College of LAS « Illinois


Record Cache of Axe Heads Unearthed Near Cahokia

Photo of axe heads at Cahokia dig site

Archaeology summer field school may be better than an Indiana Jones adventure. Last summer, while digging near the ancient mound settlement of Cahokia in southwestern Illinois, students attending the Department of Anthropology's field camp hit "a mother lode" that may revolutionize archaeologists' theories about early Indian settlements.

While searching for the remains of house walls, students unearthed some 70 axe heads. Called celts, these smooth, oblong rocks ranged in size from smaller than a cell phone to the length of riding boots. The cache may be the largest collection of celts found at Cahokia and is assuredly the most complete collection in existence today, according to Tim Pauketat, director of the summer field school and a professor of archaeology in LAS.

Around 1,000 years ago, Cahokia was the only "city" in North America. Some 15,000 people lived in huts at the base of large earthen mounds on which were built religious and administrative temples. Thousands more people lived in villages within a day's walk of Cahokia. Researchers had believed that these outlying villages sprang up as the city declined and the demand for food and resources drove the population outward. Several years ago, Pauketat and LAS archaeologist Thomas Emerson challenged this theory by proving that Cahokia and the villages flourished at the same time. Pauketat believes the villages were set up as farming communities to supply Cahokia with food. The village in which the celts were found, near present-day O'Fallon, may have had a different role—as that of an administrative center, says Pauketat.

"The celts were buried in a pit, obviously as part of a ceremony," says Pauketat. "When you consider that fact along with the size of the houses in the village, you are led to believe that this village was founded to oversee the farming settlements. Though Cahokia was only 15 miles away, that was a day's walk—too far away to administer these settlements effectively without an outpost."

If Pauketat's theory is correct, it would mean that the political structure of Cahokia more closely resembled a city-state rather than a big ceremonial village or trade center.

Summer 2002