Ancient America: The Halliday Site in Illinois

The ancient city of Cahokia was originally founded about 600 CE and its time of greatest development appears to have been between 1050 and 1250. Conservative estimates say that Cahokia had a population of 10,000, but there are some who feel that its population may have been closer to 75,000.

The most spectacular feature of this city is Monk’s Mound which was completed in 1050. This earthen pyramid is 1,800 feet long, 710 feet wide, and 100 feet high. It covers 14 acres. The structure which was on top of the pyramid was 100 feet long and 50 feet high.

Cahokia served as the cultural, economic, and political center of a much larger area. It is generally seen at the center of Mississippian culture which extended from Florida in the south to Wisconsin in the north. Mississippian villages were generally built around large public courtyards.

At about the same time that the Mississippian people of Cahokia completed the construction of Monk’s Mound, another group of Indian people established a small village about ten miles southeast of Cahokia. Located in present-day Illinois, this village today is known as the Halliday site. The village contained 150 houses and storages sheds and was home to 200 to 300 people. The pottery styles in the village appear to be either old-fashioned or foreign to the region. The pottery resembles an earlier pottery type known to archaeologists as Varney Red Filmed, which had been made in southern Missouri at an earlier time period.

Interestingly enough, there are no male-oriented artifacts at the site. There are bone weaving tools, spindle whorls, and ample evidence of intensive farming, pottery production, and communal cooking. There are, however, no arrowheads or evidence of large game animals.

In his book Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, anthropologist Timothy Pauketat reports:

“These upland villagers, living at the edge of the Illinois prairie, were eating small lizards, frogs, snakes, turtles, and rodents, as well as large amounts of corn, possibly more than anybody else in the area at the time—probably cooked as soup, judging from the residues found in pots. They were also eating their dogs, which was not a common practice at Cahokia.”

With regard to their diet, Timothy Pauketat notes:

“They ate more corn and less protein than is healthy for a person. What protein they did eat was far from choice bits of meat, and the existence of these near-peasant farmers was far from ideal, even for the time.”

Who were these people? Timothy Pauketat answers:

“They were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from southeastern Missouri or northeastern Arkansas, and they were heavily into chunkey.”

Chunkey is a game which was commonly played by the Southeastern Indians, such as the Creeks. The game appears to have originated among the Mississippian peoples of Cahokia. Anthropologist Timothy Pauketat writes:

“The game called Chunkey appears to have played a significant role in organizing social and political life in Cahokia.”

The game involved the use of a stone discoid which was rolled on its edge across a packed-clay playing field. Timothy Pauketat describes what happens next:

“A few paces into the yard the players, at about the same time, chuck their playing sticks like huge darts after the rolling stone. Points were scored depending on how close to the stone the sticks—or, actually, a series of marks on leather bands on each stick—landed.”

At the time the Halliday site was established, the people at Cahokia had begun making some fine chunkey stones which replaced the older, thicker, community-owned stones.


Mississippian is a cultural complex which spread from its hearth on the Mississippi River in Illinois throughout much of the Southeast. The most spectacular characteristic of Mississippian material culture is the construction of earthen pyramids. The pyramids, usually called mounds, have a flat top which provided a space for a ceremonial building or a chiefly residence. Access to the top of the pyramid was made possible by a ramp or stairs up one side.  

Overview of mounds

About a thousand years ago-approximately 1000 CE-Mississippian people established the site of Etowah in Georgia. This became a dominant regional center with massive earthen platform mounds, elaborate ritual objects, and an extensive trading network. Etowah was a planned community made possible by a productive maize-based agriculture. Archaeologists have determined that at least 140 buildings were constructed at the site. Politically, Etowah was a chiefdom with a hierarchical social organization.


Painting of house

Reconstruction of a house at Etowah is shown above.

One of the primary characteristics of Mississippian sites is the earthen mounds or pyramids: At Etowah there are three main platform mounds and three smaller mounds. The largest of these mounds, Mound A (sometimes called the Temple Mound) stands 19 meters (63 feet) in height and covers about three acres at its base. The construction of this mound began early in the site’s history and it continued to be expanded and reconstructed over the next several centuries. There is some archaeological evidence that ritual feasting accompanied the building and rebuilding of the mound.

Mound 010

Mound 010

The summit of Mound A contained a complex of Mississippian buildings separated by open spaces. Some of these buildings were screened from public view. The largest of these buildings was 18 meters on a side. The screening of the sacred space on top of Mound A may be an indication that spiritual power was not egalitarian, but reserved for an elite group. Access to this power was controlled.

Mound A

Mound A is shown above.

The earthen ramp on the front of Mound A originally had clay steps. Logs were placed on the tread of each stair. The original staircase was about 17 feet wide.

Mound B is 25 feet (7.6 meters) high while Mound C, rises to just 10 feet (3.0 meters). Mound C was created as an elite mortuary facility which emphasized the genealogical links of certain subgroups in the society.

Mound B

Mound B is shown above.

Adjacent to the mounds, the Mississippian occupants of Etowah constructed a raised ceremonial plaza. This was used for ceremonies, as well as for chunkey games (which were often ceremonial in nature), and as a commercial trading area.

Some evidence of warfare or conflict can be seen in the fortification system which surrounded the town. There was both a palisade and a moat. The moat was 9 to 10 feet (2.7 to 3.0 meters) deep. The moat also functioned as a drainage system during major floods.

