01 October 2017

Ars Technica: “Finding North America’s lost medieval city”

My first find was a slab of red pottery that crumbled to dust in my fingers. “Don’t worry about that,” Baires assured me. “It’s just unfired clay and it won’t hold up.” Later, I found nuggets of charcoal, blobs of yellow pigment, a few jagged pieces of fired pottery, and several burned deer bones.

The bones were the worst, because there were so many of them that it halted our digging dozens of times. We had to be careful to determine that these weren't human bones, because human remains must be reported immediately. Though we'd already identified these as deer bones, archaeologists will sometimes do a lick check to be sure. Lick check? I stared at Baires in bewilderment. “Do you want to lick it?” she asked. “Bones are porous, so your tongue will stick to it.” The students looked at me. Would the weird journalist do it? Hell yeah, I would. I brought a small fragment of bone to my mouth, tasted salt, and felt my tongue adhere lightly to the surface. “Yep, it’s deer”, Baires shrugged.

After I’d been shovel scraping for an hour, blisters started coming up and popping on my fingers. When I fell exhausted into bed at 8:30pm, I could feel the exact part of my thigh that I used to push the shovel handle. I couldn't stop thinking about how I licked the bones of a deer that was cooked for a feast in Cahokia 900 years ago. I wish I could have been there to see the party, but this might be the next best thing.

Annalee Newitz

If you’ve ever played Civilization 5, you’re certainly familiar with the name Cahokia as one of the in-game city states. It’s fascinating to discover more about its history, another case of mysterious civilization going through the inevitable cycles of rise and fall in the middle of the American continent.

An artist’s interpretation of downtown Cahokia in the late Sterling period
An artist’s interpretation of what downtown Cahokia would have looked like in the late Sterling period, after the palisade wall had been built around Monk’s Mound and the Grand Plaza.

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