July 19: beneath and beyond the mounds

2012/07/19 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1964 Cahokia Mounds was designated a National Historic Landmark.

This site might not be the most visually spectacular thing you’ve ever seen, but just like you shouldn’t overlook the forlorn, blind, three-legged puppy in the basket, Cahokia is a special place–just on its own terms.  In fact there is a long history of Europeans sniffing at the monuments and, on the one hand, attributing their “rudeness” to the uncivilized ways of North America’s first residents, and on the other, assuming that any part of it that was impressive must have been the work of some other civilization (like, the Egyptians had these crazy boats . . .).

Don’t be part of that tradition.  Use your imagination and look deeper.  The residents of Cahokia settled their city in what we now call Illinois back in the seventh century and flourished between ca. 1050 and 1400.  They built with ephemeral materials: earthworks susceptible to erosion and timber structures that decay with time.  The mounds are not as big as they used to be, but they are still BIG.  The largest of them, named “Monks Mound” in the nineteenth century, was actually a ziggurat with four steps and a flat top, ostensibly for some kind of ceremonial center.  It measures 100 feet high with a footprint of 836 x 951.  It was built in stages across the years, mostly with single baskets of dirt culminating in its 800,000 cubic yard heft.

And there’s more.  More mounds, ceremonial centers, athletic fields, a woodhenge of 410′ diameter, all part of a huge settlement.  Strategically located on main waterways that were the lifelines of Mississippian culture, Cahokia was a big enterprise and a big deal of a city.  Researchers estimate its population peaked around 15,000 in the thirteenth century.  That may not sound  like a lot without the context: the great medieval cities of Paris and London were just about the same size at that time.

Cahokia mesmerizes because of these similarities–growth akin to cities that flourished rather than failed, building forms like other cultures we know: the henges of Britain and Ireland, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia; it’s almost familiar.  Yet it still stands apart and is distinct in many ways, having most in common, perhaps, with the ancient builders of Britain, for leaving no written record to explain the builders’ motivations, flourishing, decline and disappearance.

Very cool interactive map: hosted by the State historic site

Image: one of the mounds (from this source)

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