The Cahokia Mounds

The Cahokia Mounds

by Warren King Moorehead

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A Dan Josselyn Memorial Publication

This edition of Moorehead's excavations at Cahokia provides a comprehensive collection of Moorehead's investigations of the nation's largest prehistoric mound center.

Covering almost fourteen square kilometers in Illinois, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the largest prehistoric mound center in North


A Dan Josselyn Memorial Publication

This edition of Moorehead's excavations at Cahokia provides a comprehensive collection of Moorehead's investigations of the nation's largest prehistoric mound center.

Covering almost fourteen square kilometers in Illinois, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the largest prehistoric mound center in North America and has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. Built between A.D. 1050 and 1350, Cahokia originally contained the remains of over 100 earthen mounds that were used as places for Native American rituals, homes of chiefs, or elite tombs. Earlier scientists debated whether the mounds were part of the natural landscape, and many were destroyed by urban and industrial development

This book is a report of archaeological investigations conducted at Cahokia from 1921 to 1927 by Warren K. Moorehead, who confirmed that the mounds were built by indigenous peoples and who worked to assure preservation of the site. The volume includes Moorehead's final 1929 report along with portions of two preliminary reports, covering both Cahokia and several surrounding mound groups.

John Kelly's introduction to the book sets Moorehead's investigations in the context of other work conducted at Cahokia prior to the 1920s and afterwards. Kelly reviews Moorehead's work, which employed 19th-century excavation techniques combined with contemporary analytical methods, and explains how Moorehead contended with local social and political pressures.

Moorehead's work represented important excavations at a time when little other similar work was being done in the Midwest. The reissue of his findings gives us a glimpse into an important archaeological effort and helps us better appreciate the prehistoric legacy that he helped preserve.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Warren K. Moorehead's 1920s excavations in and around Cahokia, the most extensive such research in this locality before the 1960s, is resurrected in this republication. Kelly's masterful introduction provides the reader with an invaluable framework for comprehending the character, extent, and significance of Moorehead's underappreciated contributions to Cahokia archaeology. "
—James Stoltman, University of Wisconsin

"Moorehead's descriptions are all that remains now of the archaeological record for much of the area."
American Antiquity

Gathers together two preliminary reports and one final report on the largest prehistoric mound center in North America, covering both Cahokia and several surrounding mound groups. Reports were written during the 1920s. An introduction sets Moorehead's investigations in the context of other work conducted at Cahokia prior to the 1920s and afterwards, and reviews Moorehead's work, explaining how he dealt with local social and political pressures, and describing his success in defending Cahokia from urban and industrial development. Includes b&w illustrations and photos of artifacts, plus fold-out maps. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Classics Southeast Archaeology Series
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6.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.60(d)

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The Cahokia Mounds



Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1010-3


John E. Kelly

Nearly one hundred mounds distributed over a five-square-mile area of the Mississippi floodplain constitute the large Mississippian site complex of Cahokia. Although located within eight miles of metropolitan St. Louis, Missouri, the Cahokia site has managed to survive much of the ravages of modern development. Within the last two hundred years Cahokia has attracted much attention from travelers, archaeologists, and other scientists. One of the many individuals attracted to the Cahokia Mounds in the early part of the twentieth century was Warren King Moorehead. The results of his investigations at Cahokia and a number of nearby sites were published in a series of three reports through the University of Illinois. In later correspondence with Frank C. Baker, Moorehead (1936) indicated that the notes were left at the University of Illinois.

The first two Moorehead volumes published in 1922 and 1923 succinctly summarized his fieldwork and his efforts to demonstrate the human construction of the mounds that form part of the large Cahokia site. The results of a third season at a number of sites outside Cahokia were not published until after the fourth and final season was completed in 1927. The last of three volumes, published in 1929 (in the September 25, 1928, bulletin), included the work of the first two seasons along with a description of the 1923 and 1927 field seasons. The reports contain a description of each mound, site, or location examined. Occasional maps show some of the more relevant profiles, and each report contains a map of Cahokia with the various mounds numbered following John J. R. Patrick's initial numbering sequence.

