Posted: Dec 24, 2011 9:49 AM CST
Updated: Dec 26, 2011 2:12 PM CST
By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Removing decades of dense overgrowth has cleared the way for a better view of Quincy's Native American heritage -- and one of the best preserved earthwork complexes still evident in the Upper Mississippi River valley.
Local archaeologists and volunteers worked in November and early December to reveal prehistoric Native American mounds in Quincy's Indian Mounds Park.
Work will continue in the spring, but "people can now come to Quincy and view these spectacular earthen monuments in a manner closer to that envisioned by the original builders," said Dave Nolan of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois. "People knew the mounds were there but didn't realize how special they are, how unique they are."
Simply by clearing away brush and tree cover, "we did discover one large major mound that was previously undocumented and the remnants of two to three mounds," said Steve Tieken, president of the Quincy-based North American Archaeological Institute. "We opened up a couple new river views."
The work revealed a terraced embankment with an enclosure surrounding three of the mounds that was only hinted at in University of Chicago archaeologist survey work done of the area in the 1920s.
"We're working hard, doing a lot of physical labor, but it's a labor of love. Essentially we're stewarding the mounds and committed to making sure they stay in a nice state," Nolan said. "Quincy is known for a couple of things -- the wonderful buildings and the mounds. It's showcasing them in a way they haven't been for years."
The mounds and nearby earthworks date from 200 B.C. to 1000 A.D.
Visionaries who formed the Quincy Boulevard and Park Association fought to buy and protect the sites at the close of the 19th Century by developing Indian Mounds and Parker Heights parks. The park system protected the sites from urban development and agricultural use, but the mounds were left virtually unrecognizable after years of erosion, foot traffic, heavy vegetation growth and vandalism.
Concerned with the overall condition of the mounds and their long-term future, Tieken spearheaded an effort to reclaim them beginning in 2009.
Volunteers tried to assess the mounds, scaling ladders and trees to get the most accurate measurements. "It was an arduous process to measure, to see how they've changed. Even though they're protected, natural factors take their toll," Nolan said. "Our prime concern is they be preserved and protected, that they are out there now so people can go there and use them for quiet reflection, communal gatherings, what they were all about to begin with."
Nolan credits Tieken for moving the project forward and pulling together volunteers.
"Getting to know a lot of these local people, the Native Americans, and working together with them in a joint project is real rewarding," Nolan said. "Steve deserves a lot of credit. It's been a vision of his, and he stayed with it."
The mounds are part of what makes the Quincy Park District unique, said Dan Gibble, the district's executive director.
The clearing effort "allows for those areas to be maintained in a way that's respectful of what they are and, secondarily, but probably just as important to us, it certainly saves us time and labor," Gibble said.
Indian Mounds Park was featured on the poster for Illinois Archaeology Awareness Month, held each September, and the mounds preservation efforts were spotlighted in Illinois Antiquity, a quarterly publication of the Illinois Association for Advancement of Archaeology.
"It was imperative that we remained understanding and sensitive toward American Indian cultural and religious beliefs concerning the proper etiquette of how to respectfully approach the preservation process and long-term care of these rare ancient monuments and ancestral burial mounds," Tieken said.
Spiritual leaders and elders from several different tribal affiliations offered prayers and performed sacred pipe and drum cleansing ceremonies before and after the clearing work. To date, individuals and members from nine different tribes -- the Blackfoot, Choctaw, Chickamaka and Tsalagiyi Nvdagi Cherokee, Gabrieleno/Tongva, Ho Chunk, Iroquois, Nueta (Mandan) and the Prairie Band Potawatomi -- have been involved as volunteers and consultants.
"The Quincy Mound Preservation Project has become a shining example of how municipalities, archaeologists and the American Indian community can successfully work together, hand in hand, to protect and preserve important historical sites, ensuring a lasting legacy of Native American history for generations to come," Tieken said.
The state may have had as many as 10,000 mounds, but only about 500 are left, with many on private property. Tieken has said there are 23 mounds within Quincy's park system.
The NAAI, ISAS and the Quincy Park District consulted with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency about the best way to protect, maintain and preserve the mounds. Work will continue to plant prairie grass at the sites, with a sowing ceremony involving Naive Americans, and prepare for a public tour sometime in the spring.
"We'll determine what the best course of action is on each particular mound group. Some will be put in regular grass, but the major structures will be sown in short prairie grass" which won't detract from the shape of the mounds or require mowing, Tieken said.
The park is closed to vehicle traffic likely until late March, but remains open year-round to pedestrians, and plans call for a public tour in May, National Preservation Month.
The work, to date, "really has made a difference in the park, but we need to keep going. It will grow back," Nolan said. "One can only imagine what the terraced enclosure must have looked like as you approached up and down river along the Mississippi. It would have been visible for miles and been an awe-inspiring landmark."