Monday, July 27, 2009

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Collinsville, Illinois

I’ll talk even more about this place in a subsequent post, but I want to give you a little background first. Here’s the official Web site.

Waaaaay before there was a Collinsville, or an Illinois, waaaay before Europeans rode in boats to North America, there was a thriving civilization in this area. Their prehistoric city reached its peak between AD 1100 and 1200. As many as 20,000 folks lived in the community at that time, and they erected at least five “Woodhenges” (Stonehenge-like calendars made of red cedar posts, which line up with the sun on solstices and equinoxes).

The civilization that built the Cahokia Mounds is known as the Mississippian culture, which emerged from Late Woodland peoples who settled in the area around AD 700. By 900 the Mississippians were building homes and cultivating maize, and their spear points, pottery, and other tools continued to improve. As the community grew in population and sophistication, political and religious leaders emerged, and in addition to their tons of dwellings, 120 earthen mounds were erected in about six square miles. A two-mile-long stockade was built around the center of the town.

There are 80 surviving mounds in the Cahokia site, and the largest is Monks Mound, which has four terraces and is approximately a hundred feet tall. Its base is about the same size as the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s the largest human-built earthen mound in North America, and it stands like a flat-topped pyramid in the middle of the otherwise relatively level Illinois landscape. In fact, the mound builders actually made the landscape more level around the mounds, accentuating the mounds’ height.

Get this: The soil was transported by baskets.

The city at Cahokia (not to be confused with the modern town of Cahokia, several miles southwest of the mounds site) was the center of Mississippian culture, which extended throughout eastern North America. The city was gradually and finally abandoned by the close of the 1300s. Archaeologists can only offer hypotheses about what happened to the people and their civilization.

In the 1600s, the Cahokia tribe of Illinois Indians (unrelated to the mound builders) lived in the vicinity when the French reached the area, and so the site was named after them. Apparently there’s no real name for the people who built this city, with its marketplaces, sporting events, religion, arts, communal sense of purpose, far-flung trade connections, agriculture, and astronomical discoveries.

Photos, top to bottom: Two views of the steps leading to the top of Monks Mound, taken when we were there on Saturday July 25. Next, part of the huge mural at the visitors center (which I think is in three-point perspective, like the famous “turning” Eads Bridge mural at the Missouri State Capitol). And just above, the Birdman Tablet, AD 1300, a sandstone tablet showing a dancing guy with a bird mask and costume, an image that became part of the Cahokia Mounds logo.

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