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American Bottom Archaeology Project

The Gateway Arch is a unique and compelling monument, but across the river are more mysterious public works. Unlike the Arch, which stretches legibly across the city skyline, the Cahokia Mounds recede into the dirt, and all of their secrets are underground.

Making sense of these enigmas has involved many years of digging in the dirt, bringing what is underground into the light of day and speculation. The results of this intellectual process have been compiled in a volume, published this year by Bison Books, called Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World (edited by Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson). Given the grandeur of the speculations, involving Indian chiefdoms and sophisticated preindustrial economies, the character of the evidence that has emerged from underground is surprisingly homely and humble. A lot of it amounts to garbage, or "excavations of domestic refuse," in the words of the scholars.

You have to read between the lines to find out what has literally been dug up, because these essays tend to lead with theories about cultural paradigms and then sprinkle the evidence in along the way, a strategy that may have been dictated by the sketchy, fragmentary nature of the evidence itself. The Mississippians left nothing so helpful as hieroglyphics, Rosetta Stones or inscribed stone tablets. In fact, they left no language at all, and Cahokia was deserted when DeSoto first stumbled on it. Instead, we have pottery shards, pieces of mollusk shells, arrowheads, hoe blades, beads, bits of bone, corncobs, deer hindquarters, squash-rind fragments, panic-grass seeds.

On the upper end of the artifactual scale, archeologists have found little masks of long-nosed gods and tobacco pipes sculpted in the shapes of people, animals and monsters. That's pretty juicy stuff. And then there are the real attention-grabbers, the charnel-house leftovers. Digging up Indian bones is out of vogue at this time (though one scholar writes in this volume that "we presently lack adequate samples of human skeletal remains," as if lamenting that the whistle was blown on those bone-digging days of yore), but when it was permitted, excavations revealed horror shows like a group burial of decapitated skeletons in a pit underlying the bodies of people who died in apparently higher style.

Lots of "probably" and "perhaps" and "presumably" comes attached to the speculations that emerge from all this unearthed death and rubbish, which is good, because the theories start to sound pretty far-out, or maybe just clumsily stated. "The Mississippian politics of production, appropriation, and redistribution gave form and rhythm to Cahokian hegemony." "The increased construction of mounds reflects the degree of producer alienation." "Alone, this could be considered an indication that maize was indeed a subsistence liability and not the golden-grained fuel for the apogee of Mississippian polities."

Sort of makes you long for the simpler joys of childhood, when, after a long day of digging in the dirt, you came home with your treasures tumbling out of your pockets and introduced them with "Hey, look at all the cool stuff I found!" rather than a brain-knuckling abstraction.

The impulse to dig in the dirt starts in childhood, but back then the sheer pleasure of playing in the dirt and the creepy satisfaction that comes with creating a hole had as much to do with the undertaking as the promise of actually discovering something at the end of the dig. Archaeology picks up on this childhood impulse and sublimates it by adding a goal: the production of knowledge. (The discovery of artifacts was already part of the childhood package, as you might remember from a childhood unearthing of an arrowhead.)

What this amounts to can strike a layman, even one fascinated by the Indian past, as much ado about old garbage. For example: Garbage from apparent craft manufacturing was discovered in an area not thought to be central to the Cahokian setup. Somebody named Yerkes concluded that this meant there was rural craft production "conducted by full-time specialists," but someone else, Timothy R. Pauketat (one of the editors of Cahokia), says it may have been a part-time operation to make the objects "required by Mississippian overlords from rural households." And someone else might say: How the heck could we ever know?

You might think there is something silly about digging in the dirt to find the garbage of the dead red man and then constructing theories about his past and even arguing over it (and Indians themselves have, for the most part, shown little interest in archaeology except to lay claim to unearthed items of a sacred nature and put a halt to graverobbing). But the scientific approach to the mystery of the mounds is far less silly than earlier speculations, most of them straight-up racist, positing such unlikely mound builders as a lost tribe of Israel or some Welshmen who lost their way -- anyone except Indians, who were thought to have been too savage to make big piles of dirt. And both approaches are better than the former mode of the construction foreman, from the days when mounds were leveled for dike and levee fill.

The backhoe has been stopped in its tracks, and the graverobber has lost his license to open Indian tombs. Racists have moved on to problems other than who built the mounds and why. Scholars will continue to sift through the dirt of the American Bottom, making theories out of bones and garbage. The rest of us may be content to leave the dirt and the mysteries underground, to let the shells, beads, bones, cobs and rinds rest in peace and say, in the words of an early 19th-century visitor to these parts, "What a stupendous pile of earth!" and leave it at that.

-- Chris King

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