The palisade was built using logs. As with other Mississippian sites, the palisade was constructed by first digging a ditch and then standing logs into it. Finally it was backfilled to support the wall. The wall would have been about 12 feet (3.7 meters) high. About every 80 feet (24 meters) there were guard towers for archers.

One of the distinctive features of Mississippian culture and iconography were the distinctive paint palettes (sometimes called sun disks) which were found at Etowah. These were locally made ritual paraphernalia which were kept in sacred bundles. The palettes were generally round, about 23-33 centimeters in diameter and 2.5 centimeters thick, and made from a greenish-gray rock. All of the palettes were decorated in a similar fashion: a scalloped, notched, or rayed edge and a band of one to four lines incised on the top of the rim. These were common decorative themes in Mississippian art.

The palettes were used to mix kaolinite (a clay mineral that is pure white in color), calcite (a whitish powder obtained from burned mussel shells), hematite (a mineral known for its bright red color), graphite (a black pigment), galena (a crystalline lead ore with a shiny, silvery appearance), and resin (a yellow-brown material that was used as a liquid).

With regard to art, archaeologists have found numerous clay figurines and ten stone statues at Etowah. Some of these are paired in which there is a man seated cross-legged and a woman kneeling. The females are wearing wrap-around skirts. Both figures have elaborate hair styles. Some people interpret these figures as representing lineage founders. The stone effigies can weigh up to 125 pounds.


Etowah was abandoned about 1200 and then re-occupied just before 1300. The re-establishment of the Etowah chiefdom involved an introduction of a foreign symbol set. This included a set of copper plates depicting the Birdman. The Birdman is a decorative style and religious theme whose home probably lies at Cahokia.



The peak of building and occupation at Etowah appears to have been from 1325 to about 1375. About 1325, a residential ruler’s compound was constructed on top of Mound A . The compound included four large buildings, including one 3,000-square-foot structure.

The first scientific archaeology at Etowah was carried out in the 1880s by the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. In the 1920s, excavations were carried out by Phillips Academy of Andover, Massachusetts. Many of the artifacts were distributed to various museums throughout the United States. Both the U.S. National Museum and the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, have exhibits of artifacts from Etowah.

In 1953, the Etowah site was purchased by the Georgia Historical Commission. In 1965, the Etowah Mounds Archaeological Area was designated as a National Historic landmark by the Department of the Interior and is considered the most intact Mississippian culture site in the Southeast. The site is considered to be ancestral to the Creek people. Today the Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site is managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The current park covers 54 acres.


Museum Display

Pot 1

The museum and some museum displays are shown above.  

Ancient America: Shiloh

Mississippian is a cultural complex whose hearth appears to be in the American Bottom area near the Mississippi River in Illinois. The most spectacular characteristic of Mississippian material culture was the construction of earthen pyramids. The pyramids, usually called mounds, have a flat top which provided a space for a ceremonial building or a chiefly residence. Setting the stage for the emergence of this complex culture were the use of the bow and arrow and the development of maize agriculture at about 650 CE. With the development of Mississippian culture, communities became larger and more complex. Mississippian culture spread out into the American southeast and about 1050 Mississippian people established a village at Shiloh, Tennessee. The site was enclosed by a palisade and had a population of 300-400.

shiloh 1

Fifty years later, Shiloh had about 100 houses and eight mounds. The houses were basically round, with wattle and daub walls. The walls were supported by a series of heavy posts, usually 2 to 3 inches in diameter. These poles were placed at four foot intervals around the perimeter of the house and the spaces between the poles were then filled with panels of cane strips. The canes were then covered with a thick coating of mud plaster. Doorways generally faced to the east or southeast. The typical house was about 16 feet in diameter and stood about 8 feet in height.

Among the artifacts used at the site were drills. These were made from flakes or blades of chert and were used for drilling shell. These were found at only a few houses in the site, indicating that not all households where involved with working on shell ornaments.

Also used in making shell ornaments were saws to make the square blanks for making disc beads from mussel shells. The saws were similar to those used at Cahokia.

Shiloh appears to have been a White town, that is, a town associated with peace. Mound C, for example, was initially capped with a deposit of white clay and what appears to be an important pipe was placed in its central tomb. Unlike the burials at other Mississippian sites, Shiloh’s most important burials do not have any warfare-related symbolism. The Shiloh burials seem to be associated with the color white and with a pipe, the quintessential eastern U.S. Indian symbol of peace.

In 1400, the town of Shiloh was abandoned. There is no archaeological evidence that the residents were driven away from the site by violence: their departure seems to have been peaceful. One possible reason for the abandonment of the site could have been that some other location offered greater advantages. After more than three centuries of farming, it was possible that declining soil nitrogen, essential for maize agriculture, had resulted in decreasing agricultural yields.

Another reason for the abandonment might be seen in the collapse of the Mississippian city of Cahokia in Illinois. Since Shiloh appears to have had strong ties to Cahokia, the collapse or decentralization of the Mississippian peoples may have lead to population migrations.

The Shiloh Mounds are within the boundaries of the Shiloh National Military Park. From an archaeological perspective this means that the site has not been disturbed by modern farming. The remains of the original structures of wattle and daub are still visible as low rings or mounds. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

Shiloh Temple Mound

The Shiloh Temple Mound is shown above.

shiloh house mounds

Shiloh house mounds are shown above.