September 30, 2014

Jeanette Grider

Archeology Students Discover Prehistoric Sweat Lodge

Saint Louis University students participating in the 2014 Archaeological Field School at the Fingerhut Tract of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a World Heritage UNESCO site, made a significant contribution to the understanding of American Indian prehistory with the discovery of three additional partial house basins and the entire basin of a burned sweat lodge.

Archeological discovery at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Generally, a sweat lodge is a domed hut made of natural materials. They were -- and continue to be -- used by American Indians as steam baths for physical cleansing as well as for ritual purification.

The sweat lodge discovered this summer is three meters in diameter and superimposes the corner of a large rectangular structure. Within the basin of the sweat lodge several large deposits of charcoal suitable for radiocarbon dating were found. As word spread of the discovery, archaeologists in the area came to visit and were impressed by the careful work done by SLU students.

Mary Vermilion, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at SLU and principal investigator, said the project has been a great experience for everyone involved.

"Over the past four summers, work by SLU students at the site has resulted in the discovery of a total of nine features and scores of microdrills, suggesting that this area of Cahokia Mounds may have been involved in craft specialization for the prehistoric chiefdom," Vermilion said.

"This summer we also welcomed a visit by fifth grade students from Hodgen Elementary School," Vermilion added. "Their field trip to the site followed visits to their classrooms earlier in the spring by SLU anthropology students, who introduced them to the engaging exploration of what it means to be human through the study of archaeology as well as cultural, biological and linguistic anthropology."

SLU ITS Server and Storage Operations manager Joe Zitta and his six-year-old-daughter Grace take part in the archeological dig.

"We were also delighted to share our experiences with other members of the SLU community," Vermillion said. "Joe Zitta, manager of ITS Server and Storage Operations, and his six-year-old daughter, Grace, came to learn about archaeology, Cahokia Mounds and prehistoric America, and enthusiastically lent a helping hand."

The excavations at the Fingerhut Tract, were conducted under the direction of Vermilion, assisted by archeologist and partner Richard Young and 2014 Teaching Fellow Mark Simon. The four week field school took place from May 19 to June 14.

For additional information, contact Dr. Vermilion at

Archeology students at the site of an newly-discovered sweat lodge.
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