~ Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site ~

Cahokia Mounds was another of my side trips. I saw another sign along the highway, when I entered Illinois from St. Louis. It was also the final stop and, hence, the final page in this travel series of 2011. Unless, I see another sign on the way to Florida.

Cahokia was the largest prehistoric Indian community in America north of Mexico. It covered an area of six square miles and included at least 120 mounds of different size and function. Initial occupation during the Late Woodland Era (AD 700-800) included small settlements along Cahokia Creek. These expanded and merged during the early Mississippian Period (AD 800-1000) and the population of the community reached a peak between AD 1050 and 1150. The estimates population during this time was between 10-20,000. Families lived in pole and thatch houses around the 120 mounds of this ancient city. Ceremonial buildings and the homes of the elite stood on top of the many platform mounds. The population decline began in the 1200s and by 1350-1400 Cahokia was abandoned. The reasons for the abandonment of these sites is known only to the people who lived here. All else is conjecture.

Long-distance trade networks brought sea shells from both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, copper from Lake Superior, mica from the southern Appalachians and chert, salt, minerals and other goods from many areas in the Miswest.

Grand Plaza and Twin Mounds

It was Field Trip Day

Interpretive Center

Another view of the Interpretive Center

Did I say it was Field Trip Day?

View from the Interpretive Center with Monk's Mount in the distance

Monk's Mound across the 40 acre Grand Plaza

A closer look
The heart of Cahokia was the Grand Plaza, situated between Monks Mound and the Twin Mounds. Archaeological testing hes confirmed that the plaza was, in part, artificially created by filling in low areas and reducing high points to create a flat, prepared surface. Here public gatherings, markets and festivals would have taken place and the chief could address the assembly from Monks Mound.
Other major plazas were located in the four primary directions from Monks Mound and several smaller plazas and courtyards were found throughout the city.

Another view of the plaza and three other mounds

At peak population it probably looked something like this

One of the Twin Mounds
The large Twin Mounds were probably a mortuary complex, although no excavations have been made into these mounds. It is believed that a building atop the flat-topped mound may have served as a "charnel house" where bodies of important people were prepared for burial, and perhaps the conical Twin Mound was the place of their burial.
Soil corings around the twins suggest that they were built upon a shared platform.

The other Twin

Both Twins
And there were wild turkeys browsing

The Twin Mounds were situated across the plaza from Monk's Mount and held special significance.

Mound 72
An archaeological excavation of Mound 72 (right photo) from 1967-1972 revealed three smaller mounds beneath, ecah covering complex mortuary activities, including mass sacrificial graves and artifact caches. Archaeologist, Dr. Melvin Fowler believed there to be another Woodhenge associated with this mound.
The remains of over 200 individuals were found in Mound 72. Some were ritual burials and others mass or sacrificial burials. The differential burial treatment of various groups suggests that these people were also treated differently when alive, perhaps belonging to different social classes or communities.
The orientation of this mound aligns with the winter solstice sunrise and the summer solstice sunset. Cahokia has been called the City of the Sun.

The area is well wooded and due to the flock of students around Monk's Mound, I decided to take the long trail around the woods to it.

Hidden in the woods were several other mounds. The western Stockade fence roughly followed this path and went around the central area of Cahokia and to the left of the mound (Mound 48) in the distance.
Several universities and public field schools searched for the route of the Stockade along the west side of the Grand Plaza. Along a low north-south ridge in this area, they located several segments of Stockade wall trenches and portions of rectangular bastions. Several pits and portions of houses were also located and evidence that much of theis area was also artificially built up, perhaps as part of the construction of Grand Plaza.

A closer look at the Mound 48 above
Mound 48
This large platform mound on the northwest corner of the Grand Plaza, may have been built in one episode of construction and possible had several buildings on its summit. The corners facing the Grand Plaza had ramps for stairs to the top. Excavations around the mound showed little activity on the plaza side, but lots of debris and features toward the back of the south side, perhaps from activities on top of the mound. (tossing one trash out of the compound?) From 1809 to 1813, French Trappist Monks lived here near the largest mound that was later named after them. In the late 1800s a farm house was built on Mound 48. The mound is nearly a perfect square and is much higher than it appears in the photos.

Another side

Another mound in the woods

A view from the first terrace of Monks Mound

Monks Mound

Looking in the other direction

Looking toward the Woodhenge Site

Excavations on the southwest corner (from where I took this photo and the St. Louis photo below) found that several large ceremonial buildings had burned around AD 1150. After, a small mound and a new building on top were erected above this and rebuilt eight times over the next 100 years.
In the 1730s, French priests built a chapel at this loaction for the Cahokia subtribe of the Illiniwek Nation, who came here in the 1600s. We can say that there had been plenty of opportunity to ruin this site and we should be thankful that as much remains as does.
Visible in this photo are Grand Plaza, the Twin Mounds right of center in the distance and the interpretive Center far left. Also the main highway, which runs through the site.

