A Conversation With Archaeologist Lori Belknap Of Cahokia Mounds

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While there is a thriving culture of makers in the middle of America today, from around 1000 to 1300 AD it was also home to one of the most innovative, resourceful societies to ever thrust a stake into soil, fire pottery or carve rock. Cahokia, a Native American civilization that inhabited what is now Collinsville, Illinois, East St. Louis, Illinois and parts of Missouri, was so densely inhabited that now, almost a thousand years later, field digs continue to yield a multitude of telling artifacts. The society also left behind over 100 large mounds of earth, built for structural and ceremonial purposes, many of which remain on the state-protected site today. The largest, Monk’s Mound, is open to the public, with a set of stairs installed that reach all the way to the top.

We sat down with Lori Belknap, archaeologist and executive director of the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, at the world class Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center to discuss the value of the historic site and its vital tie to contemporary Native American groups today. Cahokia Mounds hosts a Contemporary Indian Art Show this weekend, July 8 and 9, with an opening reception on Friday, July 7.

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Tell me about Cahokia Mounds and the Interpretive Center.

We have about 2,200 acres of the original site preserved by the state of Illinois, and we have probably 75-80 mounds from what was originally about 120 that we know about preserved on the site. The site is part of a large complex that goes all the way to East St. Louis and across the Mississippi river. There were some mounds in what is now Downtown St. Louis as well. It was a large community—the archaeological site is massive. There are even some up in Mitchell, Illinois all the way down Dupot that were probably smaller communities tied to our site here.

The significance of the mounds vary. They’re different shapes and sizes, but basically, there were three standard sizes: a platform mound, with a flat on top like Monk’s Mound, which probably had structures on them. There are also the round-top mounds, and we’re not exactly sure what those were for—possibly for burials. And then there are some ridge top mounds, which we think of as markers on the site because they appear at certain locations. Some of them are very low and slope out. Some were ceremonial in nature or demarcating certain areas of the site.

Only 1% of the site has been excavated because it’s under protection. Our goal is to preserve the site, not necessarily to excavate it, because once you excavate you destroy the archaeology that’s there. Everything is destroyed. So we don’t want to go around digging everything up. What we do know about the site is based on that 1% of excavation—for example, when they built this building [the Interpretive Center] back in the 80’s. We had a small museum building across the street. So when they started constructing this building, we were able to do some archaeology here first. Little things like that on the site is how we know what we know.

What is the significance of Monk’s Mound in particular?

Today, Monk’s Mound is the only one with public access. There are 150 steps that take you all the way to the top. It’s pretty impressive once you get up there. We don’t want people walking on them or sledding on them—things like that.

There used to be a large building at the back of the mound, with a big fence around it and a large pole. We assume that was some type of ceremonial structure. We didn’t find household items up there when it was excavated years ago, so it likely wasn’t just a house or a residence. You can see St. Louis on the horizon, the Arch, and everything around you. You can imagine if you were up there, you could see everyone that lived around it as well.

It also had a palisade wall two miles long that went all the way around the central portion of the site. There’s a stockade trail you can walk on in that area and see where the wall was. It was bastioned—you can see it has guard towers as well. The only remnants left of it are stained soil.

When you have a log in the ground and it rots, it creates a stain in the soil. So when we do archaeology, that’s what we’re looking for: the stains. So those are the remains. We have also reconstructed sections of it. If you’re at Monk’s Mound and you look east, you can see what it would have looked like all the way around.

When you go up the steps and look south, you’ll also see a large flat area. That’s the grand plaza, where they actually graded and prepared the surface to make it level and flat. It was just as big of an architectural feat as it was to produce Monk’s Mound, probably used for community events. And at the southern end, we have these two twin mounds. One is a round top mound and the other one is a platform, which we assume had a structure around it. So this large two-mile fence, made of logs, went all the way around the central portion.

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How do you work with contemporary Native American groups who can tie their lineage back to Cahokia Mounds?

We have our annual fundraiser, a contemporary Indian art show in which we reach out to Native American artists across the country and invite them to participate. We abide by the Native American Arts and Culture Act, so we make sure everyone who says they’re selling art is tribally affiliated so that it’s all authentic Native American art. They’re able to come here and sell their goods.

For this particular art show, we’ll have up to 30 artists, and they’ll have their original art for sale here. Some do pencil drawings, oil paintings, sculptures, pottery, jewelry and other fine art, representing many different media and tribal affiliations. This year we have two Navajo-affiliated artists, Andy Marion Norris Chee, who will be showcasing their jewelry and painting, respectively. We’ll also have two ceramicists showcasing pottery, Dan Corly and Meg Cornshucker, representing the Cherokee tribe. The cosmology and iconography of their tribal affiliation are typically represented in their art.

Our mission is to interpret the Cahokia site, and we’re always exploring different avenues to do that. We also want to support the contemporary Native American community, because many of them have sacred ties here. They can trace their heritage all the way back to Cahokia. We try to work with them as much as we can.

How can the public participate and help support this community as well?

We have so many things going on because our field season is starting right now. I’m an archaeologist also. I’ll be out in the field next week and am trying to tie up some loose ends today. Our field school is open every summer, which is six weeks of excavation. It’s free for our members, so if you are a society member and want to participate in a dig excavating the Cahokia site, you can, for free. It’s really a rare opportunity. I’ve been on other sites where you’re lucky to find any archaeology at all. But here it was so heavily occupied that–in one day of digging, we might leave with a five-gallon bucket with shards of pottery, and all kinds of things.

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On your journey, what led you to this work with Cahokia Mounds?

I started working for John E. Kelly, archaeologist and currently a senior lecturer in archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. He led a team that started looking at Mound 34 about 13 years ago. About 10 years ago I got on board with them, and we found the remains of a copper workshop located at Mound 34. Native Americans that were there at the time produced an area where they built a structure and prepared copper sheet there. They obtained copper nuggets and hammered them thin to create copper sheets. We think they were producing copper plates. Then they finished, they dismantled the structure and built a mound there. So I was on that project starting in 2007. I worked there for a few years and then moved into my current position in 2010.

We’re actually still working on excavating the copper workshop. We’re finding the evidence of production. A lot of those types of artifacts were probably picked up in the past. That area where the copper workshop is was owned privately years ago before the state acquired it, so now most of the artifacts that were found there are in a museum in Oklahoma. That’s what happens before sites receive state protection. There were no big pieces left there, so what we’re looking at are evidence of the production: tiny bits of copper, green-stained soil and green-stained bone, as well as a few tools. Through some experiments, we were able to deduce that that was they were doing.

There are a lot of things you can determine about a society by what they leave behind, but also much that you can’t.


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