Discover Illinois’ Native Past

by Joy Neighbors

Dickson Mounds sits atop a picturesque bluff overlooking the Illinois River, just as it did back in 800 CE when it was a settlement and burial ground for nomadic Native Americans. It was occupied until the mid-14th century, as a result of the river and the Emiquon wetlands, which provided access to shellfish, game and fish, along with agricultural opportunities. 

The remains of Dickson Mounds were discovered in 1927 by landowner Don Dickson, who excavated part of the mound—removing the dirt, but leaving the bones in the earth. He erected a tent over the site and eventually built a structure to protect the remains from the elements. In 1972, the State of Illinois built a museum on the location, which held the 237 skeletons Dickson originally unearthed. The State hoped to increase public awareness about Native American culture and the tribes that roamed the river valley. Originally located on the border of Upper and Middle Mississippian cultures, Dickson Mounds reveals both the emerging and developing phases of these Native Americans.

Several separate burial sites comprise the complex, including ten burial mounds, at least two cemeteries, and a platform mound similar to a truncated pyramid. What intrigued archeologists was the fact that the burials had been organized by hierarchy. These semi-nomadic societies indicated a deceased’s higher class status by burying tools, ornaments and imported minerals like copper with the body. Those of a lesser class were buried with beads, pottery and eating utensils. Burial items could also denote gender: if they were tools or had a usable purpose, it designated a man’s grave, while women were buried with pottery, religious items or ornaments. Children were buried with shells and river rocks. 

Part of the Illinois State Museum system, Dickson Mounds offers 15,000 square feet of exhibits, artifacts, Native American arts and hands-on activities. This family-friendly site is the perfect addition to a visit to Lewistown—turning a day away into a weekend getaway. a&s

Dickson Mounds, located at 10956 N. Dickson Mounds Road in Lewistown, is open daily 8:30am to 5pm. Call (309) 547-3721 or visit IllinoisStateMuseum.org/content/welcome-dickson-mounds.

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