The following is an article excerpt from the Summer 2019 Issue of American Archaeology MagazineBecome a member to subscribe and read the full issue! 

By Gayle Keck

Cover Photo: This small ceramic jar from Cahokia is incised with motifs suggestive of marine shells, wind, and water. It was likely used to dispense special drinks, including a ritual caffeinated tea known as the black drink.  |  Credit Courtesy Of ISAS

John Lennon famously urged us to imagine “no religion.” And for decades, archaeologists hummed a version of that entreaty—avoiding the inclination to interpret religious practices from objects or landscapes. But in recent years, a group of archaeologists has been singing a slightly different tune. Some of their findings appear in the book Archaeology & Ancient Religion in the American Midcontinent, edited by Brad Koldehoff, chief archaeologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation, and Timothy Pauketat, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois and director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). The book honors the pioneering work of Thomas Emerson, the retired director of ISAS and an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois.

“What we were trying to do in this book,” Pauketat said, “is not just theorize, but to take a whole series of archaeologists and break up the analyses in terms of different things, places, and contexts, and ask them to think about the spirituality of that place or context.” Their research was focused on the American Bottom, an area of low-lying land that follows the Mississippi River in western Illinois, as well as on other sites in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio. “We think we’re sitting on one of the regions where we have enough (data) that you can start rethinking things,” Pauketat added. “Other places in the world don’t have big data like this.”

This figurine portrays a goddess pouring liquid from a marine-shell dipper. Watery realms were often understood to be portals to, or barriers between, upper and lower worlds, the latter being a place of feminine lifeforces and agricultural productivity.  |Credit Courtesy Of ISAS
This figurine found in a religious building near Cahokia represent a goddess associated with agricultural fertility. Plant stalks emerge from her palms and serpentine-like vines are wrapped around her head.  | Credit Courtesy Of ISAS
In the early 2000s researchers investigated the ceremonial core of Cahokia’s East St. Louis Precinct.  |  Credit Courtesy Of ISAS
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee excavators work in Mound 72 in the late 1960s. They revealed the stratigraphy of one of the sub-mounds under Mound 72 that covered ritual burial pits that contained sacrificial victims.  | Credit: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Much of that data has been collected as a result of cultural resource management (CRM) digs that started in the 1950s. “Illinois stands out by having a strong state law,” Koldehoff said, “as well as complying with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.” That act requires an assessment of the potential damage to historic sites—and efforts to mitigate that damage—by any project involving federal funds or permits. Koldehoff works closely with the ISAS, which operates as part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois. “We think of people who build things as the destroyers of archaeology,” Emerson said, “but the Department of Transportation has been really proactive, thinking about the impact their projects have. They’ve taken a standup position to mitigate impact.”

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