Step Back into Prehistory at Illinois' Cahokia Mounds

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

Step Back into Prehistory at Illinois' Cahokia Mounds


Byline: Mike Michaelson

Picture medieval London, England, circa A.D. 1250. Now imagine a city along the Mississippi River in what now is Illinois - a city that at its peak had a larger population than London in the Middle Ages.

That city served as the home of the American Indian tribes of the Mississippian cultural tradition who dwelled here between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1400. At its zenith, between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1200, their city sprawled over six square miles and had a population estimated at about 20,000.

Today, you'll find their culture preserved at the Cahokia Mounds, occupying the central section of this ancient community. Only 10 miles east of St. Louis, it ranks as the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico.

Step into this ancient community by visiting the state-of-the-art $8.2 million Interpretive Center completed in 1989. A 15-minute award-winning orientation video, "City of the Sun," provides an introduction to the history of Cahokia (shown hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). At the conclusion the screen raises to reveal a full-scale re-creation of one of Cahokia's ancient urban neighborhoods. It contains houses, a sweat lodge and a granary where more than a dozen mannequins represent citizens engaged in various activities. Mirrored walls reflect these images numerous times, heightening the impression of being in part of the ancient city.

These mannequins were cast from living American Indians, some of whom have been recognized by startled visitors. "It is not uncommon for a visitor to say to us, 'Hey, I know that guy,'" says William R. Iseminger, a staff archaeologist.

As you wander this ancient community, you'll see the sweat lodge where water poured over hot rocks provided steam baths for purification rituals. You'll learn of burials on blankets of 20,000 shell beads and you'll discover the game of "chunkey," popular with adults and children.

Usually, two players would compete at chunkey. One rolled a stone disk on the ground and both launched spears or other markers to a spot where they anticipated the stone would stop. Often there was much wagering on the outcome by both players and spectators. Sometimes games would last a day or more and "champions" were highly respected. Chunkey stones frequently were saved for generations as heirlooms.

Chunkey stones are among artifacts displayed in well-mounted exhibits that include dioramas, models and interesting graphics. Exhibit islands explain the government, social organization, agriculture, city planning and other facets of daily life in prehistoric Cahokia. Simulations of actual excavations are displayed. The Interpretive Center holds events throughout the year, including films, lectures and re-creations of ancient ceremonies.

More than 100 man-made earthen mounds were discovered at the site. Most of the mounds were not used for burials, but were rectangular platforms that supported important buildings, temples and residences of leaders.

The greatest of these mounds, Monks Mound, rises in four terraces to a height of 100 feet and covers more than 14 acres at its base. It ranks as the largest totally earthen prehistoric mound in the Western Hemisphere.

Excavations on the summit revealed where a huge building once stood. Archeologists believe the paramount chief lived and ruled from this spot.

Visitors who climb the 144 steps that lead to the top of Monks Mound see panoramic views of the broad, fertile Mississippi flood plain, the St. Louis skyline and the Gateway Arch shimmering on the western horizon.

You'll find three marked tour trails and a six-mile nature/culture trail. Self-guided tape tours can be taken year-round and guided tours are offered seasonally.

The site contains a reconstruction of a series of wooden sun calendars, dubbed "Woodhenge" because of their functional similarity to Stonehenge built by the Druids in ancient England.

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