Archaeologist to discuss East St. Louis excavation
Illinois archaeologists can’t tell the story of any individual person who lived about 1100 A.D. in what is now a flattened square mile in East St. Louis.
But artifacts discovered during the excavation in East St. Louis to relocate for the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge tell the stories of people who lived among the ridges and hollows at the time.
Archaeologist Tamira Brennan will give a free presentation of their findings at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, in the Interpretive Center. She will answer questions after the presentation. Brennan is the field coordinator of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey’s American Bottom Field Station, in Fairview Heights.
The big take-away from all that digging, Brennan says, is the number of people who lived in the area — between 8,000 and 11,000 people — is more than at Cahokia Mounds.
The footprint of the site is pretty big. There is no habitable land that these people didn’t occupy.
Tamira Brennan, archaeologist and coordinator of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey’s American Bottom Field Station
“Smack in the middle of the Mississippian” culture, which was about 1050 AD to 1300 AD in this area, their homes were bordered by the Mississippi River, Cahokia Creek and Indian Lake. Since then, the river has shifted, Cahokia Creek has been channelized, and Indian Lake has been filled in.
“The footprint of the site is pretty big. There is no habitable land that these people didn’t occupy,” she said.
The East St. Louis site had more people than Cahokia Mounds, and there were also people in present-day St. Louis, she said, but those artifacts have been lost thanks to the city’s growth.
But back in the day, people would have taken a canoe on Cahokia Creek from Cahokia Mounds to the East St. Louis site in about an hour. They had access to exotic products from people from present-day Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, and many immigrated to the area from elsewhere. They lived as families, and some families were better off than others.
“They ate a lot of fish, and deer is a prime source of meat,” Brennan said.
Archaeologists were able to determine that some people ate the prime cuts — only the long rear leg bones were found near their homes. For some reason — perhaps religious, perhaps political — these families were provided for. Others subsisted much more on maize than meat.
“They lived in single-family units. Often a married, or partnered couple, and children, and possibly an elderly parent,” Brennan said. The bones of infants and small children just haven’t survived time, but Brennan says it would have been “common for a child to die within the first two years” and “three-ish” children would have lived.
Homes would have been about 215 square feet, Brennan said, housing usually between four and eight people.
“Most of their living was outside,” she said, with the homes being used only for sleeping and winter activities.
Homes found in the East St. Louis site averaged about 215 square feet, where four to eight family members slept.
“Life in general was much more hazardous,” Brennan said. “You were really old if you were 50. It was common to die in the late 30s,” either from war clubs, poor nutrition or illness. If you get pneumonia in your late 30s, you were dead back then.”
During the excavation, which ultimately uncovered more than 6,000 pits and structures, the archaeologists also dug up artifacts from the mid-1800s. With some, they were able to correlate a street address, and sometimes are able to find who lived there.
Old toilets are a favorite of archaeologists, Brennan said.
“That’s where all the good stuff is,” she said.
In the 1860s, the land was flattened to impede flooding.
“It was naturally varied (before) with natural ridge and swale typography,” she said, which means the scientists found some features close to the surface.
“In other places we have to dig down through 10 feet of garbage,” she said. “It’s nuts how different it is.”
Brennan’s favorite find was a green stone “spud,” a long, flared object perhaps used to top a scepter, which is an ornamated staff.
“It was so well made, it took hundreds of hours of labor. It tells you something about society; at this point we’ve got really fine crafts.”