Cahokia Mounds in Fairmont City attracts a diverse group of history buffs, who are visiting one of North America’s most important historic sites, and fitness enthusiasts, who enjoy the cardiovascular challenge of the steep steps that climb to the top of Monks Mound. That is the largest of the native earthworks in the Illinois state historic site.
If these stair-steppers would step a short way down the mown path that leads east from the parking lot next to the big mound, they could see history in the making – or in the rediscovering.
Excavation is underway at an archaeological site atop a smaller mound in the field just east of the great mound. It is known as Mound 34, in the numbering scheme adopted by John J.R. Patrick, a Belleville dentist and Civil War veteran who mapped the mound system and numbered them in 1876.
John E. Kelly of Washington University and James A. Brown of Northwestern University are conducting an archeological dig on Mound 34 near the site of a major historical rarity – the only copper works located at a Native American location from the Mississippian culture that built the mounds at Cahokia.
“This is one of the most important sites in the eastern half of the United States,” said Corin Pursell, pointing to what remains of the excavation into the former copper works.
Pursell – supervising the dig for Kelly and Brown – has been retracing work done at the site by Greg Perino in 1956. Though Perino cooperated with subsequent researchers in handing over his maps and notes, his work methods on his dig were “not one of his finer moments,” Pursell said. That was why the current dig was needed to find Perino’s original dig site and verify and expand his findings.
“It’s an archaeology of the archaeology,” Kelly said.
On Mound 34, Perino found a human structure that dates back to 1100-1200 AD, Pursell said. People built with wood then, so post holes and trenches from walls are the only remaining evidence of the structure. A tremendous amount of imagination is needed in archaeology to get excited about the findings. Pursell, for one, sees a post hole and imagines the feasting of the Mississippian nobility.
“Given where it was, on top of this mound, it should have been a building for nobility,” Pursell said. “And Perino reported evidence from his dig that there was feasting here.”
The nobility partying hard on the earthen mound would have played some role in the copper works just a few strides away, Pursell said. Right by the active dig site is the ruin of Perino’s 1956 excavation of what he thought – and Kelly’s team later confirmed – to be the only copper works on the continent at the time.
“Perino found evidence of a big ceremonial campfire with hundreds of tiny flecks of copper – more flecks of copper than he had ever seen anywhere, and Perino was experienced,” Pursell said. “The soil was stained with copper. He was pretty sure he had found a copper workshop.”
Perino decided to leave that important work for later researchers – an “excellent decision,” Pursell said, given Perino’s slipshod work at the site with bulldozer and shovel.
“We didn’t believe it was true, because there are no copper workshops in the Mississippian culture,” Pursell said. “But it turns out Perino was right. There was one – and this is it.”
Kelly’s team concluded that copper was imported to Cahokia from the Great Lakes and worked into artifacts here that were then exported all over the continent – and to some extent the world, given that copper figures were given as diplomatic gifts.
“All we have are debris,” Kelly said. “We know they were hammering very thin sheets of copper, presumably for the copper plates that were placed on sacred bundles” at Mississippian ceremonial sites.
Pursell said, “That means all of the religious artifacts and diplomatic artifacts made of copper over a three-hundred-year period of our civilization were made right here.”
Chris King is editorial director of the St. Louis American.