Sites Found & Lost along the Trail of the Ancient Mississippians

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Our Tour Group visiting the Dickson Mound Complex with our Tour of the Empire of Cahokia. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
Our Tour Group visiting the Dickson Mound Complex with our Tour of the Empire of Cahokia. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

The Midwest Office recently conducted our “The Empire of Cahokia & the Ancient Mississippian World” bus tour.  We had a wonderfully diverse group of guests from all over the country that joined Paul Gardner, Midwest Regional Director, and myself as we visited fascinating historic and prehistoric sites in Missouri and Illinois.

We were able to view a fantastic collection of rare Mississippian artifacts at the St. Louis Museum of Art, got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Illinois State Museum Research & Collections Center in Springfield, and climbed to the top of Monks Mound at the famous Cahokia site.  Even though all of the sites we visited were exciting and informative the highlight for many was our tour of Dickson Mounds State Museum hosted by Dr. Mike Wiant, the director of the museum and Interim Director of the Illinois State Museum.

Dickson Mounds is a national register site in Lewiston Illinois.  This settlement site and burial complex became famous in 1927 when Don Dickson, the owner of the land at that time, excavated a number of the burials and built a private museum around the exposed human remains.  This remained a popular tourist attraction for decades until changing sensibilities about exhibiting human remains lead to its replacement by the modern state museum in 1972.

Completely unexpectedly, when we arrived at Dickson Mounds a for-sale sign stood at the property across the road from the museum.  The parcel appeared to contain an intact mound, and Dr. Wiant confirmed that the property was indeed part of the Dickson complex.  I called the listing agent of the property and soon learned that the parcel had went on the market two days prior and was owned by a private individual.  The tract was just under 20 acres and the asking price was $125,000.  When I learned the basics about the property I quickly relayed the information to Paul, because it’s not very often we stumble across an important archaeological site that’s already for sale and at market price.

For Sale Sign on land Parcel Near the Dickson Mounds Site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
For Sale Sign on land Parcel Near the Dickson Mounds Site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

Seizing an opportunity to promote our mission of preserving archaeological sites, Paul decided to share the exciting news of a potential new Conservancy project with our tour guests when we left Dickson Mounds State Museum.  He explained to everyone that it’s rare for significant site to have a ready and willing seller.  Often land owners won’t agree to meet with us, let alone sell us their land.  It was a great note to end an exciting tour day on, and as we rode the bus back to Springfield many of our guests were overjoyed at the thought that they had witnessed the beginning stages of a new Archaeological Conservancy preserve.  The next day we wrapped up the tour at the always impressive Cahokia Mounds, and as tour members went their separate ways they all insisted we keep them posted on the progress of our new project.

The elation of the previous day quickly turned a bit sour when Paul called me to say that, after talking to the national office, it appeared that we might have trouble purchasing the site on such short notice.  The Conservancy has been stretched thin in the last few years because of a vigorous program of acquisitions combined with increasing land costs and a still slow-moving economy that hinders charitable giving by individuals and corporations.

Knowing the opportunity was too good to pass up, Mark Michel, President of The Archaeological Conservancy,  authorized us to make an offer of $100,000 for the 19-acre site to be paid out over the course of 3 years.  Spreading the total dollar amount out over a longer period of time with yearly installments helps us, in some situations, to get a purchase contract and acquire the site but allows us time to fundraise more money to pay for the land.  While we recognized that our offer would not be as attractive as one that included all the cash “up front”, we had no choice but to do the best we could and hope for the best.

Alas, our hopes were soon dashed as we learned that finding an archaeological site already listed for sale is not an unmitigated blessing.  In this case another buyer appeared with ready cash, and stripped the prize from our hands.

While this is a particularly disappointing outcome – made all the more so by having raised the hopes of a busload of our supporters – there is some small good news in that the land will remain as farmland, so the site will remain relatively intact for the near future.  We’re now in the process of establishing a relationship with the new owners with the expectation that at some more favorable time, we will open negotiations again.

“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” – Babe Ruth

  • Josh McConaughy, Associate Director, Midwest Regional Office

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