At the end of each report is a set of plates that show the various excavations and some of the artifacts recovered. Occasionally Moorehead relied on specialists such as zoologists, chemists, and geologists for the analysis of certain materials. Of particular importance was the work of Morris Leighton, a geologist with the Illinois Geological Survey at the University of Illinois. His field study of the mound profiles described in the 1923 and 1929 reports laid to rest any notion that the mounds were natural features. Once Leighton's initial results were known, it was then possible for the state to purchase a portion of the Cahokia site.

Moorehead's reports were not only a source documenting the prehistoric construction of the Cahokia Mounds by Native Americans but also the only substantive publication on the site for over four decades. More important, they are a tribute to his participation in the successful preservation of a small section of Cahokia as a state park in 192 5 (Figure 2). As a result of his initial efforts and those of the local citizens, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site presently contains nearly 50 percent of the site. Today Cahokia has achieved the prestigious status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something no one probably could have envisioned 75 years ago. It was then a very different time and place. Nonetheless, the concerns of those involved in the preservation endeavor were no less important than the challenges that face us today.

This introduction essentially provides the context behind Moorehead's work, especially the purchase of the mounds at Cahokia. His reports, as with many of his earlier publications, are largely descriptive and not analytic. Although Moorehead understood the concepts of stratigraphy, his interest, as with many others before him, was the artifacts. Thus, although more rigorous and systematic techniques were being employed at the time, Moorehead continued to use large horse-drawn scrapers and human labor to remove mound fill.

The techniques Moorehead used at Cahokia in 1921 were the same ones he used 3 0 years earlier in the excavations at the Hopewell group in Ohio. Although some profile and plan maps of his Cahokia excavations were completed, most of the work was not mapped. In looking at the broader picture of the Eastern Woodlands, the differences observed in the cultural materials recovered were more apt to be related to geography than stratigraphy. A decade later others had begun to establish a chronology that placed much of what was being discovered in some type of culture-historical framework.

The following introductory discussion is divided into several parts: The first part describes Moorehead and his background in archaeology. Then I discuss the antecedents to the preservation of Cahokia and the initial efforts. Next, I examine the context of the four seasons of excavation at Cahokia and the surrounding environs with respect to the three reports reprinted herein. Finally, I conclude with an epilogue discussing other work done at Cahokia and a summary.

Warren King Moorehead was born to Helen King and Dr. William G. Moorehead, an American Presbyterian minister, in Sienna, Italy, in 1866. The family returned in 1870 to Xenia, Ohio, where the elder Dr. Moorehead was affiliated with the theological seminary. Their return to America ironically coincided with the removal of the large Cemetery Mound in East St. Louis (Kelly 1994) and one year after the final removal of the St. Louis mound group's last vestige, Big Mound. The young Moorehead developed an early interest in archaeology as a result of collecting numerous artifacts in the vicinity of his Ohio home.

In 1884 Moorehead entered Denison College at Granville, Ohio, for a brief two years. Although he never graduated, he was later awarded an honorary Sc.D. from Denison in 1930. Other honorary degrees granted included an M.A. from Dartmouth in 1901 and in 1927 an Sc.D. from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time he entered college, anthropology and archaeology were not being taught. It was not until a few years later that educational institutions began to offer these subjects as courses of study. In fact, during the fall of 1892 Moorehead taught a series of lectures on American Anthropology at Ohio State University, the first at this institution.

Moorehead's early interest in fieldwork in archaeology was stimulated during his enrollment at Denison College. While there, he was within a short distance of the Flint Ridge chert sources, which he visited on numerous occasions; and on one occasion he left school with spade and lunch in hand to dig into a nearby mound (Moorehead diary, April 27, 1885). Throughout the 1880s he undertook excavations in Ohio on his own, including work at Fort Ancient in 1889. His efforts at this earthwork resulted in the creation of a state park, one of the first of its kind. Not only did Moorehead collect, excavate, and sell artifacts, he also exhibited his finds to the public. His displays at the Cincinnati Centennial Exposition of 1888 attracted the attention of Dr. Thomas Wilson, Curator in the United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Wilson was the successor in the National Museum to Charles Rau and continued Rau's tradition of artifact classification.

