Illinois Mounds Tell of Lost Indian City
Jones, Ron, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
At the end of the 12th century, as England's Richard the Lion-Hearted died and construction started on Chartres Cathedral in France, "the City of the Sun" was more populous than London or Paris. It covered more than five square miles, stretching from the urban center to the suburbs and surrounding farmland.
It stood in the Mississippi River bottomland of what today is southern Illinois.
What was it called? What did the people who built it call themselves? We don't know. These pre-European urban Americans seem to have had no system of writing, and by 1400, they were gone and their city was empty.
All they left behind are the man-made mounds of earth at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, about eight miles east of St. Louis - a city that did not match the vanished urban center's peak population of 20,000 until the early 1840s.
The city now known as Cahokia was founded about A.D. 700, according to information from archaeological digs. It reached it zenith between 1050 and 1150 and was the largest pre-European city north of Mexico.
Its inhabitants "were a unique people" compared to other American Indians of the time, says Keith Lynn, a volunteer guide at the historic site. While the surrounding tribes consisted of nomadic hunters, these people enjoyed an urban life with a stable agricultural economy.
The 2,200-acre historic site preserves the central part of the city, which contained a 40-acre Grand Plaza, a sun calendar called a Woodhenge, numerous mounds and a two-mile wooden stockade that apparently separated the elite from the lower classes.
The majority of the mounds built by these American Indians || whom archaeologists call Mississippians - were rectangular platforms. On top of them were the large houses of the nobility, the temples and other major buildings. Important ceremonies also were held on these earthworks. The other mounds were conical or ridge-top in shape. They served either as official markers or burial spots for the elite and their servants.
Because of natural erosion and the construction of modern farms, homes and roadways, only 75 of the 120 original mounds remain today. Sixty-eight of those 75 are preserved within the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
The most impressive of these earthworks is called Monks Mound. It was named for French Trappist monks who lived there in the early 1800s.
Archaeologists say it is the largest pre-European earthwork in the Western Hemisphere. The four-terrace structure looms over the flat Illinois plains. Monks Mound contains more than 22 million cubic feet of earth, covers 14 acres at its base and is 100 feet tall.
The Mississippians had neither the wheel nor any domesticated animals except for dogs, so the workers probably had to carry the dirt and stones in baskets on their backs to build the mound.
"Excavations reveal that a massive ceremonial building, probably a temple or palace, stood on the highest terrace . . .," Claudia Gellman Mink wrote in "Cahokia: City of the Sun."
"There, the chief and his priests probably performed religious rituals and administered duties, surveyed their domain, and greeted emissaries from the hinterlands," she wrote.
"There is evidence that Cahokia was a theocratic chieftainship: that is, governed by a leader who claimed divine power" and who was called "the `Great Sun' in later Mississippian culture," according to Miss Mink. Some call Cahokia "the City of the Sun" because of artifacts bearing sun symbolism, sun calendars such as Woodhenge and the theory that sun worship was practiced.
Monks Mound, the Grand Plaza and other structures in the central part of the city were surrounded by the wooden stockade, which was built between 1150 and 1200. The 12- to 15-foot wall probably served as a defense against enemies and as a way to segregate the lower classes from the nobility. …