Vermilion County mounds may be connected to Cahokia
OAKWOOD — For at least 100 years, locals have been aware of several mounds, likely of Native American origin, in a rural part of Oakwood Township, but there's very little truly known about them.
"It's a place that needs to be looked into," said Don Richter, a Vermilion County historian who grew up in the area and remembers going there as a kid to see the mounds, which today are on land that was farmed by his late brother. Richter said arrowheads and pieces of pottery have been found there consistently through the years, and his brother once plowed an undisturbed area and turned up a cigar box full of arrowheads.
Amanda Butler, a graduate student in the University of Illinois anthropology department, has done some preliminary investigation at the Oakwood-area site and suspects it could be connected to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a 2,000-acre complex of mounds where a pre-Columbian city thrived at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from 1050 to 1400 A.D.
Cahokia was the largest and preeminent population of people and mounds north of Mexico, and its influence stretched throughout the Midwest and Southeast. The largest mound, Monk's Mound, has a base bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. As many as 15,000 to 20,000 people lived at Cahokia, but experts can only speculate why they were gone by 1400 A.D.
But there's good reason to suspect a connection between Cahokia and the Oakwood-area mounds, because there's already a tie to another site in Vermilion County.
The Richter property is only 12 miles southwest of another group of mounds known as the Collins site, which sits along the bluffs and floodplain of the Middlefork River and today is part of Kennekuk County Park. The site, which was named after the Collins family that farmed the area, was explored in the 1970s by UI archaeologists and features eight mounds believed to be connected to Cahokia. The most prominent — Indian Springs Mound — is about 7 feet tall, sits on a bluff overlooking the river and was built over a wooden, burned funeral structure that contains the remains of five bodies. Other mounds are below the bluff, in the flood plain closer to the river.
Through her doctoral work, Butler has renewed interest in Collins, leading excavations there last summer that unearthed more evidence of connections to Cahokia. Butler has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to continue her work at the Collins site next summer, and hopes to do some additional basic testing, separate from the grant, at the Richter property, too. One theory she wants to further explore is the missionary aspect of Cahokia, the idea that people from that urban center were spreading their religious practices. She said there's evidence of that at Collins.
Archaeologists believe, based on traits of physical remains at Cahokia, that the people there shared a common religious philosophy, according to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site website, and some scientists believe religious "outposts" of Cahokia were scattered throughout the upper Midwest.
The Cahokia-Collins connection was first made more than 40 years ago by UI archaeologists.
A proposal to dam the Middlefork River and create a reservoir threatened to flood the Collins site, which had not yet been excavated. The threat of destruction opened the site for study, and multiyear excavations, led by UI archaeologists, took place there from 1970-77. Through the collection of artifacts and study of the mounds themselves, UI archaeologists classified the Collins site as a short-lived ceremonial complex with distinct, Cahokia-like influences. And, Butler said, well before the missionary aspect of Cahokia was more widely supported, as it is today, the UI archaeologists hinted in the 1970s that the Collins site could be explained in the context of the missionary framework.
What connects Collins to Cahokia, she said, are the mounds themselves, their shape and placement and artifacts found there. Mounds had flat-tops and are aligned with each other, both of which are Cahokian features, according to Butler. She believes the mounds also exhibit lunar alignment and wants to explore that in future work. She said lunar alignments have been confirmed at the Cahokia site.
Other evidence of Cahokian influence at Collins includes the red cedar wood in the Indian Springs Mound, which is 7 feet high, 90 feet long and 70 feet wide. Red cedar was an important wood for Cahokians, who got it from the Ozarks to build special structures, Butler said. And the fact that the Indian Springs Mound contained five human burial bundles and was burned in a ceremony is also in sync with Cahokia practices, she explained.
Butler hopes through further excavation at the site that she will find more Cahokia-style dwellings. Because the mounds are there and the artifacts exist, she believes evidence of more dwellings is there, too. It's just a matter of doing the work to find them.
Last summer, with help from UI students, volunteers and both the Illinois State Archaeology Survey and the Vermilion County Conservation District, Butler excavated two large areas on the flood plain near the smaller mounds. In one, she found evidence of a dwelling and many pieces of pottery, as well as arrowheads. The house, she explained, was single-post construction, which is pre-Cahokian style. Cahokia style would be wall-trenched, she said, meaning posts were dropped side-by-side into a trench.
Inside that structure they found pottery and arrowheads that are Cahokia-style but made with local material. Butler said that indicates someone was teaching the local people in the Cahokia ways, supporting the missionary theory. Butler believes she has enough pieces of pottery to reconstruct almost one entire pot.
Lara Darling, outdoor educator for the conservation district, invited Butler to tell other outdoor educators from across Illinois about her work at a recent conference at Kennekuk. And Darling took some of her own students to Butler's excavation site last year and had them sift through dirt looking for pieces of pottery.
Darling said Butler's new work at the site is fascinating and makes one realize how long people have actually lived in this area.
"There was a whole culture of people here before us," she said.
Richter, who compared the archaeologists' work to a treasure hunt, agrees that the discoveries they are making put our lives in perspective.
"We all think we're so permanent," he said.
Common characteristics of Mississippian culture
- Large communal plazas
- Monumental "public" architecture
- Flat-topped temple mounds, sometimes paired with round-top burial mounds
- A particular set of religious symbols, found on pottery, copper, shell and stone
- Complex hierarchical society
- Occasional practice of human sacrifice
- Specific styles and decorations on (usually shell-tempered) pottery
- Palisaded villages
- Houses with wall posts set in narrow trenches
Source: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site website, cahokiamounds.org