Wilson arranged to have Moorehead join him in Washington as an assistant at the Smithsonian between 188$ and 1890, where Moorehead studied his own collections under Wilson. While at the Smithsonian, Moorehead also assisted in some of the fieldwork in the Washington, D.C., area. By the end of his brief tenure at the Smithsonian, Moorehead had been made a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Three years later he assumed the role of Secretary of Section H (Anthropology) for this association. The contacts that he made in Washington and his involvement in this prestigious organization of scientists were to benefit him throughout his life.

After his museum work with Wilson, he traveled to the Dakotas in 1890 where he reported on the Sioux uprising, the Ghost Dance, and the Messianic movement for the Illustrated American magazine. His sympathies with the Sioux shortly before Wounded Knee resulted in the military removing him from the area. His interest in Native Americans led to his appointment as a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909-a position he held for 24 years.

Moorehead was a prolific writer, describing, in various venues, much of what he did and found in the field. His publication record was initiated as early as 1884. He not only was an author but also served as editor of such early outlets for the archaeological enthusiast as The Archaeologist. This pattern of public dissemination persisted until his death. His works continued to be artifact oriented and descriptive and thus were in much the same line as many of his contemporaries and predecessors. These writings simply described the work that was done and were profusely illustrated with the recovered artifacts.

Because of his earlier field experience in Ohio, Moorehead was selected as a field assistant in 1891 by Frederic Ward Putnam of Harvard University to lead the World's Columbian Exposition's expedition to southwestern Ohio. Here he undertook excavations at several sites including the famous Hopewell site. The overwhelming quantities of chert, copper, shell, obsidian, bone, and clay artifacts, when placed on exhibit at Chicago in 1892, "attracted the attention of thousands of visitors at the Exposition" (Moorehead 192 2 b:80). He then led an expedition sponsored by the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution to cliff dwellings in the San Juan valley of New Mexico.

Upon returning from the Southwest in late 1892, he married Evelyn Ludwig. His work then took him to Chicago where he was involved in setting up the Hopewell archaeological exhibit at the Columbian Exposition. From 1894 to 1897, he served as Curator of the Museum of Ohio State University and the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society. After this brief period of museum work, he returned to the field again to conduct investigations in the Southwest at places such as Chaco Canyon and the La Plata and Salt River valleys for Robert Singleton Peabody of Philadelphia, who was a nephew of George Peabody and a longtime collector of Indian artifacts. Between Moorehead's trips to the Southwest he conducted work along the Ohio river. In 1901, Peabody founded the Department of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, whereupon Moorehead became the curator. Peabody's son Charles served as director until 1924, when he resigned and Moorehead assumed the position. Moorehead held the directorship until his retirement in 1938.

During his tenure at Phillips Academy, he worked extensively in the eastern United States, including the area around Andover, in Maine, and in the Connecticut and Susquehanna River valleys. In the Southeast, he investigated a Large Mississippian site at the Mouth of the Wabash (Murphy) site, as well as sites near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in the Tennessee-Cumberland region. Later he spent three years (1925-1927) at the famous Etowah Mounds in northern Georgia. Some earlier work was also spent west of the Mississippi river in the Arkansas River valley and in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri where he met the archaeological enthusiast and surveyor Jay L. B. Taylor. Much of his work in the Southeast was coeval with that of Clarence Bloomfield Moore, who seemingly explored every river valley in the Southeast. Moorehead, on the other hand, appeared to bounce from one part of the eastern United States to the next. I suspect this behavior was based on the contacts he had made over the years.

