On a warm spring afternoon, Italian archaeology students from the University of Bologna were painstakingly sifting through mud from a pit they’re excavating at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville.
Heading the group is Imma Valese, 29, who’s been coming to Cahokia Mounds for six years. She has written her master’s thesis on the ancient Mississippian culture that thrived at Cahokia 1,000 years ago. Now, she’s working on her doctorate.
Valese has explored the world-famous ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy, but she prefers to work here. She knows that surprises some people.
“When you say, ‘I’m going to the United States to have an archaeological dig,’ people say, ‘What?’ ’’ Valese said, smiling. “The Mississippian culture is so interesting and different. I think that’s a challenge for an archaeologist. It’s really intriguing.”
A thousand years ago, this 2,200-acre site was the central hub for the Mississippians, North America’s greatest ancient culture. They were a mound-building people who lived, worked and worshipped here, atop earthen structures they formed from dirt, basketful by basketful, between 1000 and 1400 A.D.
The largest mound — the one that lures most visitors — is the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, which contains about 22 million cubic feet of earth. It’s the largest prehistoric earthen construction in north or south America.
There’s a 154-step stairway to the top, where the view stretches for miles. To the west, a snow globe-sized cityscape of St. Louis marks the horizon. The Mississippians built “satellite” mounds there and across the region.
A quarter of a million people visit Cahokia Mounds every year, which is such a remarkable archaeological site that in 1982 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named it a World Heritage Site. It is one of just 21 such sites in the U.S. and the only one in the Midwest.
Now, the site is inching closer to a what could be a monumental distinction: becoming a unit of the National Park Service.
Though preservationists have talked about it for years, the effort to bring Cahokia Mounds into the National Park Service picked up steam in 2014. That’s when a study by the nonprofit HeartLands Conservancy concluded that a partnership between the National Park Service and the state of Illinois would be both beneficial and feasible. The report is aptly titled “The Mounds – America’s First Cities,” and you can read it here.
The group has letters of support from local elected officials and civic groups endorsing the notion of making Cahokia Mounds some type of national park unit, said Laura Lyon, who leads the mounds project for the conservancy group. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has endorsed the plan. So has the St. Louis Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently stirred the pot again by sending a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to use his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare Cahokia Mounds a unit of the National Park System. Durbin cited the HeartLands study as evidence of the “overwhelming support” for a collaborative partnership between the state of Illinois and the NPS.
So, just what would becoming a “unit” of the National Park Service mean for Cahokia Mounds?
We talked to people who are involved with the project. Here are five things to know:
1. Plans call for Illinois and the National Park Service to be partners at Cahokia Mounds
Throughout the project report, HeartLands Conservancy stresses a partnership between the National Park Service and the state of Illinois in operating Cahokia Mounds.
The group held public meetings across the region and engaged with Native American nations and tribes to hear what people thought about a National Park designation for the historic site.
“What we heard from people was that they liked the idea – and already thought that it was a formal unit of the Park Service,’’ Lyon said. “This is part of their landscape, so they wanted it to be more of a collaborative model where the state and the federal agencies could work together, as well as private ownership, as well as municipalities, as well as not-for-profits.’’
And that is a key ingredient, said Chris Wills, public information officer for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which oversees Cahokia Mounds.
“No one is talking about turning over Cahokia Mounds to the National Park Service and having them operate it, instead of the state,’’ Wills said. “What’s being discussed is having the National Park Service designate all the mounds in the area as a national landmark. They would work with us to promote and preserve them -- and bring more tourists to the area. And, we think that’s a great idea.’’
The state of Illinois started the efforts to preserve the mounds in 1925 when it purchased 144 acres, including Monks Mound, to create a state park. The site is now 2,200 acres, about half of the 4,000-acre urban center developed by the Mississippians. About 80 mounds are protected at Cahokia Mounds, which is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
2. National Parkspeak: It helps to know the terminology
What does the term “National Park unit” mean?
It’s actually a catch-all term that encompasses various designations used by the National Park Service, including: national park, national preserve, national monument, national memorial, national historic site, national seashore, and national battlefield park.
