Cahokia: Digging in the Dirt

  • Post category:Travel

There are eleven UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites located in the United States, five of which are American Indian sites. Mesa Verde is by far the most famous with its cliff-dwellings, Taos Pueblo and Chaco not far behind, though Chaco is a bit a of a drive, three hours from Albuquerque, the last on rough dirt roads. I’d never heard of Cahokia.

We passed through Taos one Christmas, the streets thick with ice, my Volvo 850R sliding all about, defying my Ohio-born driving skills, the town mostly shut down. We found one place open, serving Mexican, and it was busy with locals, the food hot and good.

At the ceremony at the pueblo we could watch but not speak or interact in any way. My oldest daughter, perhaps twelve years old at the time, tired from the road and responding in a primal way to the bloody deer skins the dancing men swung about and wore on their shoulders, was nauseated and I fled with her through the thick crowd so she could vomit in private.

We’d first heard of Chaco when I was eating dinner at a restaurant with my family ten years ago or so. We were in some small town on one of our cross-country, meandering road trips and were pondering our next destination. The young couple seated a table or two over spoke to each other in hushed tones, for no clear reason, and they spoke of Chaco. We can’t come this close to it and not go, they said. It was too amazing to miss. They were excited. My wife and I listened and turned to each other—”want to go to Chaco?” we both thought and said, though not knowing what it was or where.

A few years after that, traveling with my youngest daughter, we saw a sign for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and, having never been to an Indian mound site, we intended a quick stop then back on the road.

Now, before we go on, I want you to do something for me. Imagine in your head an Indian living in pre-Columbus times. What do they look like? What do they wear? In what sort of places do they live? What were they like in life? How did they bury their dead?

Whatever images you have in your head, Cahokia will change them, dramatically change them, open a door just a little into a real historical world vastly different than what our schoolbooks and movies and television shows even hinted at. There are no written records, but there are artifacts, dug up from the earth that tell bits of the story, bits that can be pieced together. There were no outside visitors to record what they saw but there is archeology, and though only a tiny portion, maybe one percent, of the archeology of the Cahokia site has been explored what it tells us so far re-writes everything.

What shocked me was the bodies. So many bodies. But we will get to that soon. First, an overview of Cahokia, to put what is to come in context.

What are Indian mounds? Well, they are piles of dirt, which I admit don’t sound very exciting. Not all of them are like the huge circle in xxxxx[link] nor like pictographs (at least from the air) as the Serpent Mound [link]. Most are just little pretend hills.

The ones that are domed shaped are called “conical” in that they are round at their perimeter and have a dome-like or curved top. Other mounds are different. Many are rectangular in shape at their perimeter and are flat at the top—as if something used to be up there and the mound was a platform for some long lost structure. That’s probably exactly what these mounds were and they are called, unsurprisingly, platform mounds. The third style of mound, apparently something special to Cahokia, is the ridgetop mound, which looks like a little house or lodge, with a rectangular perimeter and a roof-like shape—all “roof” and no “walls.”

I should mention Monks Mound. It’s a pyramid-shaped platform mound one hundred feet tall, the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in North, South, or Central America. French missionaries lived on it at one point, thus the name.

Monks mound suffering one of its many indignities.

As I said, the platform mounds seem to have been used as foundations for certain structures. Burials have been discovered beneath some but not others. A religious purpose may have been served by both the conical and ridgetop mound varieties.

Already you can glimpse something. Mounds of different styles and sizes suggest a more complex cultural system than might have been first expected. Building these mounds—and maintaining them—was not trivial and so these mounds offer strong clues as to the nature of this lost culture.

St. Louis from the top of Monks Mound.

But a point needs to be made, which is made well in a book I happen to be reading now (and which I will mention again in part two). In Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings he suggests thinking about the ending of a Shakespeare play—if I call correctly he used Hamlet. There, after the final scene, you see the stage. There are bodies on the stage, arranged in a certain way, the set, the curtains, the clothes the dead people are wearing all meaningful to the story of the play. But you get to see just this one scene moment at the conclusion, the final frame of the movie. What can you tell about the play from the clues in front of you? What can you surmise about the actors and the audience, about the playwright, about the society in which they worked?

