Saturday, September 28, 2013


[Another special interest for me as Tim Pauketat and I did a young people's book for Oxford University Press a few years ago.]

Excavations in the Midwest have turned up evidence of a massive ancient fire that likely marked “the beginning of the end” for what was once America’s largest city, archaeologists say. The digs took place in southern Illinois, just meters away from the interstate highways that carve their way through and around modern-day St. Louis. But 900 years ago, this was the heart of Greater Cahokia, a civilization whose trade routes and religious influence stretched from the Great Lakes to the Deep South, and whose culture shaped the lifeways of the Plains and Southern Indians.

Here, researchers with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey have discovered a widespread layer of charcoal and burned artifacts among the foundations of ancient structures — evidence of a great and sudden conflagration that consumed perhaps as many as 100 buildings. While there’s only “circumstantial evidence” as to what caused the fire, the researchers say, what’s even more striking is that the event seems to mark an ominous turning point in Cahokian culture.

The structures destroyed by the fire were never rebuilt, the excavations showed. Meanwhile, other large, important buildings, like distinctive ceremonial “lodges” or houses for local elites, stopped appearing altogether throughout the region. And soon after the fire, a great palisade wall went up around the nearby city center — known to archaeologists as Downtown Cahokia — most likely for protection.

“My colleagues and I believe that we have pinpointed a major turning point in ancient Cahokia’s history,” writes Dr. Tim Pauketat, archaeologist at the University of Illinois, in a statement. “We have found, we think, the beginning of the end of this American Indian city.” Pauketat, author of Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, is also lead author of a paper describing the find in the Journal of Field Archaeology.

The end, in this case, began at a site known today as the East St. Louis precinct, a large walled compound some 10 kilometers from Downtown Cahokia that was likely the site of important civic and religious ceremonies. During the culture’s heyday, from about 1050 to the mid-12th century, East St. Louis was the second-largest ceremonial center in all of eastern North America — after Downtown Cahokia itself, which at its peak was home to as many as 10,000 people.


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