Cahokia Mounds (USA); Recent excavation may reveal inhabitants' beliefs

Will Buss

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University of Bologna (Italy) student Carlotta Manicardi and volunteers Alan Westfall, from St. Louis, and Sam Ruesing, from Pontoon Beach, work on a excavation site at Cahokia Mounds in 2012.

An artifact recently unearthed in the metro-east may explain how Native Americans viewed their place in the universe.

The "bundle" of whelk shells and bird bones found tied together and unearthed at Cahokia Mounds by student archaeologists from the University of Bologna in Italy is unlike most discovered in the pre-Columbian settlement, said Cahokia Mounds Museum Society Executive Director Lori Belknap.

"Most of what we find are fragments of pottery shards and little bits of arrow points and things like that," Belknap said. "So 95 percent of what we find are that kind of stuff. But when we find something that represents what we think, it was actually a bundle, a sack, with things laid in there in a very specific order related to their cosmological view, that's a pretty significant find."

Belknap shared the discovery Saturday morning during the annual Mississippian Conference at the visitors center of the 2,500-acre historic site in Collinsville. She said the Mississippians who settled in the region divided the cosmos into an upper, middle and lower world.

She said the whelk shells, which represented the lower world, are not indigenous to the Midwest and are found in the Gulf Coast. She said what archaeologists believe to be a dog's bone, represents the middle world where humans lived and the bird bones represent for the upper world. She also said the bundle was found in a ceremonial pit where it may have been a symbol of the Mississippians' beliefs.

"It's just not normally something we find out here," Belknap said. "We're not even sure it is a bundle, we're just preliminarily calling it that right now. But looking at the collection of things in that area, the fact it was tied, if it were in any kind of bag it would have deteriorated. There are two toggles that look like it was tied in some sort of way representing something just by the way they are laid. Once they do the analysis, it will tell us so much about the culture."

Susan Alt, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University in Bloomington, said shrine structures that archaeologists have uncovered near Emerald Acropolis, a mound located in Lebanon near where Illinois 4 is today and that is operated by the state, further reflects the metro-east area's influence during the Mississippian civilization.

"It was a place of power," said Alt, who also spoke before the group of more than 50 who gathered Saturday to learn about recent excavations at the metro-east site. "It is a mecca. People were coming from all over the Midwest to go to Emerald. Some of them stayed and founded villages and some of them went back and taught other people about the Mississippians."

The Mississippians lived in the region between 900 A.D. and 1275 A.D. Between 10,000 and 20,000 people lived in the land known as Cahokia Mounds, Belknap said. The Mississippians were not a tribe, but a culture that spread as far north as Wisconsin and has far south as Florida and Oklahoma. But the Cahokia Mounds site, where 120 mounds have been located, was the epicenter.

Aside from the mound in Lebanon, there were dozens of mounds in the region. And more are being found.

Last week, Belknap was part of an excavation along a two-mile palisade wall that goes through the central portion of the Cahokia Mounds site and they discovered what is believed to be a new mound.

"We've been sort of looking down and excavating down to look at that mound to look at the construction sequence," she said. "So it seems every place we go and when we start excavating, sometimes we find that we have more questions than answers."