Old railroad site helps answer archaeology questions

Sunday, June 16, 2002

BROOKLYN, Ill. -- For years, workers disposed of gravel and rocks dug up during railroad construction by spreading it over fields on either side of the tracks just east of this tiny St. Clair County community.

The debris protected the remains of a prehistoric Mississippian Indian village that is more than 1,000 years old and lies about four or five feet below the surface. The soil in this grassy area of several acres is largely undisturbed because the proximity of the railroad prevented foundations for modern-era buildings.

Because the site is intact, archaeologists may finally solve some old archaeological questions: Did several Mississippian Era villages that existed near Cahokia Mounds once stretch west and then south in a loose chain to East St. Louis? Is this village part of the chain?

Archaeologist Brad Koldehoff heads the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Project based at the University of Illinois. Project archaeologists work with the Illinois Department of Transportation to excavate prehistoric and historic sites that lie in the path of highway construction.

Koldehoff contends that about 800 to 1,000 years ago, East St. Louis was an ancient port for the canoes of native traders from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. The traders sent goods overland through small villages to the urban center at Cahokia Mounds.

"We're finding a lot of little stuff, broken pieces mostly," he said, adding the village predated the rise in about 1,000 A.D. of the city at Cahokia Mounds, which is less than five miles away.

A layer of finely packed, yellowish and very sandy dirt at the site contains fire pits, trash pits and the remains of earthen cellars dug beneath ancient huts. This is where Koldehoff's team members will sift the soil for bits of pots, animal bone, fire-blackened rock, chips from projectile points and knives, charcoal, an occasional piece of native copper and other debris from everyday Mississippian life.

The ancient trash, Koldehoff said, should reveal the trading role of this long forgotten village that may have been home to about 200 people.

Trying to ward off a local rumor, Koldehoff said several large pits dug by backhoe did not contain human remains and have nothing to do with a small, nearby cemetery containing headstones of people born in the 1850s. That cemetery will be preserved and is not in the path of new construction, he said.

Several years from now, a portion of the fields will eventually become a road leading to a new bridge over the Mississippi River, about a mile from the ancient site.

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