WHEN THE FIRST WHITE MEN came to Illinois, they found large mounds of earth rising up out of the prairies, usually near navigable rivers. Because these mounds contained burials, pottery, stone implements, and the ruins of buildings, and were sometimes shaped like birds and beasts, various legends arose about the people who built them. One story had it that they were a lost tribe of Israel. Another described them as a people related to the Mayas and the Aztecs. A third told of an ancient race, of much vision and beauty, with large cities and widespread commerce and trade, that flourished in the Mississippi Basin about the time of Christ. For many years the mound builders captured the imagination of story-tellers.
Today, however, these myths have been exploded, and the mystery of the mounds has been solved, at least in part, by archeological expeditions. Archeologists have been able to show clearly that the mound builders were simply Indians who built mounds.
These mounds were not all of one period, nor were they all built for the same purpose. Some, like the effigy mounds in the northwestern part of the State, were of a ceremonial nature; many were built primarily for burial purposes; others were sites for buildings. Those of the latter type seem to show influences which came from the Lower Mississippi, and possibly from the higher cultures of Mexico and South America. With the great tribal unrest among the Indians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, largely due to the incursions of the Iroquois from the East, a great shifting of tribes occurred, so that by the time the first explorers came to Illinois, there were few mound-building Indians left in the region.
More than 10,000 mounds are scattered throughout the State. Because Illinois was situated at the confluence of the great highways of primitive travel--the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers --various mound-building cultures shuttled back and forth across the State. Here are found obsidian from Yellowstone, Catlinite from Minnesota, copper from Michigan and Minnesota, mica from the Alleghenies, and shells from the Gulf of Mexico. And in the mounds of other States are found the kind of flint mined only in the ancient quarry in Union County, Illinois.
Archeologists have found two major culture patterns in the State, of which the Woodland is the older and more basic. One phase of this culture is represented by the effigy mounds in northwestern Illinois; this came down from Wisconsin. Another is the Hopewell phase which probably had its origin farther east. The other major pattern is known as the Mississippi culture, and is divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower phases; it runs up along the Mississippi, the Illinois, and other rivers, as far north as Astalan, Wisconsin.
Woodland pottery is crude and unevenly colored; textiles and shell work are absent; and only its stone work is definitely well-fashioned. Houses of the period were circular and temporary. The mounds themselves are round, are generally smaller than those of the Mississippi culture, and were not used as substructures. The dead were usually buried in the mounds in flexed positions; a few of the remains found had been cremated. In the Hopewell phase of this culture--so-called because it probably came to Illinois from the vicinity of the famous Hopewell mounds in Ohio--copper and mica ornaments occur. One of its chief characteristics is the frequent use of log tombs, over which the mounds were built.
In the more recent Mississippi culture, the pottery work is wellfired from carefully prepared clays; it is evenly colored and of many forms. Shell work is highly developed. Finely woven textiles are frequent. The dwellings were square or rectangular, of a permanent or semi-permanent nature, and the mounds were often used as substructures for these houses. In the cemeteries near the mounds the dead were buried in extended positions, together with projectile points, pottery, charms, and amulets.
One of the richest archeological areas in the Middle West is at the junction of the Spoon and the Illinois Rivers in Fulton County. Expeditions from the University of Chicago under Professor FayCooper Cole found as many as three cultural manifestations of the two basic patterns existing in the same mounds. In the eight hundred mounds in Fulton County, six different cultural manifestations have been discovered, with the Middle Mississippi and the Hopewell phases often existing side by side, although different in time. Thus, though the religious practices and beliefs among the mound builders apparently differed, they continued to use the same spots for their burials.
In the same area, near Lewistown, on a high bluff overlooking the two rivers, is the Dickson Mound Builders Tomb. Here a museum has been erected over a mound of the Middle Mississippi phase containing more than two hundred skeletons, the largest and most interesting display of its kind in the country. The remains, together with their accompanying artifacts, are exposed in their original positions. With the skeletons are pottery vessels, mussel-shell spoons, L-shaped pipes, bone needles, beads, and fish hooks, flint arrowheads, stone adze blades, and effigy forms. The mound itself, originally crescent-shaped, with the points toward the east, measured 550 feet along its outer curve, and was 35 feet high. A reproduction of one of these burials, contributed by Mr. Don Dickson, explorer of the mound and owner of the museum, is exhibited at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
Fifteen miles southwest of Joliet is the Fisher Group, explored by George Langford, a local engineer. Three successive occupancies were revealed here: under the original surface, buried in the limestone gravel below the base of the mounds, were skeletons, with medium and long skulls, interred in a flexed position, and unaccompanied by relics; this complete absence of pottery, and the difference of physical type, probably indicate an extremely ancient culture. In the middle levels of the mounds were found burials of a short-headed people; with them were many pottery vessels, and artifacts of stone, bone, and shell. The upper levels held mixed types and mixed artifacts. In one of the smaller mounds of this group occurred skeletons of a short-headed people, extended on their backs with their heads to the west; in these graves were iron, brass, and silver utensils and trinkets, of white man's manufacture, indicating that some of the mound builders lived here down to historic times.
In the American Bottom, near East St. Louis, are the mounds of the world-famous Cahokia Group, known throughout the archeological world. Here the mounds of the Middle Mississippi phase were used as substructures for ceremonial buildings. The pottery is highly developed and sometimes, in form and design, indicates southern connections. Near the center of the area, which contains eighty-five smaller mounds, stands the largest earthwork in the world, the Cahokia or Monks' Mound. A truncated pyramid, rectangular in form, with a broad terrace or apron extending from the south side, it covers sixteen acres. Its greatest height is 100 feet; the east-west width is 710 feet, and the north-south length, including the terrace, 1,080 feet. The general similarity of mounds of this type to those found in Mexico has often been noted. The herculean labor involved in their construction denotes either the existence of slavery or an almost fanatical religious belief. Though there is much evidence that a large community, equal in size to a modern small city, existed in the vicinity of these mounds, no cemetery, strangely enough, has been found.
Also belonging to the Middle Mississippi phase are the four Kincaid Mounds near Metropolis, in Massac County. The largest, a truncated pyramid, rises 32 feet above ground, and covers 2 acres at its base. The nearby village site comprises more than 100 acres. The whole area has been made available to the University of Chicago for archeological research.
Effigy mounds, belonging to the Woodland culture, occur in the northwestern part of the State. They possibly represent totems or clan symbols; usually no burials are found in them. Near Galena is a mound shaped like a serpent, which strikingly resembles the famous Serpent Mound of Ohio. At the junction of Smallpox Creek with the Mississippi is the effigy of a bird with outspread wings. Also belonging to the Woodland culture are seventeen conical mounds on the bluffs overlooking East Dubuque and the Mississippi River, the largest of which is 70 feet in diameter and 12 feet high.
Thousands of small mounds, usually called bluff mounds, line the Illinois River. In culture they are of two types, for here again the Woodland and the Middle Mississippi, separated by considerable lapses of time, are found in the same area. Among other larger mounds of the State are the Montezuma Mounds near Pearl and the Beardstown Mounds in Cass County.