Of importance here is the work he conducted at Cahokia and nearby sites in the American Bottom during the 192 Os from his base in Andover and his significant role in the preservation of the Cahokia Mounds. His fieldwork at Cahokia began in the fall of 1921 and was part of the local effort to preserve the mounds as a state park. He continued his investigations at Cahokia the following year. In 1923 he expanded his explorations to several outlying sites. By 1925 a portion of the Cahokia site had been purchased as a state park. Moorehead returned in 1927 to work on the Harding and some other smaller mounds at Cahokia outside the new park. Although his fieldwork ended at Cahokia, he pursued work that extended up the Illinois River valley to the north, and he continued to be instrumental in promoting the importance of the Cahokia site until his death in January 1939.

As research into the history of archaeology at Cahokia progresses, it is slowly becoming clear how Warren King Moorehead became involved with the Cahokia Mounds. In part, this event can be traced to a sense of urgency precipitated by developers pressuring the owners to sell their lands for the construction of factories. It is important to realize that the Industrial Revolution impacted the region, with the Metro-East area in Illinois emerging as a major rail center and industrial locality with numerous steel mills and other manufacturing enterprises.

As early as 1910, Moorehead presented a speech on Cahokia to the Illinois State Historical Society (Moorehead 1912). His investigations were instrumental in inspiring the state officials to purchase the central portion of the site for a state park. The extensive nature of his excavations and the subsequent publications of his work at Cahokia and other sites in the American Bottom also provided important insights into the prehistoric occupations of this region.

In many respects Moorehead represented the last of a generation of archaeologists whose efforts were focused on the collection of artifacts with minimal contextual information. Other individuals, including his colleague at the R. S. Peabody, Alfred Vincent Kidder, had already begun to establish more rigorous field methods accompanied by a more systematic analysis of the artifactual materials recovered. Institutions were also evolving with the appearance of Departments of Anthropology, especially graduate programs that served to train a new generation of archaeologists. These new approaches and institutions emerged during Moorehead's career as an archaeologist. Indeed, individuals such as Frederic W. Putnam, who had initially hired Moorehead, had already instilled some of these methods in his workers and colleagues. By the time Moorehead died, the Midwestern Taxonomic system was in place providing some of the basic elements of archaeological classification. Thus Moorehead's work at Cahokia and the surrounding region was not one that generated new methods and analysis; what he produced in his publications were a series of guidebooks to those areas investigated, especially the mounds that have undergone a minimal amount of study since his presence. When Moorehead's information on the specific locations is connected with the materials collected, we have some useful insights into Cahokia that can be pursued in greater detail.


The Mississippian mounds at Cahokia and other locations throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area were erected between A.D. 1050 and 13 5 0. Many of these edifices were once the earthen substructures on which ritual activities were established or the abodes of the chiefs and ritual specialists were constructed; other mounds capped the tombs of the chiefs and their kin. Each mound group had its own unique history. The seemingly sudden abandonment of Cahokia, sometime during the fourteenth century, as perhaps the last center in the region, left a series of barren earthen monuments. These vacant centers and their buried secrets remained as a tribute to the human activity that once dominated the surrounding landscape (Williams 1990).

The appearance of an alien society of Euro-Americans, some three hundred years later, brought with it a combined sense of curiosity, ignorance, and the rapid ability to destroy the monuments of the past. French missionaries, explorers, soldiers, and farmers melded well with the landscape and the indigenous people that were here to greet them. The earthen monuments were skillfully rendered on the maps (see Fowler 1997) by French cartographers such as Collot (1826) and Finiels (1989) some 200 years ago. Their portrayal of the mounds on these maps were readily identifiable landmarks linking some of the pathways between communities such as Bellfontaine, Cahokia, St. Louis, and Florissant. Although the mounds were depicted, there was little discussion in the literature about what they represented. A label, "anciens tombe aux des sauvages," on Finiels's map was printed as "Indian Ancient Tombs" on Collot's map and placed adjacent to the Pulcher group.


Excerpted from The Cahokia Mounds by WARREN K. MOOREHEAD Copyright © 2000 by The University of Alabama Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

John Kelly is a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Washington University.

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