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Volunteers become amateur archaeologists at Cahokia Mounds

Rita Cooper, 67, examines pieces of clay and stone retained by the half-inch screen she used to filter dirt. 2008 photo 300 pals
Amanda King | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 6, 2008 - While Indiana Jones strikes gold at the box office, amateur archaeologists at Cahokia Mounds state historic site are digging for a different type of treasure.

Beginning May 19, volunteers with the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society picked up their trowels and got down in the dirt, digging for clues to unravel more of the mystery surrounding the ancient mound-building society that settled the area near present-day Collinsville more than 1,300 years ago.

But in the field of archaeology, answers often prove elusive.

"Sometimes we raise more questions than we answer," said assistant site manager and archaeologist Bill Iseminger. "But we always find information. The site was occupied so long that any place we dig, we're going to find something."

Indeed, after a few hours of digging and sifting on Friday, Rita Cooper, 67, of O'Fallon, Ill., had already amassed a bucketful of artifacts to be sent to the lab for processing.

"You never know what you're going to find," said Cooper, fishing out a tiny arrowhead from among her morning's finds.

But even on days when she is less fortunate, Cooper's weathered tan and soiled hands serve as evidence of her archaeological exploits. Cooper's career as a volunteer archaeologist began more than a decade ago and has taken her far beyond Illinois, to such exotic locals as Tunisia, where she walked the ruins of ancient Carthage, and South America, where she dug for lost Incan artifacts. Archaeological sites in Greece and Turkey are on her to-do list for the fall.

This summer marks Cooper's second season digging at Cahokia Mounds, and from her pit at the Mound 34 excavation site, she reflected on her introduction to the world of archaeology.

Before retirement, "I used to sit at a computer every day, all day. I'm doing this to get some exercise and get in shape, but I've always wanted to be an archaeologist," Cooper said.

"As a child I used to read National Geographic about discovering lost civilizations, but when I was growing up, as a woman, you couldn't be an archaeologist. It wasn't an option. You could be a nurse, a beauty operator or a secretary."

In the adjacent pit, Amy Galloway, 52, from Des Moines, Iowa, nodded her head in agreement. She and her husband Joe, 51, were volunteering as a husband-wife team -- he digging and she documenting his finds. The Galloways will make the trip to Cahokia Mounds three times before the excavations wrap up at the end of July.

Joe Galloway, 51, uses a trowel to scrape away layers of soil at Cahokia Mounds. 2008 300 pals
Credit Amanda King | St. Louis Beacon archives
Joe Galloway, 51, uses a trowel to scrape away layers of soil.

"It wouldn't be a complete year without this," said Joe, gesturing around him with grubby hands, then smiling. "Getting dirty is half the fun."

Volunteers like the Galloways may come and go over the next eight weeks, but one constant during the excavations is John Kelly of the Washington University department of anthropology. As project manager, he supervises between eight and 14 volunteers from the Museum Society and a dozen students from WU and the University of Missouri-St. Louis as they work together on what he calls the "Mound 34 Project."

The project's goal is to re-excavate an area previously dug by amateur archaeologist Greg Perino in the 1950s. If Perino interpreted his findings correctly, the students and volunteers can expect to uncover the remains of a copper workshop. During excavations at the site last year, archaeologists unearthed pieces of copper that were undisturbed by the 1950s dig, Kelly said.

The presence of a copper workshop at Cahokia Mounds would add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that Cahokian religious traditions spread throughout the Midwest and Southeast, said Iseminger.

"There are copper plaques and plates in the shape of falcons and other artifacts in the South that (archaeologists) think were being made here and perhaps being transported as (the Cahokians) were missionizing this belief system in other places," Iseminger said.

The decision to reopen Mound 34 is consistent with what Iseminger calls "problem-oriented archaeology."

"We don't dig just to be digging," Iseminger said. "We dig to answer questions we don't know about the site."

Another one of those questions involves the palisade that surrounded the once-thriving city of 20,000. Across a field from the Mound 34 Project, near Monk's Mound -- the largest and most prominent of the 75 mounds that remain intact -- a group composed exclusively of students from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville is working to locate a turn in the wall.

SIUE seniors Liz O'Malley,front, and Anna Csar remove layers of dirt looking for evidence of an ancient palisade.
Credit Amanda King | St. Louis Beacon archives
SIUE seniors Liz O'Malley,front, and Anna Csar remove layers of dirt looking for evidence of an ancient palisade. 2008. 300 pals

For senior anthropology major Liz O'Malley, 25, this is her first dig. Centimeter by centimeter, she scrapes away layers of dirt, looking for dark lines in the soil that would indicate the location of the palisade trench. O'Malley, who grew up in Belleville, said Cahokia Mounds is often overlooked by locals.

"People think of Egypt," said O'Malley, dropping a trowel-full of dirt into her bucket. "But they don't think that right here close to home there's something as amazing as Cahokia."

Those interested in participating in summer excavations or lab work through the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society can contact Lori Belknap at belknap@charter.net for more information. All volunteer openings for July have been filled, but positions are still available for several days in June. Volunteers must be Museum Society members and must be at least 18 years old. Individual memberships may be purchased for $35. Discount memberships are available for students ($25) and seniors ($30).