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Crackdown on ATVs focuses attention on Cahokia Mounds

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. (KRT) ? About 1,000 years ago, Native Americans on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River built earthen mounds to bury their dead and raise their buildings toward the sky.

In recent years, the Cahokia Mounds became something else: a racing ground for rogue riders on all-terrain vehicles.

"When you've been riding all your life, that mound's just another big dirt hill," said Mitchell Adams, 21, who has tackled the mounds on a mud-spattered, four-wheel Yamaha.

Although the practice has been going on for years, the state announced just this month that police would crack down on the riders. But the droning bikes and four-wheelers already have torn deep ruts in some of the mounds, changing the shape of at least two ancient hills.

The damage will be added to a long list of indignities the mounds have endured, not the least of which is obscurity. In the last century, amateur archeologists have plundered the Cahokia Mounds, remnants of the largest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico. Campers have littered the site, and vandals have lit fires. Four lanes of asphalt cut through the ancient city's central plaza, and some of the American Indians' fields are strewn with beer cans and trash.

Despite its designation in 1982 as a United Nations World Heritage site ? a distinction it shares with the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the pyramids ? the Cahokia Mounds continue to suffer from the abuse and neglect that have been standard fare for more than a century.

"It should have been a national park. It's clearly out of scale with what the state of Illinois has been willing to do to support it, said Jon Muller, an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale who has been studying the region for more than 35 years.

"It is a world-class site that deserves far better than it has received." Illinois officials say the state has tried to preserve the mounds east of St. Louis, gradually acquiring nearby land to save it from development. They say the site has gained more recognition since the state opened an $8.2 million museum on the land 11 years ago.

But those charged with caring for the mounds say they have long had to fight for resources to protect them. And for decades, nearby residents say, people have ridden dirt bikes on the mounds.

"It makes me sick to my stomach," said Julia Evans, advocacy coordinator for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "It is quite shocking, and I'm not quite sure why the state hasn't done anything to keep them off."

The state says it has tried, but fences have been torn through and warning signs removed. Most of the recent vehicle damage has occurred on remote, largely unpatrolled parts of the 2,200-acre Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

"Aside from hiring dozens of round-the-clock security people, I don't know what more we can do," said Dave Blanchette, a spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The soil carved away by the off-road vehicles may have contained artifacts such as broken pottery and flint chips, said site archaeologist Bill Iseminger. So far, no human remains have been found exposed by the riders. The state has no plans to conduct a detailed archeological survey of the mounds this summer.

Repairing the damage may be difficult because the mounds are so remote, and officials are unsure whether they will attempt it.

For Iseminger, who has worked at Cahokia for almost three decades, the vandalism is rooted in ignorance about the mounds' history. "The hardest part is to re-educate the public," he said. "They've been doing it all their lives."

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Centuries ago, the Mississippian culture inhabited a thriving city on the site, the largest settlement of a civilization that stretched from Florida to Oklahoma and from Minnesota to the southern Appalachian Mountains. At its height, about 1100 A.D., the settlement was home to as many as 20,000 people who grew corn, squash and sunflowers, hunted deer and honored the sun as their principal god. They paid homage to the spiritual forces of wind, rain and the underworld, and believed some animals were imbued with special powers.

The people who lived on the land built a stockade fence around the main portion of their city, including Monks Mound, a 100-foot, flat-topped earthen pyramid that once supported the dwellings of the city's most exalted leaders.

The Mississippians ? a name coined by archeologists ? are believed to have built Monks Mound with baskets full of earth carried from the surrounding land. By 1400 A.D., the site was abandoned. No one knows what became of the people.

A reconstructed wooden sun calendar, called Woodhenge, marks the spot where the archeologists found the remains of wood circles once used to mark the passing of seasons.

The off-road vehicles have done most of their damage to remote mounds. The wooded hills don't look much like the smoothly mowed mounds at the center of the site. Two of the most damaged mounds are in wooded, weedy areas separated from the main portion of the site by roads and railroad tracks. It looks like nature could have made these hills. But the signs of humanity are there, not just in the deep ruts that have destroyed the mounds' symmetry, but in the charred body of a motorcycle that lies at the base of Rattlesnake Mound, the largest burial hill on the site.

Each year, 400,000 people visit the mounds, exploring the Interpretive Center and climbing the stairs to the top of Monks Mound.

But even before the onslaught of ATV riders, many people took the mounds for granted and, in some cases, destroyed them. Of the 120 mounds that are once believed to have existed on the site, fewer than 80 remain. Many were plowed over by farmers, a practice that reduced their height, in some cases by half.

In the 1930s, a local farmer tore down a large ridge-shaped mound on his property. Today it is the site of a discount shoe store, a grocery and a classic car dealership.

Some of the worst damage was done by the first archaeologist to dig the mounds. Warren King Moorehead, who excavated portions of the mounds in the 1920s, gouged out a chunk of Rattlesnake Mound, leaving a valley in the long, peaked earthwork.

Ironically, Moorehead's discoveries brought recognition to the site, prompting the state to buy its first Cahokia Mounds land in 1925. The land purchases continued, but for years the site didn't have enough money, Iseminger said.

"We had to scrape and beg," he said. "A lot of times, (when) museums in St. Louis were getting rid of their exhibit cases, they would call us, and we would be on the scrap heap, so to speak." The U.N. recognition of Cahokia Mounds "kind of forced the state to make this a world-class site," Iseminger said.

Today, the state historic preservation agency takes credit for saving the mounds. "If the state had not acquired (the) property early in the 1900s, much more of it would have been lost," said Blanchette, of the preservation agency.

Police and state officials say they believe the announcement of the crackdown, and the media attention surrounding it, have deterred riders. But some are defiant. Occasionally, one will speed over the top of Monks Mound, which is visited by bus loads of schoolchildren.

The state "should make us a racetrack out there in the fields, or they should leave us alone, because they can't catch us," said one ATV rider who declined to give his name. With the riders gone for a few days, new grass has sprouted in the dirt tracks.

But the new growth is little consolation to Iseminger. He said some of the deep, narrow cuts in the sides of the hills will never entirely vanish. If water runs through them, they may even get deeper.

"Wherever you live, you always travel somewhere else to see things, and you seldom see what's in your own back yard" he said.