A view of St. Louis I had not seen before

This is a model of the type of stockade fencing used at Cahokia

Left is a burial mound and right the location on the fourth tier of Monk's Mound where the Chief's home and temple were located

On the left is the west side of Monk's Mound, where part of tier C (right) has collapsed. They leave the long grass plains vegetation grow on the larger mounds to prevent more collapse. The right photo shows what Monk's Mound may have looked like.

Steps to the first tier

Steps to the top tier
Excavations here revealed that the ramp up Monks Mound had been enlarged several times. With each rebuild the mound and ramp was increased in size (probably to maintain the same slope). The original stairs were logs held in place with wooden pegs. When time to rebuild came the old ramp was covered with earth and a new set of stairs put in place. The modern stairs are in the same place as the original ramps.

A view of Monks Mound from the side

The Stockade
The central ceremonial precinct of Cahokia was enclosed by a defensive wall, the Stockade (or Palisade). It was built of upright logs placed in 4-5 foot deep trenches and probably stood 10-15 feet above ground. It has been estimated that 15-20,000 logs would be needed to build this wall that was nearly two miles long. At regular intervals (85 feet center to center) were bastions, guard towers, with raised platforms for warriors to protect the front of the wall. L-shaped entryways were occasionally placed between bastions.
The Stockade would also serve a social function. The wall enclosed an area of nearly 200 acres, including Monks Mound and 17 othe mounds. Those living inside the sacred precinct were somehow different from those living outside, possibly related to the ruling elitr. However, it is likely that all citizens would be allowed inside for festivals and ceremonies or to aid in defense, if needed.
The wall was rebuilt four times between 1150 and 1250. A new wall replaced an old decaying one. With each new construction, the spacing of the bastions became more precise, indicating a standard unit of measure had been developed.

Inside views
I don't think the Mississippians had iron bolts, nuts and nails though

The east side of the stockade fence roughly followed this path (right photo)

Mound 51
Persimmon Mound (left photo) was an oval platform mound. It has been reconstructed since the original mound was sold for fill by a former owner. Excavations done when the mound was being leveled identified a couple of building stages. Of great interest was what was below the mound. A vorrow pit that had been filled in rapidly with many preishable materials well preserved, such as thatch, matting, posts from buildings cordage, plants and insect remains. This was possibly debris from feasting taking places in the nearby Grand Plaza. This borrow pit extended north across the highway.
Right photo: Mound 50 was a low dome-shaped mound and probably dates to the 1200s. Several large pits were dug into it and at least two large posts were emplaced in it. The mound was plowed down ocer the years to about three feet high and is had been restored to approximate its original height.

Mound 55
Excavations into Mound 55 took place in 1941, when about nine feet of the mound remained. It also had been plowed over. Several pre-mound structures were found, one a large circular building and another a rare cross-shaped building, showing this area had ritual use before the mound was built.
This mound was built in several stages with a lower terrace extending towards the Grand Plaza with a fence on the summit and fences around the edges. It was coated with black clay and could have been as much as 30 feet tall. This reconstruction is in the original location.


Equinox and summer solstice
At least five large post-circle monuments were built at this loaction from AD 1100 and 1200, each with a different diameter and number of posts. Woodhenge III is the circle most extensively excavated and is the one reconstructed here in the original location.
The rising sun above the bluffs to the east aligns with certain posts on the perimeter, as viewed from the central observation post. The most important alignments are the winter and summer solstices, marking the southernmost and northernmost sunrise positions, and the fall and spring equinoxes, when the sun rises due east, midway between the solstice posts. (in the photos the equinox post has two white cards, the solstice posts have one) At the equinoxes the sun appears to rise from the front of Monks Mound, perhaps confirming a link between the sun and the chief who ruled from the top of the mound.
Excavations also revealed hundreds of houses and pits, showing this was a residential area before and after the construction of the Woodhenges. Wood fragments in some of the post holes indicate that red cedar, a sacred wood to most Indian tribes, was used for the posts. There are 48 posts in this version of Woodhenge.

Equinox and winter solstice

Endnote: This was a most satisfying tour of the western states. I saw things I had never even considered seeing. Since November of 2010, I visited 53 people and places on my "bucket list" and some others that were not on that list. The result was 63 webpages with over 3600 photographs taken along the way. It was quite a year, from the frozen "tundra" of eastern Washington to the oven of Furnace Creek in Death Valley. Hopefully, in the future, I can plan the weather better. Thank you all for visiting these pages of 2011 and a few from 2010.

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