Frederick works at an archaeological site near East St. Louis.
There's a lot archaeologists still don't know about the American
Indian culture in our region; but they're analyzing what they found
during the dig to clear land for the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial
Bridge and they're ready to share.
For one, East St. Louis was a bustling city chock full of immigrants.
Around 1000 A.D., it was bigger than nearby Cahokia Mounds site
and it thrived for about 150 years.
"The occupation is heavy," says Tamira Brennan, the interim
field station manager for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey
in Fairview Heights. Although the scientists haven't yet done a
population study for the area, they can say it was "densely populated."
"This is the first big city in North America," said Brad Koldehoff,
the chief archaeologist for the state. "Now we have details, and
it's wow. Some conjecture had been that all Cahokia moved
to East St. Louis, but that's not it.
"When Cahokia was big, East St. Louis was big; and this was
even bigger than people thought."
The Illinois State Archaeological Survey team is analyzing what
they found while digging under contract for the Illinois Department
of Transportation. The area near the old stockyards was part of
the study for the bridge, and fieldwork ended in 2012. They've been
working since on cleaning up the finds and cataloging it all.
and other excavation work related to a future bridge can be
seen in the background at an archaeological dig site near
East St. Louis.
Many in the area were immigrants, the study is revealing. Brennan
said the archaeological record at Cahokia led to the research on
immigrants,but the East St. Louis site confirms the significance
"They couldn't have reproduced fast enough to make that number
of people,'' she said from her office in Fairview Heights, which
has tables full of pottery and pottery fragments.
"Like New York City or Washington, D.C.," Koldehoff said, "that's
what it looks like in East St. Louis. ... something was happening
here that drew people from all over the Midwest and the South."
Koldehoff thinks it may have been a religious movement, "like
this was the founding of a holy site."
Pottery fragments tell archaeologists that the material came
from Southern Missouri or Northern Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and
Wisconsin. They can even tell if the clay used came from Madison
or Monroe counties.
The scientists look at how many recovered pottery pots were
made in the local style. Materials and style show that immigrants
brought some of their own pots when they arrived, but as broken
pottery was replaced they "got with the program" Koldehoff said,
adopting the local style.
"There's definitely a population increase,'' said research archaeologist
Alleen Betzenhauser. "Some of the 'ah-ha' moments come when processing
the data," she said, which the archaeologists have been compiling
since digging stopped at the old stockyards in October 2012.
"You can't tell when you're digging exactly ... you can't see
these patterns," Brennan said. The Illinois State Archaeological
Survey team is drafting reports now, having analyzed the features
found and having tabulated the results.
Their extensive data system allows them to see patterns that
indicate how and who lived in the area. Because of the number of
people living there and the fragile nature of pottery, there is
a continuous record for the scientists to study and analyze from
the Terminal Late Woodland People all the way to the late Mississippian
"The bowls become smaller ... less like group eating from big
communal bowls," Betzenhauser said. She says a typical family might
have had five or six jars and a couple of bowls, although "not every
household would have every type of pottery," she said.
Some of the pottery is finely crafted, as though someone with
great time and skill made it, but others are more utilitarian. Betzenhauser
said nearly everyone is likely to have known how to shape and craft
Arrow and other stone tools also point toward a large population
in the East St. Louis, says Steve Boles, a research archaeologist
with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.
arrow point found at an archaeological dig site near East
He and his team sifted through eight tons of rock that included
everything from knuckle-sized arrows to limestone rocks used to
line fire pits. They winnowed away the limestone to find about half
a million items to analyze. "Most every other tool was made locally,"
he said, referring to hoes and other heavier gardening tools. "But
arrows are probably coming in with people."
The stone and style suggests arrowheads coming from as far away
as North Dakota, but more commonly from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi
Boles says it's unlikely the arrows were planned for hunting
given the population's size and the number of arrows found in the
later time period. "They couldn't have found a rabbit to shoot after
100 years (of the heavy population) ... more arrowheads likely means
Questions remain as to why so many people left so suddenly.
The East St. Louis site appears to be nearly abandoned by about
1200, having been occupied for about 150 years. There's no indication
that the significant population in East St. Louis at the time was
a rival to the Cahokia population, Betzenhauser said.
"They seem to be cohorts," but palisades were built in about
1150 around Cahokia. Brennan says a number of factors likely played
into the populations' sudden decrease.
"There is evidence of severe drought" when the stockade was
built, which coincides with the increase in arrow points as well.
"When you have drought, you have war..." Brennan said, linking the
dwindling resources to reasons people may have left the area.