There are basically two ways for a site to enter the National Park Service:
* Most are established by an act of Congress and signed by the president into law.
* The president can invoke the Antiquities Act to designate areas as national monuments.
Both approaches are covered by a joint resolution approved by the Illinois General Assembly in May 2015. The resolution urges Congress to elevate the national status of Cahokia Mounds and nearby "thematically-connected mound complexes" as a noncontiguous National Historical Park. Or, alternatively, the resolution calls upon the president to grant national monument status to Cahokia Mounds.
In addition to his letter to Obama requesting national monument status, Durbin had previously asked the National Park Service to conduct its own study of Cahokia Mounds.
That NPS study is currently in progress and should be completed by the end of the year, said Tim Good, superintendent of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, who is working on the report.
The next step in the NPS process would be another study. Called a special resource study, it would be more detailed and comprehensive. And it would require Congressional legislation, according to Good.
A national monument designation by Obama would expedite the process.
According to the NPS, the designation of “national monument” has been given to natural reservations, historic military fortifications, prehistoric ruins, fossil sites, and to the Statue of Liberty.
Good notes that a collaborative approach is nothing new for the NPS. While some NPS sites, like the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, are operated solely by the Park Service, others are managed in partnership with states and local entities. He worked at two such parks in Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
“Both are considered partnership parks, and I can attest that the collaborative model is very successful,’’ he said. “Partners are engaged and work together.’’
Illinois currently has two NPS sites: the Lincoln Home in Springfield and the newly designated Pullman neighborhood in Chicago.
Missouri has six NPS sites, two of them in St. Louis: the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which includes the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse, and the Grant home.
The NPS is a bureau of the Department of the Interior and is overseen by the department’s assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
3. A Cahokia Mounds-NPS designation could include other area mounds.
The HeartLands study emphasizes the cultural and historical significance of the Mississippian mounds and concluded that preserving them is a national responsibility, as well as a local one.
It noted that unprotected mounds in the region continue to be destroyed. The National Historic Landmark and Illinois Burial Act have provided some protection for mounds near the Cahokia Mounds site, but many sites -- private or publicly owned -- “are threatened as new roads are built and development further encroaches on the remaining cultural resources of the region.”
The conservancy proposes a layering of national park designations that would be centered at Cahokia Mounds but could include several other mound sites in the region, including those discovered in East St. Louis during excavation for the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Lyon said this could be accomplished with two designations: A national monument status for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site within a national landmark boundary that connects “thematically connected” satellite mound sites -- and a national historical park that would connect noncontiguous mounds.
Such a “Mississippian Culture Historical Park” could include mounds located across the region, connected by interpretive car or bike trails, she said. The study mapped more than 500 mounds in the bi-state region.
The conservancy has already been developing a connector: The Mounds Heritage Trail, which connects Cahokia Mounds to other sites in the region. A leg of the trail extends to Sugar Loaf Mound, which is the only surviving mound in the city of St. Louis.
The project team visited and studied existing national park units during its research. Lyon says that historical parks, such as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Hopewell Culture Historical Park in Ohio, provide insight into how such a designation could work at Cahokia Mounds.
The Hopewell site, which preserves prehistoric mounds dating to 200 B. C., has evolved from national monument status granted in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding. Hopewell is currently seeking World Heritage status from the United Nations.
4. More visitors = Economic impact
Development Strategies, a St. Louis consulting firm, was hired by HeartLands to analyze the economic impact of Cahokia Mounds. It found that an elevated national designation could boost visitation to Cahokia Mounds by 10 percent and could eventually increase visitation by 40 percent, depending upon the program enhancements put into place. A proposal to build a new mounds satellite welcome center at the former St. Louis National Stockyards in Fairmont City could attract an additional 40,000 to 70,000 visitors annually.
Visitation at Cahokia Mounds has decreased notably in recent years, Lyon noted.
“We learned that it would hopefully increase visitorship at Cahokia Mounds back up to what it was when it received the UNESCO designation in the 1980s, when they had almost a half-million visitors a year," she said.
