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Work For New Miss. River Bridge Unearths Previously Unknown Ancient Site

Brett Blume
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Ed Weilbacher, special projects coordinator for Heartlands Conservancy, takes off his shoes before walking onto the giant map they've produced to pinpoint hundreds of ancient archaeological sites throughout the St. Louis region that are related to the civilization that produced the Cahokia Mounds. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

Ed Weilbacher, special projects coordinator for Heartlands Conservancy, takes off his shoes before walking onto the giant map they’ve produced to pinpoint hundreds of ancient archaeological sites throughout the St. Louis region that are related to the civilization that produced the Cahokia Mounds. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – Before construction began on the new Mississippi River Bridge a routine archaeological survey was conducted, as mandated by federal law.

But that “routine” dig unearthed a startling discovery.

Ed Weilbacher, special projects coordinator with the Heartlands Conservancy, tells KMOX News that excavators peeled back soil beneath the old National Stockyards in East St. Louis and discovered the remains of a millennium-old village.

“And the village is so significant that it’s going to rewrite what we know about Cahokia Mounds…its culture, its people…and how they functioned in the region,” Weilbacher explains.

KMOX News has previously reported about the ongoing effort to link centuries-old mounds on both sides of the Mississippi River under a single national park designation to help protect the historic sites.

But Weilbacher says such a designation would also raise public awareness about the entire mounds structure and bring more visitors, and their dollars, to the region.

“I think it would add to tourism potential,” Weilbacher says. “It would be the compliment to what we have with the Gateway Arch. The Arch’s theme is westward expansion, and this is the early settlement of culture in the Midwest.”

To help visualize the 500-plus known sites related to the mounds on both sides of the Mississippi, Heartlands Conservancy recently finished work on a meticulously detailed map measuring 13′ x 11′ and unveiled it to the public.

“If you want to do any kind of national designation you want to make sure the public’s in support,” according to Weilbacher. “We’ve held three large public meetings and nine community meetings and met with many different leaders within the region about this idea of national designation and the significance of the site. Everybody was surprised, floored, flabbergasted about the number of mounds in the region. They had no idea.”

But the Conservancy’s huge map clearly designates each site and whether it is in good shape, has suffered damage, or has been completely destroyed by modern-day development.

Weilbacher unrolls the map, which fills up half of the Conservancy’s parking lot, then takes off his shoes and walks right onto the map to highlights the various locations, including the newly-discovered “East St. Louis Group” beneath what will be the eastern approach to the new bridge.

He hopes to convince the federal government that the entire complex of mounds and ancient settlements deserves elevation to a national park.

“We’re now in the process of taking all of that information and putting together a draft document,” Weilbacher tells KMOX News, “so we can start telling the National Park Service and others about this wealth of resources.”

A large new map produced by Heartlands Conservancy designates every known site related to the civilization that built the Cahokia Mounds -- all 500-plus -- on both sides of the Mississippi River. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

A large new map produced by Heartlands Conservancy designates every known site related to the civilization that built the Cahokia Mounds — all 500-plus — on both sides of the Mississippi River. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

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