Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Lost City of Cahokia, Part 1: The Magnificent City

 View a personal introduction by Courtney Miller
Around 1050 A. D., there existed a grand city nestled in the Mississippi valley where St. Louis is today.  We call this site “Cahokia” because the Cahokia tribe once lived nearby.  But the Cahokia referred to the ancient city as belonging to a forgotten tribe that lived before them.

Monk's Mound
By any measure, this city was magnificent.  It covered over 4,000 acres, and had a population estimated between 10-20,000 within the city proper and 70,000 if you count the suburbs.  Grand temples and houses were built atop enormous platform mounds.   There were approximately 120 of these platform mounds of
various sizes.  In 1250 A. D., Cahokia was comparable in size to London or Paris during the same period.  It was the largest city in the United States until 1780 when Philadelphia grew larger.

It appears that Cahokia was the hub for trade and probably political power east of the Mississippi for 300 years (1000 A.D. – 1300 A.D.).   It hosted great ceremonies and games with a huge central plaza that had been meticulously leveled and surrounded by important mounds including the important Mound 38.

Mound 38, nick-named Monk’s Mound, has four terraces, and rises ten stories high (100 ft); is 951 ft. long and 836 ft. wide; covers 13.8 acres; and contains about 814,000 cubic yards of earth.   Its footprint is larger than the Egyptian Pyramid and is the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico.  It was named “Monk’s Mound” because a community of Trappist monks resided there for a while.   Although their residence was built atop a nearby mound, they gardened atop Mound 38.

Excavations have revealed that a large building, maybe a temple or rulers home, had been built on the top platform of Monk’s Mound.    It was 105 ft. long and 48 ft. wide and was probably around 50 ft. high.  That would have made it 5,040 sq. ft. -- a mansion even by today’s standards.

The largest mound, which Glen Hodges (National Geographic, January 2011) observed was “named, with an appropriate lack of imagination, Big Mound”, was part of the “North” plaza of Cahokia.  This area has mostly been destroyed or built over.  The dirt from Big Mound, itself, was used up by 1869 for construction projects and a railroad in St. Louis.  A small, circular, cobblestone monument was built to mark the spot where it had been and today sits unimpressively in a north St. Louis intersection.

Mound 72, south of Monk’s Mound was the site of a very controversial burial.  Archaeologists found the remains of a 40-year-old man.  He was probably a very important citizen or ruler of Cahokia.   The body had been placed atop more than 20,000 shell-beads arranged in the shape of a falcon.  A cache of very fine arrowheads from different geographical regions  (Oklahoma, Tennessee, Illinois, and Wisconsin) were also in the tomb which underscored the extensive trade carried on at Cahokia.  
In a Washington Post article by Nathan Seppa, March, 1997, “Also in the grave were a staff and 15 shaped stones of the kind used for games.

"Clearly, some really important leader is buried in there," Pauketat [Tim Pauketat, University of Illinois] says. Interred with him were four men with their heads and hands cut off and 53 young women apparently strangled. Their youth, 15 to 25 years, and the fact that they were all women, suggests human sacrifice. People that young did not die of natural causes in such numbers.

“Nearby, researchers found more burials and evidence of a charnel house. In all, 280 skeletons were found. About 50 lay haphazardly in a single deep pit, as if tossed in without honor. Some have arrowheads in the back or were beheaded, evidence of warfare or perhaps a crushed rebellion.

"I would guess there were people around who weren't too loyal," Pauketat says.”

As I mentioned in last week’s article, 5 massive circles resided not far from the palisaded plaza that enclosed Monk’s Mound.  They were used as huge solar calendar calendars to predict and mark significant events throughout the year.  They are called “Woodhenge” today.
To be continued … In the next article on Cahokia, We will look at a Copper Workshop unearthed at Mound 34, unique for the time.

Watch videos on this week's topics.

Link to "Archaeoastronomy -- Hopewell Mounds -- Woodhenge"

-- Courtney Miller


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