The answer is, you can surmise very little—there are so few clues and many are mystifying, suggesting many possible meanings. But the answer also is, you can surmise quite a lot, since, lucky for you, this isn’t the only last scene of the play you have found, there have been discoveries of this same play performed elsewhere with their own set of bodies and set dressing. In fact, there have been discoveries of other plays aside from Hamlet. Taken in context with all of the available knowledge great mysteries will remain, great errors will still be made, but much starts to make sense.

That is archeology.

Cahokia reached its peak in the 1200s, three hundred years before Columbus, although being within sight of present-day St. Louis, Columbus never got near it. French explorers found the place abandoned is the late 1600s, built a mission and trading out nearby, and named the town, and the cluster of mounds Cahokia after the local Indian tribe, which don’t appear to be the dependents of the people who built the mounds. Aside from what you can find in the ground, there are no records of them.

Model of existing mounds at Cahokia.

As far as anyone can tell there were about one hundred and twenty mounds here before development of the area and about eighty remain, all but a handful on what is now state property. All of the mounds have suffered and sometimes suffered badly, victims of unchecked development. The area was farmed and the plow went right up and over the mounds wherever they could. Houses were built atop some, a convenience store, and a drive-in theater decorated the land, too, which in its later years became a drive-in pornography theater. I didn’t know such things ever existed.

There were depressions in the area of the mounds that farmers wanted to fill so mounds were shoveled down, the dirt dumped into the holes. Which was okay with the first, I suppose—these depressions were caused centuries before by Indians digging up the land, the dirt used to build the mounds in the first place.

Steam shovel at work on the Powell Mound.

Don’t judge the farmers too harshly. The Powell family, horseradish farmers, had a mound on their land. They knew it was historically important and so tried to sell the land to various historical associations and local and state governments. Offers were made to a mushroom-shaped area—the area around the pond plus an access road—but the Powell’s reasonably thought that a dumb idea, leaving them with an odd-shaped lot. So they gave up, hired a steam shovel, and filled in that low area on their plot, the soil shifted to the mound seven hundred years ago shifted back in 1931.

The worst of the destructive development occurred just west of Cahokia in St. Louis, as it was becoming St. Louis. Nothing stopped the onrush in make-a-buck development and all but one of the mounds there were flattened, including the second-largest mound in the region. There’s a roundabout there now, with a boulder in the center to remind residents and visitors of their greed and stupidity.

Big Mound as it was being destroyed in about 1869. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly.

Not to be outdone, the Federal government routed an interstate through the area, bisecting the northern part of the mound cluster. The only good news here is that the legislation that funded the project also funded archeological projects along its length, and much of the initial archeological work on Cahokia stems from this funding.

Before the highway there was the old National Road, built in the early 1800s. It’s a high-speed road now. You have to look both ways before you cross. Sometimes you have to run across. The National Road passes directly in front of Monks Mound, touching it along its south side, dividing it from the plaza area.

A sign in the gift shop asks visitors to consider donating to help them purchase additional parcels of land with the remaining mounds. When I inquired about the sign an administrative employee soon appeared to answer all my questions and to ascertain if I was a wealthy Californian.

The mounds aren’t arranged at random. Instead, they form a main plaza and you can see where streets may have been. The alignment of the layout matches celestial signs, and you can imagine, filling the area around these mounds, where special buildings were built and where special ceremonies held, the hundreds if not thousands of more basic structures for housing and storage and for everything else, all around.

Monk’s mound rises above Cahokia in this depiction.

It looks an awful lot like a city, although archaeologists will argue about the precise definition of “city” with all of its attendant implications. But this was a city, twenty-five thousand, maybe forty-thousand people inhabiting it at its peak, bigger than London at the time, bigger than any city in the United States until Philadelphia took first place in the 1780s.

So our thinking about Indians has already been dramatically revised. And now, the biggest surprise of all, we can talk about Mound 72.

It’s a city.

This is part one of a two-part article. Part two is here.).

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.