Indiana University Susan Alt
Indiana University
Indiana University archaeologist Susan Alt works at the Emerald site in southwestern Illinois.

Archaeologists Awarded Grants for Continued Research at Cahokia Mounds

Indiana University Bloomington

Archaeologists at Indiana University and the University of Illinois have been awarded two grants totaling $640,000 to continue and expand their research at Cahokia Mounds, site of the largest and possibly the most sophisticated pre-Columbian city north of Mexico.

Principal investigators for the grants are Susan Alt, associate professor of anthropology at IU Bloomington, and Timothy R. Pauketat, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois. Their work at Cahokia is producing a new narrative of the history of civilizations, showing that religion played a central role in organizing a complex society 1,000 years ago.

“We’re finding that religion wasn’t an outcome of greater complexity. Rather, greater complexity was a product of a religious movement,” Alt said.

The two grants are:

“The Foundations of Ancient American Indian Religion and Civilization at Cahokia’s Emerald Shrine,” $336,557 from the John Templeton Society.

“Cahokia’s Richland Farmers: Agricultural Expansion, Immigration, Ritual and the Foundations of Mississippian Civilization,” $303,545 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A previous John Templeton Society grant, “Cahokian Religion, the Emerald Pilgrimage Center and Cultural Innovation,” helped support work by Alt and Pauketat at the Emerald Shrine site for the past three years.

Cahokia, located in southwestern Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was the great capital of the mound-building Mississippian peoples of Eastern North America. While the site was occupied from approximately 700 to 1400, it was an important urban center from 1050 to 1200.

At that time, the city covered nearly six square miles and had a population of up to 20,000. More than 120 mounds were built, and many were enlarged. Residents carried out massive earth-moving projects using stone hoes and baskets. Houses were arranged around plazas, and fields surrounded the city.

In addition to the city of Cahokia, the site included many satellite mound centers and numerous outlying villages. Alt said archaeological evidence suggests many of the villages were ethnic enclaves, occupied by people who had come from other locations, including southern Indiana and southern Missouri. Villages appear to have specialized in certain tasks, such as weaving, pottery and tool-making.

One site, called the Emerald Acropolis and located about 20 miles from Cahokia, appears to have been a shrine center that attracted pilgrims from across the central Midwest. Alt said more than 10 percent of the structures in Emerald were shrines. Evidence shows the Cahokia people enacted rituals centered on fire, water and agriculture, and buildings and mounds were aligned with lunar cycles.

The Templeton Society and NEH grants will provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to engage in research, including fieldwork at Emerald during the summer as well as detailed laboratory analysis of archaeological materials from the site.

The research will result in academic publications, conference presentations and data for future archaeological study as well as material for university classes and outreach to the public through lectures and articles in popular media. The project also includes increased collaboration with Native American descendant groups and an understanding of indigenous viewpoints regarding Cahokia.

Finally, the researchers will work with the HeartLands Conservancy, a local preservation organization, and area residents on efforts to protect the archaeological sites, some of which are in private ownership and are endangered by suburban sprawl and contemporary farming techniques.

“Our commitment,” Alt said, “has been to try to excavate these critical sites that tell this story before it’s too late, before there’s nothing left to learn.”

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