Buried Tools, Forgotten Gods

Nine centuries ago, Mississippian villagers cached 70 celts underground. Was it a ceremonial offering, or did they just forget?

First he dug the pit, a yard around and a foot deep, its four corners as stable as the cosmos itself. Then he picked up the first celt, curving his palm beneath the smoothed blue-gray rock. Fine-grained, the rock had come all the way from the St. François Mountains, several days' journey by land and canoe. They'd found the right shape and hammered it with sharp flint, driving out individual grains to shape the ax head. Then they'd ground the blade sharp with sandstone wet in the creek.

Running his finger over the celt's cool surface, he placed it carefully in the northwest section of the pit and laid two more alongside it. Diagonally across, he stacked more celts -- some speckled white, some black; some rounded, some squared. He laid them all tip to butt, parallel to the ground -- except in the southwest section, where he stood them upright, then angled them 45 degrees. He worked steadily, in layers, and he rested the largest celt of all, a foot-and-a-half long with a heft of 25 pounds, atop three layers of three. Carefully he trickled in clean soil to cushion the blades, most of them sharpened, a few not. Then he covered the pit with several inches of silty ochre clay and stood, satisfied.

These 70 stone celts were as valuable to his people as gold to the Incas. And they would lie untouched for 900 years.

Archaeologist Tim Pauketat
Archaeologist Tim Pauketat
Two of the 70 unearthed celts, which came in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes
Two of the 70 unearthed celts, which came in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes

The minute the backhoe lifted off the plow layer -- a jumble of black topsoil, corn stubble and clay -- Tim Pauketat knew this site was different. He'd dug five villages already, all in the arc of rolling farmland 10-20 miles from the Cahokia mounds. They'd all been simple places, huts arranged in kinship groups around small courtyards. Yet they'd been built after 1000 A.D., at a time when the central mound civilization was growing more and more sophisticated, stylized and elaborate.

A noted field archaeologist, Pauketat had been studying Cahokia his whole life. As a little boy, he went on dinosaur-hunting expeditions in the fields around Belleville, and he could see the mounds in the distance, feel their spell. For his doctoral dissertation, he'd examined the lifestyles of Cahokia's elite inner circle. Now, working out in the villages, he was intrigued by the signs of resistance, the cultural lag that had kept the farmers clinging to the old ways. They hadn't hankered after Cahokia's exotic crystals and stones, hadn't traveled to the metropolis for gaming or burial rituals. When they made pottery, they incorporated some of Cahokia's brilliant new techniques into the traditional methods, creating what Pauketat describes as "weird hybrid styles, not terribly beautiful but very practical." These villages in the hinterlands might have grown food and butchered deer for the Cahokians, he decided, but they'd remained loyal to their own simple, traditional lifeworld.

This summer, he started digging at yet another rural site, high on a hill in a cornfield near O'Fallon, Ill. A professor at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus, Pauketat had a National Science Foundation grant for the dig and about 20 students in his field school. He was expecting to find another simple village.

Then the backhoe laid bare the dark-stained outline of "as densely packed a village as I've ever seen," says Pauketat. "The houses were practically on top of each other." They were big, too, some almost 5 by 9 meters, twice the size of the huts in the other villages. Instead of standing in a loose arrangement, 5 or 6 yards apart, they were as close as 2 feet, lined up in neat rows. Instead of kinship groups, there was a single central courtyard. Instead of a ragged natural boundary, the village had four straight sides.

Pauketat thought immediately of the four corners, an arrangement used again and again at Cahokia to reference cosmological order.

A month later, the researchers had about 50 of the 100-200 houses plotted, and they'd already found more decorative Cahokia artifacts than they'd unearthed at any of the other villages. This place was nothing like the other villages, that much was obvious, but they still hadn't fathomed its structure or its purpose. Then, one blazing-hot morning, Pauketat stood in the middle of the site, staring at their map. He looked around at the roped-off sections of ground. He looked back down at the map. And suddenly everything clicked into place.

An invisible axis ran straight through the central courtyard, cutting the village in half. All the houses on the west side of that axis were oriented east-west. All the houses on the east side (except one, joke of the gods) were oriented north-south. The two unusual T-shaped structures with formal entryways fell on the axis. So did a line of holes for massive poles, 2 feet across instead of the usual 6-8 inches. "There were so many patterns," says Pauketat, now convinced that this was another sort of village altogether, its order planned and imposed, its organization sophisticated. "I think there were ordinary villagers living there, but I also think there was someone else." Someone of status. Someone who'd come directly from Cahokia.

He squinted into the distance: They could have seen Cahokia's mounds from this hill; they could even have seen the largest of the 26 mounds across the Mississippi in what's now St. Louis. Pauketat's heart raced. Ever since grad school, he'd been looking for clues to political power, "how it is that people allow themselves to be lorded over by other people." By digging deep into the past, he found, he could strip away the complexities of today's bureaucratic machinery and see power's immediate effects. He'd looked at how the higher-ups lived, whether they ate better than the rest, whether they networked with other tribes. Then he'd stumbled into the villages in the hinterlands, alerted in 1995 by the discovery of a pre-Columbian sandstone smoking pipe on the construction site of a new subdivision. Now he'd dug up what amounted to a gated community, an unusually sophisticated rural outpost with close ties to the center of power.

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