And that would have an economic impact.
According to the report, Cahokia Mounds currently spends $1.7 million annually to supports its operations. That spending stimulates an economic impact in Illinois of about $19 million per year. About $12 million of that is generated in the metro-east.
Development Strategies found that even a 10 percent increase in visitors would generate an additional $3.6 million of economic output for the state -- with $2 million of it generated in the metro-east.
5. Life goes on at the Mounds, amid state budget woes
Lori Belknap, executive director of the nonprofit Cahokia Mounds Museum Society which supports the historic site, said she’s hearing many questions about the national park effort.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” she said.
She points out to site supporters and donors that it’s all still a proposal at this stage -- and she assures them that the site is not being taken over by a federal agency.
While the state funds the operational expenses of Cahokia Mounds, the nonprofit museum society raises about $300,000 a year to pay for educational activities, equinox and solstice observances, arts programs, a lecture series and marketing of the site. The society has about 900 members. Through the years, the nonprofit has raised funds to purchase tracts of nearby privately owned land when it comes up for sale. Those tracts are then gifted to the state.
The museum society supports a partnership between the state and the NPS, though it is still unclear what that will look like, Belknap said.
“We are in favor of a mutual relationship between the two -- and that’s what we think is going to happen. Nothing will really change at the site, but we might get some additional resources,’’ she said. “We all feel that our site is under-designated.’’
In the meantime, she is encouraging museum society members and donors to continue supporting the site, which has been impacted by the state’s budget woes.
Though the grounds are still open seven days a week, the site’s interpretive center has been closed on Mondays and Tuesdays to save money, even during the busy summer months. Attendance dropped about 10 percent last year.
And there are other uncertainties. Gov. Rauner has proposed moving the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which oversees Cahokia Mounds and other state historic sites, to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, where they would be administered by the state tourism office.
Such an administrative change would have negligible impact on the site, said Wills.
“I think everybody agrees that the state’s limited resources are a concern, and we all wish that there was more money available for historic sites, particularly one with the status of Cahokia Mounds,’’ he said. “I don’t think that the declaration of it as a national monument and a partnership with the NPS would immediately translate into more money, but I think anything that elevates the recognition of the site can only help.”
Just including Cahokia Mounds in NPS brochures and websites would boost attendance, he said.
Worth noting: Obama has created 21 national monuments, including one in Chicago
Obama has already used his executive powers to create a national park unit in Illinois: In February 2015, he designated the Pullman Historic District in Chicago as a national monument.
The district was a “company town,” established in the 1880s to house workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company, which made sleeper cars for rail passengers. The district was the setting for labor violence in the late 1800s, and the birthplace of the first African-American labor union.
Pullman is an example of how collaboration between the state and NPS could work at Cahokia Mounds, Wills said.
“The two of us are working together and working with community leaders to promote Pullman, to tell tourists about it, to help local businesses take advantage of this new status as a national monument,’’ he said. “So what we’re talking about at Cahokia Mounds is something very similar -- a broad area declared a national monument. Part of that area would be our state historic site, and we would work with the NPS to preserve and promote all the mounds in the area.’’
At Pullman, the NPS owns the administration building, while the state of Illinois retains ownership of the historic Florence Hotel and residents retain ownership of private homes and businesses located within the district’s boundaries.
Obama has used his powers under the Antiquities Act to create 21 national monuments, including Honouliuli in Hawaii. Others include Fort Monroe in Virginia, the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland.
Durbin’s request to the president for national monument status for Cahokia Mounds comes with a built-in deadline: Obama’s last day in office will be Jan. 20, 2017.
It would be exciting to see a national monument proclamation move forward between now and then, Lyon said. She noted that Durbin grew up in East St. Louis, and Obama and Durbin served together as U.S. senators from Illinois.
"It would make a great story,’’ she said.
If the president were to designate Cahokia Mounds as a national monument, her group would continue to pursue adding a historical park designation, Lyon said.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @MaryDLeonard