Travelogue: Cahokia October 2016

It was Columbus Day weekend. Or, as several states and cities have already begun calling it, Indigenous Peoples Day. I set out for Cahokia, Illinois, just a few miles from St. Louis, Missouri. The drive was mostly on Interstates 24, 57, and 64–just about 1/2 tank of gas for my Ford Fusion. Not a bad drive, especially since I listened to a few podcasts there and back: ArchyFantasies, This American Life, and The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

The approach I took brought me past Monks Mound first, then turned left into the state park area to the Interpretive center. Right away, I noticed the borrow pits on the left side of the parking area. Today, they’re ponds or wetlands, but this is where much of the soil was carried basket-by-basket to the mounds scattered around the Cahokia complex.

Borrow pit just across the street from the Interpretive Center and parking lot
Borrow pit just across the street from the Interpretive Center and parking lot

The Interpretive Center itself was very, very well done. Lighting was great in that it wasn’t overly bright, collections were appropriately lit, and some displays had lighting that came on as you approached. I thought they worked well with my Sony DSLR. Word of caution, if you intend to photograph interpretive centers at sites like this, they don’t like you to use flash. And, to be honest, the display cases will reflect it back and ruin the shot anyway.

Interpretive Center as seen from the middle of the Grand Plaza
Interpretive Center as seen from the middle of the Grand Plaza

Right away, the visitor is greeted with a mural of the Cahokia complex and one of its signature artifacts, the Birdman Tablet found in Monks Mound and dating to about 1300 CE. This small (about 4″ x 2″ if I had to guess) sandstone tablet is the icon of the modern Cahokia park.

The Birdman Tablet, sandstone, ca. 1300 CE.
The Birdman Tablet, sandstone, ca. 1300 CE.

The people of Cahokia traded far and wide. Amazingly, only about 1% of the site has so far been excavated, but already many, many examples of trade goods from neighboring cultures. The people of this city had trade connections that reach as far north as the Great Lakes and as far south as the Gulf Coast.

Traded pottery examples
Traded pottery examples

Their own pottery, clay and stone figures, and copper goods are among the few materials that allow us to discern their past as a culture. Without written records in the way the Maya left behind,  determining things like what caused the decline and eventual abandonment of the Cahokia complex. But at its peak, the city was home to over 6,000 people, perhaps as much 40,000, and the city was situated on over 6 acres of land with at least 80 mounds, the largest being Monks Mound.

Examples of local pottery and clay figures
Examples of local pottery and clay figures above and below

 

Anthropomorphic figures and images give us much insight into how the Cahokian people may have viewed themselves and others. What sort of clothing they wore; how they sat; how they held their tools; what sorts of jewelry, decoration, or eve how they tattooed themselves.

The figurine below is often called the Birger Figurine and it shows a woman kneeling with a hoe (much like the one in the next photo down), tilling the soil. Except it isn’t soil, it’s the back of a “feline-headed serpent” with his tail splitting to reveal flowers of gourds and their fruit. This figure slowly turns in its display to show all sides and is utterly fascinating in both workmanship and style.

Anthropomorphic figure
Birger Figurine
A hoe much like the one the woman holds in the Birger Figurine
A hoe much like the one the woman holds in the Birger Figurine

The Chunkey Player Figurine was actually found in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, but it is definitely a Mississippian style figure, made in the same flint clay as others. This one is a pipe, measuring about 8.5″ tall and he’s about to roll a chunkey stone with his right hand. In his left (not shown), he’s holding two chunkey sticks. “Chunkey” was a Native American game where you rolled a stone then threw a spear to try and get close to it.

Anthropomorphic figure
Chunkey Player

The Keller Figurine, below shows a woman with a cranial deformation kneeling at a basket that may be incised to resemble ears of corn. She’s thought to be representative of fertility and farming, but it’s the cranial deformation I find interesting. Head-shaping is a practice that’s found all over the world in many, many cultures. For some it was apparently aesthetic, for others it may have been a method of showing kinship or ancestry. In other cases it may have been an indication of societal status. But for many, it was simply accidental, a result of cradle-boarding. Mothers would fasten their infants in a wooden “backpack” of sorts, with the infants’ head bound to the board for protection. Through to about age 3, children are still very much developing their cranial bones, and are very susceptible to deformation with consistent pressure.

Keller Figure
Keller Figure
Small (1-2
Small (1-2″ tall) anthropomorphic figurines

Here are a few photos of the mounds themselves. At its peak, Cahokia was the most developed, most populated urban center of the Mississippian culture. The site flourished from about 600 – 1400 CE, reaching its peak of perhaps 40,000 people in the 13th century.

A view of Monks Mound from the front
A view of Monks Mound from the front
A view of Monks Mound from the east.
A view of Monks Mound from the east.
Mound 60
Mound 60
Map of the mound complex
Map of the mound complex

I plan to post more travelogues, so if you like this one or have suggestions, let me know. ¬†Other sites I have photos of are the Etowa Mounds and Ocmulgee Mounds in Georgia, Serpent Mound in Ohio, and the Parkin Site in Arkansas. I’m hoping to visit Wycliffe Mounds in the very near future. I’d like to write travelogues like this one for each to share what I saw, promote visitation to these sites, and get the impressions of others who have visited them.

 

About Carl Feagans 330 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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