St. Louis Mounds
Plowed and Bulldozed

Where rivers meet in the St. Louis area is one of the richest sources of understanding the Mississippian Culture. It is rapidly being destroyed and the people who want to protect it are overwhelmed by advancing indifference and desecration.

It is also of interest that the Hopi claim to be the builders of the Eastern Mounds.

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demanding schedule. It is my hope that these reporters understand
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Here is an email in its entirety, and it is presented as "fair use."

Much evidence of Mississippian culture has succumbed to bulldozer and plow.

By William Allen And John G. Carlton c. Post-Dispatch January 9, 2000

John Kelly drove west on Collinsville Road, gazing over the Southern Illinois countryside where the past and present collide. He could see the landscape of today: trailer parks, junkyards and cheap motels.

But he also could see an earlier world: sacred plazas and temple mounds built by Mississippian Indians who lived in the St. Louis region a millennium ago.

"That's a major loss," he said, pointing to a store built over a burial mound. His voice was tinged with sadness and anger.

Kelly, an archaeologist with Washington University, had just pulled into the parking lot of a run-down shopping center in Fairmont City, a mile west of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

"Some of it may still be there beneath those cottonwoods," he said, pointing to a slight rise near the side of the store.

One recent wintry day, Kelly led a tour of the Metro East area's archaeological riches, treasures largely torn apart over the past two centuries by the farmer's plow and the builder's bulldozer. He drove through an archaeologist's world of wounds.

"Once it's gone, you can't get it back," he said, echoing the lament common among many of the region's archaeologists. "The best you can do is protect it before it goes."

In the past few years, scientists have made unprecedented strides in understanding the great civilization that thrived here a thousand years ago. It centered on what we know today as the Cahokia Mounds, a city of 10,000 to 20,000 people at its peak.

This civilization and its mounds stretched across the St. Louis region, and its earthen relics remained for centuries after its people disappeared. Beginning in the 1800s, the mounds fell victim to the family farm and the builders of St. Louis, East St. Louis and surrounding cities and suburbs.

That destruction continues today.

Modern civilization daily buries important clues to our human past beneath new subdivisions, businesses and roads, these scientists say. Researchers want to preserve this past or at least document the sites before they are destroyed, taking their secrets -- and historic lessons -- with them.

"The St. Louis area has some of the best archaeological sites in the country because of its location at the confluence of several major rivers," said Joe Harl of the Archaeological Research Center, in St. Louis. "When you talk about archaeology in the United States, everyone thinks of the Southwest. Well, this place has a longer and richer archaeological heritage.

"Unfortunately these resources are rapidly being destroyed by modern construction before they can be recorded."

Said Kelly: "The development, especially in the last five years, has accelerated to a level that we can't adequately deal with it."

East St. Louis: Kelly estimates that scientists have recorded about 10,000 archaeological sites in the area's six counties that border the Mississippi. Three to four times that many remain to be identified.

Among the East St. Louis mounds that he studies, only about seven remain of the roughly 50 mapped before the Civil War, he said.

Kelly drove toward East St. Louis, winding along railroad tracks and through subdivisions, overgrown vacant land, liquor-store parking lots and alleys. Revealed by his trained eye, evidence of mounds popped out seemingly everywhere. "This is all part of Cahokia," he said, pointing to the right. "There's a house on a mound right there."

He pulled off the road near a ramp where Interstate 64 merges with Interstate 55-70. "See that riverboat casino sign?" Kelly said, pointing a hundred feet away. "Below it was a mound, probably a large platform mound. Some of it may still be beneath the ramp."

The big archaeological surprise in East St. Louis was revealed in the early 1990s when Kelly and his colleagues excavated along Interstate 55-70. They uncovered evidence of several mounds, including one that was once 40 feet high and would have almost covered a football field.

Around the remains of this flattened mound they discovered burial mounds, a large plaza, a palisade and several other Mississippian structures that indicated the spot was a ritual center.

Before this discovery, many archaeologists believed the East St. Louis mounds reported by early settlers had been completely destroyed.

The Mississippians built the East St. Louis mounds some 25 to 50 years after Cahokia began its rapid rise, Kelly said. At that time, these mounds were a couple hours' walk from Cahokia -- "like a drive from St. Louis to Jefferson City today."

Kelly gazed at the broad landscape on both sides of the river. At the westernmost extent of the East St. Louis mound group, the Gateway Arch loomed across the Mississippi River flood plain.

"The real trick is going to be tying these together, understanding their links," he said.

Mound City: Across the Mississippi River, F. Terry Norris looked out on an empty lot in a hardscrabble neighborhood just north of Laclede's Landing.

