Cahokia Mounds expanding, hoping for more finds

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by Jim Suhr
Collinsville, Illinois (AP) 8-07

Encircled like an island by the ruins of a prehistoric city, the sprawling building that had been a department store was an eyesore to caretakers of the hallowed site. Never mind the artifacts that could be beneath.

So it came as little surprise that the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site’s administrators celebrated during late August that they’ve snatched up the shuttered store and nine acres by it, eager to reclaim the property and see what treasures turn up.

Photo from Cahokia Mounds information site:

“You never know until you have the excavation what you’re going to run into,” said Bill Iseminger, assistant manager of Cahokia Mounds, just west of this St. Louis suburb. The land deal “is something we’ve been pursuing for some time. To see it come to fruition is rewarding.”

Cahokia Mounds administrators had coveted the property for years in their quest to expand the 2,200-acre historic site that, in his heyday, spanned 4,000 acres as a once-thriving city of up to 20,000 American Indians.

But officials didn’t have money to buy the nine acres until February of last year, when the state finally released $837,800 earmarked in 2000 for the expansion effort. Roughly $750,000 of that money went to buy the one-time store – a single-story behemoth said to cover at least 70,000 square feet – and the land around it.

The plan: Demolish the building Iseminger and others call a “modern intrusion,” scout out any buried artifacts and rebuild two of the 20-foot-tall mounds that once were there. Getting to that could take years, until enough funds are raised for the work.

Believed to have been inhabited from 700 to 1400 A.D., Cahokia was among the most complex, sophisticated societies of prehistoric North America. Its enduring collection of mounds served as ceremonial sites, homes and tombs for Cahokia’s leaders and servants. Evidence retrieved from burial mounds and other sites suggest a hierarchical political structure, a specialized economy and significant scientific knowledge.

The prehistoric city originally had 120 mounds, and the locations of 109 have been recorded. The state historic site includes about 70 of the mounds, ranging in height from about 5 to 100 feet. Many others have been altered or destroyed by modern farming and urban sprawl; in 2000, one such mound was plowed under to make way for a new subdivision near Edwardsville.

At its peak around 1100 to 1200, researchers say, the city covered nearly six square miles and had as many as 20,000 inhabitants. The site was abandoned by 1400 and remained uninhabited until Illini Indians moved into the area around 1650.

Its tallest existing landmark – the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, made up of 22 million cubic feet of dirt – is the largest pre-Columbian structure north of Mexico and the largest all-earthen pyramid in the New World. The site also includes an unearthed wooden sun calendar similar to Stonehenge.

Cahokia was designated a World Heritage Site by a United Nations agency in 1982, joining the likes of the Great Wall of China, Egypt’s pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

Finding buried remnants of ancient civilization on the newly acquired land “is a very distinct possibility,” said Robert Coomer, director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which manages the site. Anything within a two- or three-mile radius of Cahokia Mounds, he says, “has potential for a significant archaeological find.”

“Cahokia Mounds is one of the best-kept secrets,” Coomer said. “We’d like that secret to go away.”


On the Net:

Cahokia Mounds,

Illinois Historic Preservation Agency,