One of the unique phenomena of Southern Illinois is its ruins of stone walls and forts, thought to belong to an early Mississippian Culture that thrived throughout the Midwest from 800 C.E. to 1600 C.E. Here atop a 320 foot bluff within the Shawnee National Forest is one of the best preserved settlements they left behind at Millstone Bluff Archeological Area. Abandoned for nearly 1,000 years, the area was later rediscovered by early settlers who quarried millstones from the bluffs Kinkaid limestone for their nearby grist mills. An easy 0.5 mile loop climbs the top of the bluffs to explore the prehistoric stone fort containing an expansive village site, a stone box cemetery, and one of three rock art sites discovered here.
Millstone Bluff Trail | 0.5 Mile Loop
Millstone Bluff Location | Google Maps
There are nearly a dozen known prehistoric stone fort ruins in Southern Illinois, appearing in a rough east to west alignment while stretching all across the Shawnee National Forest from the Ohio to the Mississippi River. Having visited some of the best preserved sites at Rim Rock Trail and the Giant City Stone Fort, it was only natural to make the pilgrimage out to see the best of them all at Millstone Bluff. While most of the other sites in the region can only offer guesses as to what the area might have been, here at Millstone Bluff there is definitive proof showcasing how early peoples lived. Thanks to its isolated location, this once thriving cultural center sat mostly undisturbed for nearly 500 years, giving archeologists a rare glimpse into this unaltered early Native American site.
Driving up the gravel entrance into Millstone Bluff, one arrives at the trailhead parking lot starring out at the areas namesake feature. Opposite the field of scrub brush and red cedar is a sheer cliff used by the areas many inhabitants as a natural quarry. Surrounded by a massive sandstone escarpment, the Kinkaid Limestone found at the base of the bluff was used most notably by early settlers to carve milling stones. These hand-carved millstones, first powered by horse and later by running water, were used to grind local farmers grains into flour. Looking over the informational signs at the trailhead, you can see one of these milling stones the U.S. Forest Service discovered abandoned at the base of the quarry. With most millstones weighting in around 3,300 lbs, it was an engineering feat just to move these off site once they were completed.
Stone Fort & Wall
At just 0.5 mile in length, the trail at Millstone Bluff ascends 320 feet to the entrance of the prehistoric stone fort atop the bluffs summit. As you reach the staircase leading up into the village, an informational sign with a map explains the orientation of all the buildings, cemetery and rock art sites. I recommend taking a picture of it to reference it later. Easily traversed using the wooden boardwalk, this was originally a very narrow trail which led up the only navigable path into the fort. Stepping through a gap in the demolished stone wall, we officially enter the site. According to notes from one of the first surveys conducted here in 1808 by the General Land Office, it is believed that the stone wall was 6 feet tall and 6 feet thick. The measurements align well with other prehistoric stone walls in the region that sometimes measured 10 feet thick and almost just as tall.
Beginning the loop clockwise, we turn left navigating up a wooded hillside into what was previously a village of about 20 homes. The inhabitants of Millstone Bluffs built partially subterranean homes. After digging a rectangular pit 20 feet long by 10 feet wide, large poles were erected at intervals to form the framing of the walls. Woven with branches to form a basket-like enclosure, the walls were then packed with grass and clay to create a solid structure that would remain cool during the summer and retain heat during the winter. On average these homes were used for twenty year intervals, at which point they would become so infested with rodents that they would be burnt to the ground along with most of its contents. The best way to see where the homes were located is to look for the circular depressions in the forest floor that appear very similarly to sinkholes.
Some of the artifacts discovered in these ancient burn piles include arrowheads, stone knives, pottery shards, and gardening tools. The presence of gardening tools suggests that the Mississippians living atop Millstone Bluff may have also tended crops in the floodplain of Bay Creek to sustain the population living within the fort. As you walk through the center of the village, the trail enters a large and unnaturaly flat clearing in the woods. This is the village plaza. This would have been the center of community activity for the 100 people that are estimated to have lived at Millstone Bluff. Visitors entering the village 700 years ago would have been met with the image of smoke rising from a dozen cooking fires, while women ground corn into flour and dried meat on tall racks. On the norther edge of the plaza, surrounded by all of the other homes, are the ruins of what was likely a Public Building. Much like our modern meeting halls, this space would have been used by religious leaders, warriors, or political leaders to plan community events or to greet distant travelers.
