Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cahokia Mounds: Don't Miss This World Heritage Site

“Opps! Missed the exit!”… “Nah, it’s too hot for a walk around there today.” … “We spent too much time shopping; we’ll go there next time.”

“Next time” happened on November 14th. As Ed and I traveled west on I-70 approaching St. Louis, Missouri, we decided to quit driving early to avoid city rush hour traffic. “Is there someplace you want to visit along here?” Ed asked. I told him about the Indian mounds that I’d always been meaning to see but never got to visit.

The Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site is the largest prehistoric Indian site north of Mexico. The site was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965. Then in 1982, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Cahokia Mounds a World Heritage Site for its significance in the prehistory of North America.

During our visit to the Interpretive Center, “City of the Sun”, a 15-minute award winning video, introduced us to this prehistoric Mississippian Indian civilization. Evidence shows that the first settlements at Cahokia occurred around AD 700 when the Late Woodland Indians lived in villages along Cahokia Creek. As they established a stable food base from hunting, fishing and cultivated gardens, the Mississippian culture rose to highly structured communities with a complex social and political system. After 1050, Cahokia became a regional center for surrounding farmsteads and villages. At its peak between AD 1050 and 1200, the population reached 10 – 20,000 people. Cahokia spread over six square miles and included at least 120 mounds.

The rectangular mounds served as a base to elevate ceremonial buildings and residents of the elite. Archeologists believe the conical and ridgetop mounds were used for the burial of important people or to mark important locations. Scholars of the Cahokia Mounds estimate that these people moved over 50 million cubic feet of earth in baskets on their backs for mound construction alone.

Monks Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen mound on the site and in the Americas. It contains 22 million cubic feet of earth and its base covers more than 14 acres. A massive building once stood on top of the mound where the principle chief lived, conducted ceremonies, and ruled. I climbed the steps up Monks Mound but never reach its top some 100 feet above ground level. The summit had been closed to the public due to some landscaping restoration and I respected the orange barrier.

I found the Archaeology Wells in the Interpretive Center most intriguing. These five sunken displays throughout the gallery area show “What was here”, a recreation of the archaeological evidence discovered during the excavations for construction of the Center. Lighted screens created ghost like images of the people in their homes. I could imagine these families engaged in daily living and felt awed by this historic yet intimate peek as a guest in their once lively home.

Beyond my imaginings, Cahokia Recreated presented a life-sized diorama of Cahokia as it appeared in AD 1200. Single family dwellings of pole and thatch were among the representative sweat lodges, communal buildings, and grain storage structures.

By the late 1300s, Cahokia was abandoned. Archeologists speculate why. Visitors can also ponder reasons for Cahokia’s demise and register their thoughts on this unanswered question. Here’s how. You select a suggested reason such as depletion of resources, social unrest, climate change, or disease and vote for it by feeding dollars into slots like those on snack and soda vending machines. This clever fund raising display tallies the funds collected and shows in dollar amounts the factors most believed. As a former fund raiser, this fascinated me. How clever! How delightfully unscientific! As for my vote, I feed a few dollars into several of the slots. This historic site is worth supporting regardless of the questions that remain.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located at 30 Ramey Street, Collinsville, Illinois.

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