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A Woodford County dig site may change our understanding of how Mississippian Native American culture grew

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Dana Bardolph
Archaeologists worked this summer on a dig site in Woodford County near Lowpoint which was once home to a Mississippian Native American village.

An archaeological dig site in rural Woodford County may change academia's story of the Mississippian Native American culture.

"Mississippian" is a broad term used by archaeologists to describe the people who lived in what is today the Midwestern and Southeastern United States around a millennium ago, said Dana Bardolph, Ph.D, an anthropological archaeologist at Northern Illinois University who's working on the dig site near Lowpoint.

"It's basically sort of a catchall term that describes (a) maize-based agricultural, what archaeologists for a long time have referred to as chiefdoms, or complex polities, complex societies of Native Americans that were also mound builders," said Bardolph.

The largest Mississippian city was Cahokia, based in what is today southwestern Illinois.

"That sort of sprang to life about 1,000 years ago, and ultimately reached a peak population of about 12 to 15,000 people," said Bardolph. "So a greater population than the City of London at the time, which most people don't realize."

Conventional wisdom holds Mississippian culture sprang forth from large cities like Cahokia and spread across the country from there. But evidence from the Illinois River Valley suggests that narrative may not tell the true story.

Courtesy Greg Wilson
Greg Wilson, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Greg Wilson is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Barbara who has long studied the Mississippian culture at the Lowpoint site and elsewhere.

"We used to think that Mississippian culture, as we understand it, developed first at Cahokia, and then you had Cahokian elites and priests moving north and south and east and west, and essentially indoctrinating people into Mississippian culture, and that was the origin," said Wilson. "And what we're finding here in the Peoria area is Mississippian culture really doesn't develop that way."

Emerging evidence from the Woodford County dig instead suggests a network of interactions starting around 950 AD between various communities like the village near Peoria eventually evolved into the Mississippian culture epitomized by Cahokia.

"Before this occurred, a lot of those different Native American groups didn't interact, or some of them were at war with each other," Wilson said. "So what we think of as Mississippian culture really involved peacemaking, and all these disparate, different groups that didn't always get along so well, finding a way of finding something in common, creating something in common and creating a new culture, which allowed all these different groups to be part of it."

Wilson said radiocarbon dating of finds made this summer at the Fandel site in Woodford County will confirm if the earliest mounds there are contemporaneous with the earliest developments at Cahokia.

"We're working at a site that's sort of turning the narrative on its head of what some of the previous ideas were about this sort of older model or idea of kind of arrows out of Cahokia, or sort of colonizer or conquest model," said Bardolph.

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Courtesy Dana Bardolph
An archaeologist works at the Fandel Native American Mississippian site in rural Woodford County.

The Fandel site consists of three small platform mounds constructed near the beginning of the Mississippian period, or even slightly pre-dating it, according to Wilson. The homes of important families or priests were originally situated atop those mounds.

"The foundations are sort of ritually sanctified. They're sort of crushing up and sprinkling in bright yellow minerals and bright red minerals, Laminites and hematite. We're finding other sorts of artifacts that are associated with ritual practices, gaming stones, and other sorts of artifacts like that," Wilson said.

Excavations adjacent to the manmade structures also suggests the presence of ornate, religious buildings on the site. About 300 to 400 people may have lived in the village. Abandonment of the Woodford County site probably happened around 1400 to 1425, as the Mississippian culture slid into decline.

Wilson and Bardolph's plans to return to the Peoria area later this year or early next year for more excavations. Bardolph said they hope to explore ecological sustainability, and the organizational differences between a large city like Cahokia and a small village like the one near Lowpoint.

Wilson said he also wants to tackle early French Colonial archaeology in the Peoria region, to better understand the relationships between the French, English, and Native Americans in Central Illinois.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.