Plaza & Public Building
Archeologists studying this site believe that Millstone Bluffs was established as a full blown village sometime around 1275 C.E. by emigrants from the collapsing Mississippian chiefdom at the Kincaid site in the nearby Ohio River Valley of Southern Illinois. This emigrant group may have arrived with the remnants of a chiefly hierarchy or some form of political or religious structure still intact. This would explain why Millstone Bluff is so well organized compared to other sites that appear to be auxiliary settlements throughout the nearby uplands of the Shawnee National Forest. A missing piece of the puzzle for scholars trying to piece all of the evidence together was the lack of a mound(s) to signify this as an important cultural center. The breakthrough came with the utilization of LIDAR. Upon scanning the area to create a 4D image, archeologists were stunned to discover that Millstone Bluff was in fact a naturally occurring pyramid with a flat mesa-like summit. Rising over the surrounding landscape, this hill would have been recognizable for miles in every direction.
Stone Box Cemetery
Walking downhill on the backside of the homes and plaza is where archeologists discovered the remnants of two stone-box cemeteries. These coffins of stone slabs arranged in a rectangular shape were a common method of burial used by the Native Americans of the Mississippian culture. Grave goods were often interred with the deceased and included mortuary pottery, axes, arrowheads, figurines, bone beads, dice, and awls. During the summers of 1996, 1997, and 1999, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Department of Anthropological Methods Field Study conducted various investigations into what remains of the cemetery and found them mostly looted. Part of the reason this trail was built and opened to the public by the U.S. Forest Service was to dissuade grave robbers and looters from being able to easily vandalize the few prehistoric artifacts that might remain here. The practice of stone-box burials is especially prominent in the Cumberland River Valley of Kentucky and Tennessee, with thousands of such graves having been recently discovered in the Nashville Metro Area.
Last, but certainly not least, we head to the northern rim of the fort to check out the petroglyphs. What most people don’t realize until they come here in person, is just what trouble prehistoric people went through to etch the rock art at this site. Walking down several flights of stairs and across a bridge spanning a 20 foot gap between the bluffs, we end up atop a solitary monolith of stone. Looking around for the petroglyphs, it doesn’t immediately become apparent to look down over the edge of the bluff at a slab of rock protruding 15 feet above the forest floor. This is what I came here to see and it is absolutely breathtaking. A diagram right beside the petroglyphs explains what archeologists have been able to discern on the surface of the rock. The most prominent image that Millstone Bluff is known for is the large “Thunderbird”.
This falconid bird or bird-man is found at prehistoric Mississippian mound sites throughout the Southeast and as far away as northern Georgia. Even after so many years, one can still make out the etchings of pipes, axes, turkey tracks the top part of a spider, a circle and cross, a humanoid athlete, and portions of a second thunderbird. From pictures I’ve seen taken by other visitors, it seems that the images really pop on cloudy days after a light rain. Nature is doing its best to reclaim this rock and little by little, moss, soil, and vegetation continue to inch closer to the carvings. Digging deeper into the history of Millstone Bluff, I came upon an article from Southern Illinois University revealing that there are actually 3 rock art sites found here. Studied in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, archeologists uncovered all three panels spaced 25-75 meters apart along a 100 meter stretch of the northern rim of the bluff.
Studied since the 1950’s, scholars have been able to interpret an underlying pattern to the distribution of the petroglyphs depicting a religious cosmogram of Upper World motifs in the east, Under World motifs in the west, and a combination of the two in the Central Panel. The western panel contains images of elk-antlered serpent, a winged serpent, and a cross and circle motif. Similar winged serpents have been found etched on pottery at the Late Woodland site of American Bottom, just south of Cahokia. On the lichen covered central panel, etches appear to depict winged birds soaring over a a large male holding a knife and shield, standing besides what is interpreted as a pregnant female. Below them are badly eroded serpentine lines that may have once depicted underworld creatures. The only panel that is open to the public, high atop the stone monolith is the eastern panel. It seems appropriate that the panel rising high above the forest floor depicts celestial sky powers. A newer interpretation of the falcon or thunderbird motifs is that the left “thunderbird or bird-man figure” is a whole representation with the separate images of a bird, humanoid athlete, and plumed arrows beside it representing the separate parts.
Regardless of what all these images mean, it is truly a miracle that they still exist today. Anyone with a remote interest in history or archeology will get a blast from exploring this site and getting a chance to view the rock art in person. Due to the fact that this is a sensitive area containing active archeological studies, it’s suggested that everyone remain on the trail at all times. Up next, we’re headed over to explore the area surrounding High Knob and soak in the views from one of the best lookouts on this part of the Shawnee National Forest. Stay tuned and as always, see y’all on the trails!