More than 10,000 earthen mounds once dotted the landscape of the Eastern Woodlands. Today less than 10% remain. The majority of these prehistoric occupation sites have been destroyed through agricultural practices and construction during the last 200 years, the cultural legacy of millennia lost, one piece at a time.
Cahokia Mounds is a surviving locale and a place you should put on your itinerary. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site offers a wealth of background information and useful perspective on planning a visit. The weather in the summertime is hot and humid. The last time I visited it was 98 degrees in the sun with 98% humidity. By the time I climbed Monks Mound it felt like I’d swum through a tepid bath. You might consider spring or autumn as better times to visit. National Geographic produced a nice retrospective of Cahokia back in January of 2011 that might be worth a look, especially if you do plan to visit. The photos and text help paint a realistic perspective of how few prehistoric sites of this scale survive – and none of them are truly intact.
One of the greatest cities in prehistoric America, today Cahokia is located outside of modern-day St. Louis, across the Mississippi River, in Illinois. Over 100 mounds graced the city planning at one time (about two-thirds remain). Over 50 trillion cubic feet of earth were moved, by hand, to construct Cahokia. The largest of these impressive engineering feats still stands. Monks Mound covers 14 acres, stands 100 feet tall, and includes four terraces. The mound-top temple – now missing – would have risen an additional fifty feet to tower above the skyline.
During the peak of occupation (between 1050 and 1200 AD) Cahokia was a metropolis, larger than the European contemporary city of London. The onsite Museum Complex and Interpretive Center offer extensive background about the history and reconstruction of lifeways at the site. In the painting to the right is an artist’s rendition of how the city appeared, based on archaeological evidence. Cahokia was the largest city in prehistoric America, north of Mexico and retained that title until the year 1800.
Part of the Mississippian complex of cultural tradition, the populace at Cahokia farmed and harvested and traded at the confluence of the riverine system. Feeding the vast trade network that extended across the landscape, Cahokia was integral to the commerce of the region. A class-based society with merchants, artisans, leaders, and commoners, Cahokia thrived. Although the city declined, eventually being abandoned before the arrival of Europeans into the local area, like other Mississippian settlements, the influx of strangers from the east brought devastating results. Disease and political collapse were the constant precursors of the era, being transmitted along with news and trade goods, effectively disrupting established communities before the actual presence of intruders occurred.
A unique find at the Cahokia complex is the copper workshop, still containing the tree stumps which held the anvils used to fashion the elaborately decorated metalwork so popular among the wealthy and elite classes. Artifacts found throughout the Woodlands region are thought to have been created in the workshop in Cahokia.
Drawing on an artistic and cultural heritage that stretched back to the Archaic Period, the inhabitants of Cahokia created exquisite sophisticated art. Artifacts from the site illustrate the degree of sophistication in their material culture. Recognized as part of the Southern Ceremonial Complex, a term used to encompass the continuous cultural tradition and existence of artistic conventions found throughout the Eastern Woodlands, Cahokia’s rich heritage celebrates these ancient connections. The traditions and conventions can be traced from the prehistoric period down through hundreds of generations to the Native tribes and communities that remain in the area today.
You should go and see it for yourself. Climb the stairs to Monks Mound and gaze across the floodplain to the edge of the Mississippi River until you see the St. Louis Arch. It’s a desolate place. There is no sense of the people who built this great city. Time has taken them. But we can still marvel at their achievements and catch a glimpse of the glory that was ancient Cahokia.