Two outlet malls under construction in Chesterfield valley are nothing new for that neighborhood.
People have been shopping there for years. Thousands of years, in fact.
"Not many folks realize there have been people living and buying things and creating things in Chesterfield for 11,500 years," said Mark Leach, of Chesterfield.
One of those malls is going in near Rombach's Pumpkin Farm, which is across the street from the Dampier site, a major Native American market and ceremonial center 1,000 years ago, Leach said.
"And, at a 4,000-year-old site near Long and Wild Horse Creek road, some nice artwork has been found of a star design carved into a little object."
Leach details Chesterfield's ancient history in his self-published book, “Chesterfield’s Ancient Past – Mounds, Mortuaries & the Mall.”
All profits from the sale of the book will go to the Chesterfield Historic and Landmark Commission, and other non-profit local mound preservation and archaeological research organizations.
Leach is a member of the Chesterfield commission and author of a 2002 book on local archaeology, “A Guide to Chesterfield’s Ancient History.” The book is now out of print.
"I grew up in Chesterfield and I was here before Chesterfield Mall," Leach said. "I had no idea people were living there thousands of years ago, and I really would have liked to have known that. But I've loved learning that there was a mall for this area down in the valley a thousand years ago."
"Learning all this changed the way I see my home town," he said. "When I drive by Faust Park, I'll look at the hillside and get a mental image of mastodon hunters on top of that hill 11,500 years ago."
Leach hopes readers of the book will undergo the same change he underwent when he learned of Chesterfield's importance to ancient Native Americans.
"People can say, 'Wow, people were on my kids' playground at Green Trails Elementary School 10,000 years ago,'" Leach said.
People would be more aware of Chesterfield's importance if the ancient Americans had left behind stone buildings and temples. Instead, they built with wood and earth. The buildings, temples and defensive walls disintegrated. The earth mounds were leveled.
In the process, a view of the world was lost. For example, a temple at the Dampier site is aligned with Blake Mound, the largest remaining burial mound in St. Louis County.
If a person stood in the temple entrance on the morning of the winter solstice, they would see the sun appear from behind Blake Mound.
"That solstice, the shortest day of the year, was very important in the Mississippian agricultural world view," he said. "It showed people that the sun and growing season would be coming back."
Blake Mound was built directly above a cave as a three-dimensional depiction of the way Native Americans viewed the universe, with an underworld, a middle world where people lived, and the upper world where the sun lived, Leach said.
Leach worries about preserving what does remain.
"Every potential Native American mound should be considered an ancient cemetery until it's professionally proven otherwise, and great care should be taken with development at any site with mounds," Leach said.
He's not aware of whether any federal permits were required at the new mall sites that would have triggered an archaeological excavation. However, in many areas of the valley where the Missouri River meandered, some ancient sites have been scoured and eroded away, he said.
"The only reason the Dampier site triggered research was because the Army Corps of Engineers was involved due to it being within a levee improvement project, and that triggered the federal permit requirement," he said.
However, Leach praised some local developers such as Dennis Hayden, who have made it standard practice to get an initial archaeological study done on his projects.
"Because of it, two major sites were excavated, like the 4,000-year-old Hayden village and another where four prehistoric sites were discovered," he said.
Leach tries to take a balanced approach.
"In any square foot in this city, you have a good likelihood of finding a historic artifact if you dig, but I don't feel a professional archaeologist needs to be called out anytime somebody digs a garden," he said.
But he also makes clear in the book his feeling that digging for artifacts should be done only by the pros.
Amateurs risk destroying a site and the clues that help archaeologists learn about ancient cultures.
Blake Mound suffered from 100 years of people digging into it, looting and grave robbing, he said.
"An effort to restore it has repaired the damage, but it required years of work and hand-carrying more than 80,000 pounds of clean fill soil."
Leach's book costs $15 and is available at Amazon.com or locally at Chesterfield City Hall, 690 Chesterfield Parkway West, and at All on the Same Page bookstore, 11052 Olive Blvd. in Creve Coeur.