The welcome mat is rustic: prairie grass flattened by a pickup
To a visitor walking up a slight rise to the tracks' end at a
pile of dirt and two makeshift worktables, it appears that no one is
home. Suddenly, a hand hefting a bucket sprouts from the ground,
vanishes, and is replaced by a human.
The human is Jim Mertz, a volunteer helping archaeologists who
are trying to answer fundamental questions about the ancient
inhabitants of this site, known as Cahokia.
Archaeologists estimate that at a time when the Normans were
consolidating their hold on a newly conquered England, central
Cahokia covered five square miles, held more than 100 earthen mounds
ranging from the mundane to the monumental, and was home to as many
as 20,000 people.
Greater Cahokia appears to have embrace communities with dozens
of additional mounds in what are now St. Louis and East St. Louis,
forming what many archaeologists say was the heart of the
Yet like the ancient Anasazi, whose cultural center in New
Mexico's Chaco Canyon peaked between AD 850 and 1250, the
Mississippians at Cahokia melted away, perhaps to merge with what
became more modern groups. By 1400, only the mounds remained as
silent testimony to a once-thriving cultural center.
Researchers are trying to pin down the factors that led to the
rise and fall of Cahokia, as well as details about how the society
evolved over time. Recent discoveries of Mississippian communities
on the Illinois plateau, which rises above the Mississippi River
plain some five miles east of Cahokia, are prompting some
researchers to overhaul their views of how the society was organized
and how it maintained its cohesion.
Today, notes University of Illinois archaeologist Timothy
Pauketat, Cahokia mounds represent "a linchpin in the archaeology of
eastern North America."
Mr. Mertz is scraping his way into one of them, known as Mound
He clambers up a stepladder and out of a rectangular trench with
corners as sharply defined as the crease on a sailor's dress whites.
He empties his bucket onto a makeshift sieve, then sweeps his gloved
hand back and forth, breaking up clods and sifting through the dirt
in search of archaeologists' "black gold" - charcoal.
"If we can get enough charcoal, we can get a good date" on the
layer of soil that contained the specimens, says Mertz, referring to
radiocarbon dating techniques.
Getting a "good date" on the mound's contents is critical to
answering several questions, notes John Kelly, a research associate
at Washington University in St. Louis and the lead scientist on the
Mound 34 dig. With less that 1 percent of the historic site
excavated, researchers are still trying to pin down the order in
which the mounds were built and rebuilt. The sequence is expected to
help define the changes that took place in the society's structure
An exporter of culture
More intriguing is the potential role Cahokia played in
developing cultural and religious symbols and ideas that it exported
to more distant groups. Dr. Kelly notes that Mound 34 appears to
have been a ceremonial site centering on war and hunting. Unique
shell artifacts found in 1956, but less rigorously dated, also have
cropped up in mounds at Spiro, Okla. …