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Chesterfield turns over 900-year-old artifacts to museum

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Nearly 87,000 Native American artifacts that date back to between 1100 and 1200 A.D. will soon be going to a new home.

Chesterfield's City Council has approved a cooperative agreement with the Illinois State Museum in Springfield that will allow the museum to permanently curate and store 86,954 artifacts as well as photos and dig records from the "Dampier Archaeological Site."

Located off Old Olive Street Road/Eatherton Road, the site has proven to be a major Mississippian era market center. It was excavated in 2009 and 2010 by workers from the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis Inc. (ARC).

Joe Harl, an owner of the research center and the principal investigator for the Dampier site, said the finds rival anything outside the area around Cahokia Mounds.

"This was the original Chesterfield Mall, a big trade center," Harl said.

In December 2008, Stan Dampier, after whom the site is named, discovered what he thought were Native American ear spools (similar to earrings) and shell beads in a borrow area from which dirt was being taken to build up the levee. Shortly afterwards, he notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of what he had found.

The Corps, which administers the site near the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee, funded a full archaeological assessment of the site and recovery of artifacts discovered there.

The artifacts technically are owned by Chesterfield.

"But the city doesn't have the ability to catalog or store them," City Council member Connie Fults said.

The Illinois State Museum is where the Corps would prefer to see the artifacts curated because that's where all archaeological remains removed from the Corps' St. Louis District-owned property are permanently housed.

"And the museum will allow us to borrow artifacts at any time to show them here," Fults said.

Since the excavation, the items have been stored at a secure local site through the ARC, Harl said.

"The items found were from Native Americans at the height of the so-called Cahokian period during the Mississippian period," Harl said. "In fact, we found many marine shell beads from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast that were in everyday cooking pots, which you don't see even in Cahokia."

The excavation also found copper as well as ornate decorative pottery fragments, some of which were from Tennessee, Louisiana, and as far south as the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Mica, a silvery mineral used by Native Americans for decoration, had been brought to the Chesterfield site from the Appalachians, pumice came from lava flows in the Rocky Mountains, chert from southern Illinois was found, iron and lead were brought from the Upper Meramec River, and whelk, or conch, shells came from Florida, Harl said. Ear spools with paper-thin, perfectly preserved copper covering also were found.

Harl had earlier said it was unfortunate the main part of the site, where the borrow pit was, was destroyed by the original excavation, and artifact looting had taken place on the site.

"However, we did find posts, more than 30 feet tall, marking the village site which could have been seen from the Missouri River at least four miles away," Harl said. "And we found an L-shaped temple and, next to it, a feasting pit of about 20 by 15 feet with a series of posts on one side."

They also found a U-shaped charnel house, which had its south end left open.

"In the fall and spring equinoxes, the sun would appear to rise up from that building where the dead were prepared for burial," Harl said.

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