Archaeological dig gets international recognition

Archaeological dig gets international recognition

CHAMPAIGN — When a team with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign began excavating a site in former stock yards near East St. Louis several years ago, they couldn't foresee the breadth and importance of the discoveries they would unearth there.

As the 34-acre excavation began to reveal a 1,000-year-old city — which researchers now know is connected to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville — many outside the project didn't grasp the importance of what they were digging up.

"That excavation was the largest in North America when it was going on," said Thomas Emerson, director of the archaeological survey, part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.

And now, as information and data from that multiyear excavation is being further analyzed and published, the project is gaining international recognition.

The Shanghai Archaeology Forum of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing named the East St. Louis excavation one of the top 10 in the world, and the survey was honored with the Field Discovery Award, which Emerson accepted last month in Shanghai.

The Shanghai forum awards are presented for major discoveries that have significantly advanced or altered knowledge of the human past, locally or globally, according to Angie Patton with the survey. The excavation, which ended in 2012, was funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation, because the excavated land was part of the construction area of the new Mississippi River bridge and Interstate 70 re-alignment in the East St. Louis area.

Going in, archaeologists already knew that mounds existed in the general area of East St. Louis, and previous very small-scale excavations had revealed discoveries, Emerson said, but they had no idea they were going to unearth a 1,000-year-old urban settlement.

"It really turned into an amazing project," said Emerson, who provided some numbers to put it in perspective.

More than 2 million cubic feet of dirt was removed. At the height of the nearly four years of continuous field work, as many as 100 archaeologists were digging there and ultimately unearthed 33,000 ceramic vessels (pots and dishes) and a completely intact figurine similar to others found north of Cahokia. It's made from reddish flint clay — a moderately hard stone found in the St. Louis area that you can carve and polish — and was found shallowly buried in the floor of what they interpreted to be a temple, he said.

It's a kneeling woman holding a shell cup, which, like the color red, was associated with fertility in Cahokian civilization.

They also uncovered about 1,300 buildings of all sorts — some as small as a post, others as large as a burial mound — dated between 1050 and 1200.

Some structures were circular, maybe a sweat lodge or meeting place, he said, and some square. But most were probably houses, he explained — pole-and-frame structures with branches weaved horizontally and thatch on top of that. He said they believe they looked like a normal gable house, generally 12-15 feet long and 6-8 feet wide.

One of the unique features they dated around 1050, he said, were more than 40 massive poles or posts that were placed in the ground and were as wide as 3 feet across and 40-60 feet tall, and made of bald cyprus, likely brought up the Mississippi River. There's speculation they were used to mark a sacred center or ritual area.

"No one really has a clue," Emerson said. "But that was something very strange."

They also don't know why, like Cahokia, where evidence reveals "everybody is gone" by 1300 AD, the East St. Louis excavation revealed that urban area was abandoned by 1200.

The excavation revealed for the first time a visual depiction of a city with neighborhoods, consisting of groupings of four to six buildings around courtyards, which may have been groups of family members, he said.

"This wasn't a few bison hunters following a herd," Emerson said.

Archaeologists believe the excavated area represents only 4 percent of the total underground city, which they estimate covers 700 acres, according to Emerson.

"So the rest of it is still in the ground in an area that will be developed," he said.

He said there's been a push to find a way to preserve it, as well as a movement to turn Cahokia into a national park, which might help preserve the East St. Louis site.

Emerson said the survey was "a 100-to-1 long shot" to win the Shanghai award, so the team was "somewhat surprised" by the good news.

"It's been a good time, and it's good for the university and for the survey, and good for Illinois," he said.