Ancient Illinois village unearths lode of questions

September 02, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Digging under a blazing sun in an Illinois cornfield, archaeologists this summer unearthed a fascinating anomaly: a 900-year-old square hilltop village. The discovery near Shiloh -- about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis -- challenges previous notions of the area's first people and adds a piece to the puzzle that was Cahokia, a huge "mother culture" that suddenly appeared, and just as suddenly vanished, leaving only traces of its majesty and meaning in the 11th century.

Until now, archaeologists believed that large Cahokian populations settled only on the floodplains and that their villages sprawled in free-form fashion. This "new" ridge-sitting village with four linear sides and a rigid orientation of buildings "was mind-blowing," said lead archaeologist Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I can't think of another village in this area that's like this." The great mystery: What was the purpose of this unique hinterlands village 12 miles from the major population center in Cahokia, and why did it have a large central residence and religious structures -- a plaza and four temples, all atypical of Cahokian villages?

Pauketat's hunch is that it was a farming village, a "feeder" for Cahokia, and an administrative outpost where a top official and, perhaps, functionaries, oversaw farming and "controlled that piece of the economy." The "evidence of authority" in the hinterlands "makes Cahokia look more like a centralized civilization and less like an elusive free gathering of Native Americans," Pauketat said.

University archaeologists have been digging near or at the so-called "Grossmann Site" for several years, but it was only this summer that Illinois graduate student and chief supervisor Susan Alt, Pauketat and a group of Illinois students found the third and fourth sides -- now only stains in the ground - of the village, the 75 small rectangular houses that lined the sides, and the four giant temples. In the center of each temple, they found the holes that once held the telephone-pole-sized roof supports. The temples had huge vaulted ceilings and thatched roofs, "something you usually see on a mound top. We were completely shocked." They also found some temple "ritual debris," including a figurine -- fire-splintered into perhaps 2,000 pieces, plus crystals and burned tools. These probably are "the remains of annual ritual burnings, ceremonies called 'renewing the temple.' "

Cahokia was "drawing great numbers of people into it," Pauketat said. "It goes from 1,000 to 10,000 people in a matter of 50 years. Most went to Cahokia, but some ended up in places like this, sent to help administer the farmers." Why so many people relocated so rapidly is still a mystery, he said.

Some archaeologists, including Pauketat, think of Cahokia as a mother culture. "They do something that is entirely unique and they do it much earlier. Within a century or two, people up and down the Mississippi and across the coastal plain of the Southeast are copying them, so you get Mississippian mounds and large settlements, but you never get anything that rivals this. So, Cahokia is just a moment, an experiment in civilization, that falters and goes away and never really comes back."
The National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society also supported the dig.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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