Some hope the construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River will help revitalize the area. But archaeologists worry future development could destroy what's left of another neighborhood -- one that flourished there almost a thousand years ago.
Working just ahead of the cranes and earth movers that are building a stretch of the interstate freeway, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a sophisticated American Indian settlement no one knew existed.
There are remnants of more than a thousand prehistoric houses and the base of an earthen pyramid -- one of dozens that would have towered above the original settlement.
Rising 100 feet above the ground, Monks Mound is the tallest of the 80 or so pyramid-mounds remaining at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois. Around 900 years ago it was a carefully maintained earthen pyramid, supporting a large wooden temple several stories high (Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio).
This East St. Louis dig sits halfway between a crumbling meat packing plant and a now-closed strip club. But Joe Galloy, who is coordinating research here for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, says 900 years ago, visitors paddling here by canoe from the Mississippi River would have seen the tall wooden temples that stood on top of many of the pyramids. And at their bases, [were] rows and rows of thatched-roof huts.
"One of the things that I imagine an ancient visitor to this site would have experienced was kind of a sense of awe and wonder," Galloy says. "There would be fires and things like that. People cooking stuff -- all sorts of activity. And you'd see this huge village. And it was probably a very impressive site, one of the largest settlements that people had seen if they hadn't been around this area before."
Galloy says archaeologists knew about the pyramids from old maps and excavations, but they were all outside the bounds of this new dig site. "So for us it was a really big surprise to come out and discover that we have this big residential area for this ancient city."
Cahokia: A Bustling, Ancient City
Galloy and others believe that what they've found here near East St. Louis is a prehistoric suburb of an ancient city known as Cahokia, once the largest American Indian city north of Mexico. Its remains are five miles away.
Cahokia is considered the greatest achievement of Mississippian culture... More