U.S.
CarverMostardi / Alamy

Suburban expansion threatens prehistoric sites near St. Louis

As development continues westward, a new batch of artifact-rich sites lies at risk

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. — Mark Leach remembers the moment he discovered his passion for archaeology. Years ago, he and his sons were playing in their neighborhood creek in this outer suburb of St. Louis. They found a funny-shaped rock, which Leach thought resembled a knife.

He took it to an archaeologist, who confirmed its authenticity: It was a tool, probably about 4,000 years old. The archaeologist didn’t seem fazed, but Leach was fascinated.

“He told me, ‘You can’t turn over a shovel of soil in Chesterfield without finding artifacts,’” Leach recalled. “That sparked my curiosity.”

Leach’s find is just one of countless artifacts that have turned up in the archaeologically rich St. Louis area over the years. Many sites were destroyed as the city grew in the 1800s. As the population has moved west into St. Louis County over the past few decades — to communities like Chesterfield — experts warn that another round of prehistoric sites is at risk.

Mound City

st. louis mound cahokia
Prehistoric mounds have been documented since the French settlers arrived in the early days of colonization and can still be found throughout the area. The largest is Monks Mound, above, in Collinsville, Illinois.
National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy

“Our area really was the center of prehistoric Native America,” said Leach, who has authored several books on the area’s history. “Because of its location. The rivers were the superhighways of the ancient people.”

St. Louis sits at the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as well as several smaller tributaries that, combined, link nearly the entire continent. Before the Mississippi River became a border between Missouri and Illinois, it ran through the center of a city that was one of the largest in the world nearly half a millennium before European contact. Remnants of that civilization — called Mississippian — can be found throughout the area, but most notably at the Cahokia Mounds site in Collinsville, Illinois, an eastern suburb of St. Louis.

Collinsville is also the site of the largest of the numerous earthen mounds built by ancient people in the region.

“St. Louis’ nickname used to be Mound City,” Leach said. The mounds have been documented since the French settlers arrived in the early days of colonization and can still be found throughout the area.

“This area was literally a Garden of Eden,” said Joe Harl of the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis. “We’ve been trying to get the [cities] to watch out for this stuff.”

As the St. Louis metropolitan area has expanded, researchers and enthusiasts like Harl and Leach have watched the area’s remaining prehistoric sites be looted, damaged and even destroyed.

Harl recalled two mounds in the town of Fenton, Missouri, that were leveled to build a Walmart. The site of a 1,000-year-old village in Bridgeton, Missouri, was flattened to build an industrial park.

Missouri has few laws to protect these sites. If they are on private land, it’s typically up to the landowner to decide what happens to them, unless federal money is involved.

“It’s tough in Missouri to preserve archaeological sites,” Leach said. “There’s not a Missouri mound police or anything like that.”

An even bigger problem than development, Harl said, is looting. At the Fenton site, the city allowed archaeologists to excavate the mounds before they were destroyed. In most cases, looters looking to sell artifacts online get to them first.

“Almost every cave and rock shelter we know of has been dug into,” Harl said.

In 2010, the Riverfront Times reported that looters were digging through sites in St. Louis to fund their drug habits.

It has largely been left up to individuals and organizations to lobby for the preservation of these sites. When Leach came upon the Blake Mound in Chesterfield, he found an unsupported tunnel dug into the mound by looters. He and a team of volunteers moved 86,000 pounds of soil to repair the mound.

“We don’t want to turn back to the Stone Age,” Harl said. “But we want to protect these things.”

St. Louis doesn’t seem to have learned from its own past. This is the shame.

Michael Meyer

Archaeologist, Missouri Dept. of Transportation

‘Going to go soon’

french colonial ruins
The Missouri Department of Transportation unearths a colonial French settlement under the Poplar Street Bridge, just blocks from the St. Louis Arch.
Ryan Schuessler / Al Jazeera America

Harl’s office is currently sorting through artifacts from a colonial French settlement unearthed by the Missouri Department of Transportation under the Poplar Street Bridge, just blocks from the St. Louis Arch. That team is led by Michael Meyer, an archaeologist with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT).

When federal money is involved, MODOT brings in Meyer and his team to look at a location, as there are federal laws protecting historical sites. However, there is no legal obligation for a developer to protect those sites during private or state enterprises.

“Most of the development here just goes on without any conservation, or any thought to it,” Meyer said. “What’s really of concern is when the development is occurring in areas that were prehistorically heavily populated.”

During a drought in 2012, low river levels exposed more artifacts, including a stone believed to be 1,200 years old that had a map of the region carved into it. Just weeks ago, human remains were unearthed as construction of an IKEA store began in St. Louis.

Most of the earthen mounds in what became the St. Louis metropolitan area have been destroyed. One of the largest was flattened to build the Northern Missouri Railroad. An additional 16 within the city limits were destroyed to prepare for the 1904 World’s Fair. Today, there is only one mound left in the city of St. Louis — Sugarloaf Mound, which was bought by the Osage Nation out of Oklahoma in order to preserve it.

“They’re going to hit bodies,” Harl said of new construction in the area. “Eventually.”

It may be too late for the mounds in the city of St. Louis, but there is still time to preserve prehistoric and historic sites in the outlying counties, Meyer said.

“St. Louis doesn’t seem to have learned from its own past,” he added. “This is the shame. These are not new issues.”

Most alarming is the Dampier Site, also in Chesterfield. Harl said it’s only a matter of time before development completely destroys what was a major market and civic-ceremonial center in A.D. 1100–1200.

At the site, pieces of marine shell beads from the Gulf of Mexico, mica from the Appalachian Mountains near South Carolina, copper from the Great Lakes and pumice from the Rocky Mountains have been found, highlighting the region’s importance as a trade center. Nearby was a temple or ceremonial center, as well as mounds that appear to align with celestial patterns in the sky.

“It’s going to go very soon,” Harl lamented. “All these McDonald’s, Walmarts — are they really setting these communities apart?”

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