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Millstone Bluff provides look into Midwest’s ancient past
Illinois Correspondent

EDDYVILLE, Ill. — No tractors, no combines and no horses were used by the early Woodland and Mississippian Indians who settled on the top of the Millstone Bluff more than 1,500 years ago.

These prehistoric Native American settlers lived atop a bluff located in the Shawnee National Forest, along Route 147, east-northeast of Vienna near Eddyville. Through the interpretive signs readers can learn about the long-ago residents of this beautiful spot in southern Illinois. The site is overseen by the USDA Forest Service.
Without reading the information, the site could just appear as a beautiful bluff with some depressions that would make the visitor wonder what took place to cause the change in topography. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Millstone Bluff was so named because of the quarrying activity by residents from the last century. The history of both the early and recent settlers makes this a fascinating stop. Rose Hammitt, who lives on a wooded farm near Menard County, said, “I could almost hear voices when I visited.”

Hammitt, like many other visitors, was awed by the beauty of the site and the history of those who hunted and gathered their food long before machinery ever came into the picture. According to the Forest Service, Millstone Bluff is the site of an undisturbed prehistoric Mississippian village, stonebox cemetery and rock art site.

The bluff itself is a unique topographical feature rising 320 feet above the surrounding comparatively flat terrain. It appears as an “island” among the hills. Bay Creek, a major tributary of the Ohio River, is located west and north of the bluff. Millstone was so named because early settlers in the area carved milling stones along the base of the northwestern edge of the bluff.

These hand-carved millstones were used to mill local grains into flour. Millstone Bluff is surrounded by a massive sandstone escarpment. Large sandstone boulders are scattered along the steep slopes.

Visitors are asked to stay on the trails so as not to damage this site that was occupied between 500-1500 A.D. The USDA stated the majority of the artifacts recovered from the site are Mississippian (900-1500). It estimates around 100 Mississippian Indians once lived in this village.

“The village consists of approximately 24 house depressions loosely clustered around a central plaza. These are the remains of rectangular, semi-subterranean mud and stick, thatched houses,” stated a Forest Service report.

“When the rectangular house is abandoned or burned, the square basement-like hole fills into a rounded, basin-like depression. There were probably two to six individuals per household living at Millstone Bluff, including parents, children and perhaps grandparents.”

Besides the depressions visible to visitors after reaching the top of the bluff, there is also the village cemetery that contains approximately 20 coffin-like stone boxes. The Forest Service explained the prehistoric people buried many of their dead in rectangular graves lined with large, thin limestone slabs to form a box.

Past looting and vandalism have destroyed the great majority of graves. Prehistoric burials are primary targets for “pothunters” in the eastern United States because of the likelihood of recovering valuable stone tools and whole vessels.

The ancient residents also left some of their artwork. Overlooking the bluff, the viewer can look down and see traces of the rock art or petroglyphs thought carved by Mississippian Indians. According to the Forest Service, the art was “pecked” into the stone, by the repeated battering or hammering of a small “hammerstone” on the flat rock surface.

The petroglyphs at this site include two thunderbirds, pipes, axes, a spider-like creature, turkey tracks, a humanoid form and a cross-and-circle motif.

Millstone Bluff is one of three National Register sites in Pope County, along with the Golconda Historic District and part of the Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site. A visit to Millstone Bluffs provides appreciation of the past, and farmers may find themselves giving quick thanks for the tools they have today to supply food.