Among The Mounds: Cahokia

P1030072 (Medium)Happy New Year, all and sundry.

First blog post of the year after a long long hiatus deep in the land of frost and dial up internet. Not gonna post New Year’s resolutions or manifestos for my first writing of 2013. I’ll be doing the same thing I do every year. Putting out books and stories for you to read. Plenty of time for all that later.

During my holiday stay in Indiana with the family, we drove my son back and forth from college in St. Louis and while we were there, I took the opportunity to drag my wife to Cahokia Mounds, a state park about seven miles out of the city and a location I’ve been wanting to see for a long time.

It amazes me almost nobody knows about Cahokia. It’s North America’s first bona fide urban center, a metropolis and trading center whose cultural and economic influence extended into Canada and the Southwest according to archaeological evidence.

P1030056 (Medium)Of course, Cahokia isn’t the original name. Nobody knows what that is as the Mississippiean inhabitants had no alphabet and left no written record. But it was settled around 6oo BC (or CE, if you’re new school), about 500 years before a European contact and at its height supported a popuation of around 20,000 people, through farming, hunting in the winter months, and river trade.

Cahokia consisted of a hundred and twenty earthen mounds constructed over decades, including the enormous Monk’s Mound, a ten story (900 ft) pallisaded pyramidal flat top mound which was capped by the ruler’s temple dwelling, an impressive 50 ft tall thatched rooft structure. Monk’s Mound (named for a group of Trappist monks who settled near there in 1809) is actually the largest prehistoric earthen structure north of Mexico.

Monk’s Mound is still there today and can be ascended by a flight of modern day stairs placed in the same general position as the original wood staircase.

Monk's Mound in winter

Monk’s Mound in winter

It was a snowy December day a week after the solstice when we visited the cultural center and climbed up Monk’s Mound. You’re buffeted by the wind at the top, and you can see the site in its entirety, and the St. Louis arch as well. A modern road cuts right through the center of the city at the base of Monk’s Mound, destroying what was once an immense hard packed plaza on which were held massive annual games, chunkey (a hugely popular gambling game in which athletes flung spears at a rolling discoidal stone, betting on who could get it closest) and the equivalents of lacrosse, mainly.

P1030076 (Medium)French missionaries built a chapel for the Illiniwek Indians on a corner of the first terrace in the 1700’s, and a man named Amos T. Well once built a house on the very top, but no remnants of either structure remain. Whether they were carted off or blown away as my wife suggests, I have no idea.


Woodhenge: Where the demons dwell. Where the banshees live and they do live well

I mentioned the solstice above. Had we visited a week earlier we might’ve seen the annual solstice ceremony traditionally conducted a little bit west of the mound, where the city’s woodhenge has been reconstructed. Woodhenge is just what it sounds like, a prehistoric solar calendar constructed of standing wood poles, same as England’s Stonehenge. It’s situated in such a way that when the sun rises to the east, it peaks right over Monk’s Mound. Scholars posit that this was a way for the ancient rulers to tie their authority to the supreme authority of the sun itself. I walked out to the center pole and found browning rose petals in the snow at the base, remnants of the previous week’s festivities.

Mound 72

Mound 72

Also of interest to me was the infamous and yet innocuously named Mound 72. Not all of the mounds have been excavated, but Mound 72 was. It sits on the southern edge of the site near the tree line, and could easily be mistaken for a low natural hill in the shadow of the massive Monk’s Mound, or the nearby Twin Mounds.

The worm that et of a king? In the midst of death, life

The worm that et of a king? In the midst of death, life

But a mound it is, ridgebacked, and easily ascendable. You could picnic on top of it. Yet beneath it, over 250 skeletons were discovered, the majority of them sacrificial victims. At various layers, Mound 72 contained the bodies of 50 women with their heads bashed in, 40 men and women who had been interred alive (as evidenced by the position of their skeletons, clawing through the earth before they expired), four males, their arms interlocked, missing their hands and heads, and a regally dressed man lain in a grave atop a bed of 20,000 sea shells arranged in the shape of a falcon, a revered mythical figure in ancient Mississppean religion. A kind of charnal hut once stood alongside the mound, perhaps a priestly hut intended for the preparation of occupants, maybe a kill house, or who knows what. The purpose of Mound 72 and the reasons for its various inhabitants’ burials can only be surmised (my own weird suspicions will of course be made known once the story I wrote against the Cahokia backdrop sees print), but one gets an odd sensation standing alone at such a site, with only the snow hissing off the clacking tree branches.

Cahokia in the summer, from the air

Cahokia in the summer, from the air

What became of Cahokia is a subject for debate too. Maybe the people lost faith in their rulers and dispersed, maybe ill fortuned climate changes or sickness derived from overpopulation and dwindling resources led to its dispersal. I think it was a combination of the latter two which probably led to the former. Maybe it had to do with things that went on at Mound 72.

The Twins, thought to have once been connected by a bridge

The Twins, thought to have once been connected by a bridge

Cahokia in it's heyday (artist's impression)

Cahokia in it’s heyday (artist’s impression)

In the summer months the mounds are covered in green grass. From pictures it almost seems like the inhabitants could be cavorting just over the next earthworks. We saw them blanketed in frozen white, leaving one with the impression that the past was dead and dreamless.

But it’s an impressive site. And an impressive sight, well maintained by a friendly and knowledgeable staff. A nice excursion for those histroically or weirdly inclined.

Driving out away my wife and I started speculating about every low hill we saw. The St. Louis area is not naturally hilly. Proceeding through Collinsville we actually saw one fenced off vacant lot that consisted of nothing but a single large mound, apparently recognized and rescued by the scientific community. It was situated between a trailer park and an auto body shop. Wish I’d been able to snap a picture of that one, but we were in a moving vehicle.

On the summit of Monk's Mound

On the summit of Monk’s Mound

The visit drove our imaginations in all directions. By the time we hit the interstate we were seeing mounds everywhere.

The author on Monk's Mound (underdressed)

The author on Monk’s Mound (underdressed)

My wife points out our car

My wife points out our car

Kids sledding down a mound.

Kids sledding down a mound.