© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Archaeological team uncovers ancient suburb, makes way for redevelopment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 18, 2012 - Driving between Metro East and St. Louis should be easier once the Mississippi River Bridge project is finished, but accessibility to the modern city could lead to the further destruction of an ancient one.

The new bridge, which has been under construction since 2008, will reach Illinois in the East St. Louis area, former home to an ancient Mississippian society, part of the vast Cahokian culture. Before breaking ground, the Illinois Department of Transportation sent the Illinois State Archaeological Study to excavate the area. Dr. Joseph Galloy, ISAS American Bottom Survey division coordinator, said they excavated a massive piece of Greater Cahokia, most of which used to be a residential area.

Though the MRB project was the cause of the excavation, Galloy said the ripple effects of the project could bring about the loss of other pieces of history. There are very few limitations on what private land owners can do with their land, and with sites adjacent to the new interstate for sale, that could mean destruction of undiscovered Mississippian artifacts and archaeological features.

If the land is redeveloped, it won't be the first time Greater Cahokia has been threatened. In the 1800s, almost all of East St. Louis' mounds were destroyed to renovate the area. Without a local push to protect the remaining sites, Galloy said the rest of ancient East St. Louis could be lost as well.

'Big Bang' in ancient times

In 1250 A.D., Cahokia was larger than London, England.

According to Cahokia Mounds' website, the city acted as a base for all Mississippians and reached its peak population between 1050 and 1150. It was a huge mecca for people living in the Midwest and beyond.

"Essentially, where there wasn't anything before that resembled a city, the Mississippians came and laid out plans to build a city," Galloy said. It took "tons of time and labor."

It still isn't clear how the East St. Louis site was connected to the Cahokia site, or how large the site was.

One reason East St. Louis is harder to define is its location in a flood plain. In the 1800s, the city passed an ordinance requiring streets and buildings to be built up on three or four feet of fill, Galloy said, to help prevent flood damage.

"What that did was it covered all of East St. Louis," he said. Usually, "when archaeologists go out to look for sites, we can see artifacts on the surface. Well, in East St. Louis, we can't even see the original surface."

Without clues on the surface, archaeologists are finding several unexpected features in unexpected areas in East St. Louis. 

Today's excavation

A team of archaeologists has been working just ahead of the bulldozers building the new bridge for four years. ISAS Project Archaeologist Patrick Durst said his team has found 5,000 features in the area. Those findings will expand on what is already known about Cahokia, specifically what the Mississippian daily life was like.

The dig is on about 10 percent of the East St. Louis site, which is believed to cover about 500 acres, Galloy said.

"I would imagine the dig we've been doing is the largest in the country for the past four to five years," he said. Archaeologists have uncovered about 1,200 ancient dwellings in East St. Louis.

ISAS has also discovered about 70 deep pits, which were used as markers, Galloy said, as well as a mound that was believed to have been destroyed in the 19th century.

"That was a bit of a surprise," he said. "And also a pretty significant find."

The data set ISAS is building in East St. Louis is unprecedented. With less than a percent of Cahokia excavated, Galloy said the new information will revise what is known about the site, particularly its population. At its peak, Cahokia was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people. Galloy and his team think an additional 3,000 to 5,000 were living in East St. Louis.

"It revises upwards our vision, our interpretation, of how big, how many people were coming to this area from outside," he said.

Cahokia Mounds Assistant Site Director Bill Iseminger said the dig could also reveal how the Cahokia and East St. Louis sites were related. 

"There will be perhaps an impact on our understanding of how Cahokia functioned through time and how it related to not only that site (East St. Louis), but also the mounds in St. Louis and other sites in this sort of suburban area," he said.

Future of an ancient civilization

With easier access to parts of East St. Louis, lots adjacent to the new highway are likely to be bought and developed, Galloy said. Land owners who build without federal funds or permits are not required to hire an archaeologist before breaking ground, unless human remains are found on the site.

"A lot of East St. Louis, I think, is prime for redevelopment because there's infrastructure there, but a lot of buildings are now gone, so people can redevelop it fairly easily," Galloy said. "If they do so and don't need any federal funds or permits, those areas will essentially be lost in terms of us being able to actually go out and do anything there."

The Archaeological Conservancy purchased two city lots and a surrounding acre in East St. Louis according to its website, but that area is the only piece of East St. Louis protected from redevelopment.

The Illinois Archaeological Survey, of which Galloy is a member, has been evaluating how to possibly acquire protection for the site for the last few years.

There has been talk of state or federal protection for the site, but the process is lengthy and wouldn't be finished before highway-adjacent lots would likely be sold. Galloy said that route would probably involve a new national park, one including Cahokia Mounds, the East St. Louis site and others.

That doesn't seem likely though, since Illinois hasn't shown any interest in giving up Cahokia Mounds to the park service.

"Whether it be a national park or a national monument, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, at this time anyway," Iseminger said. "I know our agency is not interested in giving up the site to be a part of the National Park Service."

Development and destruction

Regardless of the site's possible future protection, Galloy said it might be too late to save parts of the site.

"Unfortunately, we may not have enough time to put things in place before the site starts to fall to development," he said.

Galloy said the sites could dodge destruction with cooperation between landowners and archaeologists. The fill left over from the 1800s presents an opportunity to build above the remains of Cahokia.

"Unless you're digging a really deep hole, you're not disturbing any archaeological sites," he said.

The IAS has been looking to raise funds for a feasibility study that would show what preservation in East St. Louis would actually look like. The study would be done by an outside group. Galloy said purchasing parts of the site would be difficult because of costs and the multitude of land owners.

"It's kind of tricky figuring out how to go forward," he said. "It's not at all obvious to us."

With community support, gaining protection becomes easier, he said, but in an area begging for economic development, that could be difficult to acquire.

"Because of the economic problems in the East St. Louis area, it's going to be a hard sell to try to convince people that we should just set aside a big piece of property, (and) not develop it," he said. "Redevelopment could provide jobs for people and increase the tax base for the city."

When Cahokia Mounds became a state park, the effort began with a group of archaeologists, but was also backed by the community. Galloy said that isn't the typical scenario, though.

"Unfortunately, there's a long history in this region of sites being lost and the local populace not really seeming to know or to care," he said.

The East St. Louis site is just as significant as Cahokia Mounds, Galloy said. The only difference is the level of protection. When the East St. Louis mounds were destroyed, few people noticed, he said.

"The mounds were destroyed well over 100 years ago and we think, 'How could people let that happen?'" he said. "We're kind of in the same position today. Unless archaeologists and local people of get together and try and fight for some sort of protection, it's not going to happen."