Many will be on display as part of the "Your Modern Archaeologist" exhibit. "It's mostly domestic debris, what people would have used in the kitchen," Durst said. "(Without municipal garbage pickup), these things get abandoned, and the area becomes a giant trash pit."


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