Discovery of ax heads furthers understanding of Cahokian society

August 01, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A team of archaeologists, including students, working under a blazing summer sun on a high hill near O'Fallon, Ill., have made a rare find.

In what was considered to be an "ordinary" ancient farming village, the team, from the University of Illinois, has discovered a large cache of prehistoric stone ax heads called celts. The 70 celts are about 900 years old and belonged to the pre-Columbian residents of the Mississippi Valley. This is the second-largest cache ever found in the orbit of Cahokia, a major mecca from A.D. 700 to 1400. The last cache was found in the 1940s, and only five or six caches have turned up during the past 100 years - all clustered around Cahokia, an integrated system that includes a series of suburbs and villages.

The ax heads, which were found buried in a pit next to a still-intact house floor, "are quite an impressive batch," said UI archaeologist Tim Pauketat, leader of the UI field school that worked this summer at the Grossmann site near O'Fallon. "Stone ax heads such as these have been found at large important centers," Pauketat said, "and may be a marker of 'wealth' or social status." That the axes were hoarded is not unusual, he said. Neolithic people in Europe and 20th century people in New Guinea and Australia did the same thing.

What is particularly fascinating about the lucky find, made by UI anthropology student Nicholas Wisseman on Friday, July 13, is that the 70 ax heads are pristine. "They were brand new when they were buried, so they probably were placed in the pit in some kind of commemorative ritual," Pauketat said. The outlying farmstead in which the team is working "shows other hints of status, like big houses, for example, and these ax heads seem to clinch that interpretation," he said. Wisseman, 19, found the ax heads when scraping around a floor looking for wall trenches. He "accidentally cut across the pit just outside the house, hitting stone with his shovel," Pauketat said. "Nick was ecstatic. All of us were ecstatic."

One of the ax heads appears to be the longest one ever found in the area - 45 centimeters, and like the others, probably never meant to be used - "just an oversized ax head with which to impress other people," Pauketat said.

The 70 ax heads are made of an igneous rock called St. François, basalt or diabase, which comes from Ironton, Mo., in the Ozarks. This means, Pauketat said, "that the people had to fund a trip to the raw material site, haul the rocks in a canoe up the Mississippi, then make them at Cahokia." Debris previously found on the valley floor at Cahokia supports the idea that the ax heads were made there.

According to UI archaeologist Thomas Emerson, both the cache and the site are "very important, and with Professor Pauketat's previous work around Cahokia, will revolutionize our understanding of Cahokian social and political complexity."
-end-
The dig is both an NSF research project led by Pauketat and a field school run by the UI.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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