ST. LOUIS • One thousand years before there was serious talk of a new football stadium north of downtown, a thriving urban civilization built a network of earthen mounds on the same site. It was scraped away in the careless burst of a second city’s growth during the 19th century.
If any evidence survives of that prehistoric Mississippian culture, it’s buried beneath the bumpy streets, scattered businesses, weeded lots and vacant warehouses within the 90-acre site on the riverfront, north of Laclede’s Landing and east of Broadway. Maps and sketches from the early 1800s give locations for at least a dozen mounds within the stadium site, and roughly that many west and north of its fringes.
They were similar in form and origin to what survives at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, near Collinsville.
Local archaeologists and historians want St. Louis to take time for a serious study of the site before construction begins on any $1 billion stadium and network of parking lots.
The Osage Nation, which claims a direct cultural link to the ancient mound builders on both sides of the Mississippi River, strongly opposes disturbing the area anymore than it has been since the 1820s. But if the project can’t be stopped, a spokeswoman said, the Osage at least want thorough archaeological research and protection of any significant finds.
There probably is no legal requirement that a dig be undertaken. Stadium promoters say they don’t intend to use federal money, which would trigger archaeology. Missouri law doesn’t require it. The Army Corps of Engineers can insist upon a dig if river-related permits are required, but a spokesman said it’s far from certain the Corps has jurisdiction.
Andrea Hunter, director of historic preservation for the Osage Nation, said tribal leaders in Pawhuska, Okla., are preparing a formal position they will send soon to stadium leadership. The Osage were the leading Native American tribe in the future state of Missouri during colonial days, and worked closely with St. Louis’ fur-trading founders. The tribe ceded the land to the United States in 1808 in a treaty with William Clark, co-hero of the Pacific Coast expedition and later federal Indian agent in St. Louis.
Hunter said the Osage consider the mound site in St. Louis to be sacred because it was a center of Native American life and was used for rituals and burials. She said the Osage believe they are direct descendants of people who moved into this area from the Ohio valley before the year 1,000, built cities and dispersed mysteriously well before the first European explorers arrived.
“Our strong preference is that it not be disturbed any further,” Hunter said Thursday. “If there is no choice, if (St. Louis leaders) turn their backs on what we consider sensitive, sacred land, then having archaeologists go in there is essential. A major concern for us is protection of burial sites. Archaeology would be extremely helpful to us in protecting and removing them.”
A prepared statement from Gov. Jay Nixon’s St. Louis NFL Stadium Task Force, which is promoting the project, says, “We’ll always be open to listening and learning more so that everyone’s objectives may be successfully met without delay to the project.”
The task force says it would follow the procedures of CityArchRiver for “respecting our cultural and historical heritage” in its $380 million reshaping of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. National Park Service archaeologists are called in whenever construction workers uncover potentially significant items, a CityArchRiver spokesman said. He said workers have uncovered bottles and other 19th century items but nothing from colonial or earlier times.
Old maps of the mound area show 24 of them along or east of Interstate 44 (formerly Interstate 70) from Carr Street north to Cass Avenue. Most were near Broadway, O’Fallon, Second and Biddle. A 25th and most famous formation was Big Mound, north of the stadium site, at Broadway and Mound Street. It was 319 feet long, 158 feet wide and 34 feet high.
The last of Big Mound was hauled away in 1869 to provide fill for a railroad line along the river.
All the others were dug away before the Civil War as St. Louis grew quickly. A distinctive feature was the Falling Garden, a three-tiered formation at Biddle and Second streets. Others clustered to its north formed an open plaza between Broadway and Second streets. Another was Little Mound, near Dickson and Collins streets, which the city hollowed out in 1833 for a water reservoir and leveled a decade later.
Their presence inspired one of St. Louis’ first nicknames, the Mound City. But none was removed with respect for heritage.
History books and old newspaper accounts say human remains, pottery shards and other artifacts were found during destruction of some mounds, including Big Mound, where diggers found burial chambers. They also found two copper earrings of “long-nosed gods.” Much was lost to pilfering, and the few preserved human remains from Big Mound were destroyed in a fire at a local science museum in 1869. A few shell beads and other items are all that are known to exist today.
There have been two professional excavations in the mounds area, neither of which turned up conclusive evidence of the Mississippian period. The Corps of Engineers did test digs at a few spots within the stadium site in 1987 as part of a larger study of the riverfront.
The Missouri Department of Transportation worked at the Big Mound site before building the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2014. Its team found artifacts from a 19th century wagon factory and a foundry. Michael Meyer, the archaeologist who supervised the project, said the team also found a few stone tools and pottery, but couldn’t date them to an era.
John Kelly, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Washington University and expert on the Cahokia Mounds, recommended more checking, saying, “Let’s take the opportunity to see what’s left.”
Kelly said he wants stadium project leaders to meet with the representatives of the Osage. “Let’s get them to the table and find out what their thinking is and find a way to make this work,” Kelly said.
Kelly assisted the Center for American Indian Studies at Washington University, which opposes the project and states that “the area likely contains a wealth of ancient artifacts, including human remains.”
F. Terry Norris, former Army Corps archaeologist who supervised the work in 1987, described it as “test digs” in several former mound sites. He said they dug down to loess, wind-borne soil that settled over the area after the last Ice Age, but found no prehistoric artifacts.
Norris said they didn’t dig beneath streets. Kelly said the less-disturbed soil beneath old pavement offers better potential for finding evidence of the Mississippians.
“This area marked the beginning of urbanization that we are all part of today,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about a true civilization. Then Cahokia disappeared, and it’s a mystery we are still trying to deal with.”