Like his colleague in Illinois, Norris could see the past and present reflected in this barren landscape.

Today, the lot is a parking spot for construction equipment and debris. But once, it was near the center of another city defined by two dozen earthen pyramids that lent St. Louis its early nickname among white settlers: Mound City.

"Where they're working right now would have been the site of Mound 19," he said, using the archaeologist's name for one of the structures scientists believe once spread for a quarter-mile north of Laclede's Landing. Norris is an archaeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers.

On the surface there was no trace of Mound 19 -- or any of the others that once surrounded it. Scientists call these vanished earthen monuments the St. Louis Mound group.

"In the 1820s, the city expanded into this area," Norris said. "Shortly afterward, all the mounds were gone."

Many were removed for landfill. A boulder on North Broadway marks the spot where the largest of these once rose. Its dirt was carted away by the wagon load in 1869.

Thanks to Kelly's work in East St. Louis, scientists have begun to wonder whether traces of the St. Louis Mound group may still remain just beneath the surface. If a new Mississippi River bridge is built, they may get their answer.

One proposal calls for the Missouri side to be built not far from the spot where the Big Mound once stood.

Perhaps archaeologists will find homes and buildings made by the thousands of Indians who made these mounds beginning around A.D. 1000. Maybe, near what is now an abandoned loading dock, they will find evidence of the sacred plaza where rituals were held and games played.

Only one mound remains within the city -- a scarred structure named "Sugar Loaf" by the first Europeans to see it.

St. Louis Suburbs: Not quite 20 miles northwest of Laclede's Landing, near the intersection of Interstates 70 and 270, is Boenker's Hill.

Also known as the Bridgeton site, it has become among some archaeologists an infamous example of antiquity destroyed by modern development.

On a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, an archaeologist found a Mississippian Indian who had been buried in a standing position. Nearby, six people -- four adults and two children -- were carefully interred, their faces covered with conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico.

Even more important may have been the several villages uncovered beneath the bluff. In one building there, pieces of copper and sheets of a shiny stone called mica were found.

Harl believes other burials waited to be discovered at the Bridgeton site. And the village, which was established just as Mississippian culture began its sudden rise a millennium ago, could have provided important insights about Cahokia.

"This was an important site," said Harl, of the Archaeological Research Center.

The site was examined by an archaeologist who apparently disagreed with Harl's conclusions.

Recently, workers helping to build an industrial development there scraped away the top layer of soil -- including whatever artifacts, houses and post pits remained -- to cover a landfill in nearby Earth City, Harl said.

"Despite all the laws we have in place, nobody did anything about it," he said. "It was completely destroyed."

It's hardly the only potentially valuable site to fall victim in recent years to development.

Another was the Groenfeld site, just off the Katy Trail south of the city of St. Charles and almost directly across the Missouri River from Chesterfield.

In the 1940s, archaeologists found evidence of stone toolmaking there and graves that predate the Mississippians by about 3,000 years. Similar findings at a nearby site provided some of the earliest evidence in the United States of permanent habitation, long-distance trading and even mound building, Harl said.

But within recent years the site was covered with a subdivision built to help house St. Charles County's fast-growing population.

Such irreplaceable losses have led some archaeologists to search out innovative ways to protect the past. Kelly has quietly floated the idea of a historical trail -- reminiscent of Boston's Liberty Trail -- that would link East St. Louis, Cahokia and the Collinsville bluffs.

It's likely that what is now Collinsville Road was once the route of an Indian trail, he said.

But many landowners and developers are reluctant to acknowledge the archaeological importance of their property. Owners fear it would limit their use of the land. And developers, who often borrow heavily to finance projects, fear such acknowledgment could lead to delays or prohibitions that could bankrupt them.

"With all the hoops you have to jump through to get a property developed --zoning, sewers, utilities, environmental studies -- to add another step costs time and money," said Dennis DeSantis, associate director of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate broker.

DeSantis spoke for developers who are his clients: It's not that they don't care about preserving the past. "Their biggest fear is that they (archaeologists) would find something that would delay the project," DeSantis said.

The irony, Harl said, is that in most cases archaeologists don't want to stop development, just explore and record artifacts on the sites.

"It could be a win-win situation for everyone," he said.
"This is potentially a way to make developments unique."

In England, for example, excavations for a shopping mall uncovered the site of an ancient Viking village. The developers capitalized on it by reconstructing the site in the lower level of their mall. That brought in tourists and increased traffic in what would otherwise have been just an ordinary mall.

"A lot of developers talk about being environmentally friendly," Harl said. "This would be a chance to prove that they're culturally friendly."

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