Ancient American Indian burial mounds in southern Illinois have been damaged and possibly looted, prompting the state's historical agency to call for the public's help in identifying the culprits.
Last month, someone dug several holes in a portion of Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site, a town and religious center of the Mississippian culture of 1,000 years ago in what is now rural Massac and Pope counties, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency said Friday.
The culprits were probably searching for "grave goods" that Native Americans buried with their dead, although it's unclear if any artifacts or human remains were taken, the agency said. More damage was done to the site recently when an all-terrain vehicle or truck was driven on one of the mounds, where "No Trespassing" signs are posted and ATVs are prohibited, the agency said.
"The criminal disturbance of these human burials in Kincaid Mounds is unconscionable," said Amy Martin, the agency's director. "We hope to apprehend those who are responsible, which will serve as a deterrent to others who may be considering the desecration of our state's heritage."
The site, about 170 miles southeast of St. Louis, has been targeted before. In 2008, three holes several feet wide and deep appeared in the side of one of the nine mounds, with two of the holes in spots looters had struck the previous year.
The disturbance of archaeological sites or skeletal remains on state-owned property can be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine, reparations and forfeiture of any vehicles or equipment used in the misdeed. Unsettling of burial sites on public land also may be a felony carrying a three-year prison term and $25,000 fine.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Kincaid Mounds is significant as one of two major political centers of the Mississippian period in the lower Ohio River Valley and was one of the first areas in southern Illinois where intensive, large-scale agriculture was developed.
"These mounds are a unique, irreplaceable part of our heritage, and to destroy them for the sake of amusement or profit is a despicable act," Martin said.
Such cases have produced federal charges. In 2010, Leslie Jones pleaded guilty to excavation, removal or damage of archaeological resources without a permit after investigators found more than 13,000 artifacts from southern Illinois' Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge at his home in Creal Springs, Ill. The collection included pottery, clay figures, stone weapons, tools and more than 200 pieces of human skeletal remains dating from roughly 6000 B.C. to 400 A.D.
Jones was sentenced to a month in jail, five years of probation, 500 hours of community service and ordered to pay more than $150,000 in restitution. He had faced up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Jones admitted he had sold some of the artifacts he unearthed at the refuge from 2004 through February 2007, having done extensive research that enabled him to identify pieces of artifacts and their time periods.