COLLINSVILLE, Illinois– With both the Winter Solstice and the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn just days away, this reporter had a good feeling that people would be congregating on December 21st at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, just south of Collinsville, Illinois – social distancing, of course.
After all, upon arrival at this remarkable, prehistoric Indian mound site – the largest north of Mexico –which included at least 120 mounds on approximately 4,000 acres at its peak 1,000 years ago, one has to ignore the surrounding decay and trailer-park ugliness of the surrounding rural/suburban blight (out of sight of Collinsville’s “World’s Largest Catsup Bottle,” sadly) and embrace the power and majesty of a place – a city, really – that is believed to have rivaled Lon-don at that time in terms of population, which was over 10,000. Of course, this was centuries before the Native American peoples would even have contact with Europeans.
Specifically, Cahokia is believed to have been the largest and most influential urban settlement of what was the Mississippian culture of Woodland Indians (Middle Mississippian), between the years 700 and 1400 C.E. At its height, in the year 1050, Cahokia, which is just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, the area was considered a “regional center” with connections to mound-linked communities in what is now Moundville (South Appalachian Mississippian) in Alabama and the Spiro Mounds (Caddoan Mississippian) in eastern Oklahoma, both of which are protected sites.
In my recent review of Prof. David La Vere’s book Looting Spiro Mounds, a detailed account of the Caddoan Spiro Indian people who lived at the Spiro Mounds location but traded far afield, we learn of what the Spiro traders had and traded for.
Alas, many items were looted during the Great Depression, but Spiro is now a protected state site not far from Poteau.
As I wrote in my review of La Vere’s book: “Study of many of the artifacts led to fascinating discoveries for the scientists. For instance, some seashells believed to have come from as far away as the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico, indicating the Spiro had a broad trade network throughout the Southeast and South-west regions. Spiro, we are learning was a real hub for the Southern Plains and the western edge of the Ozark and Ouachita mountain regions. Why the Spiro peoples vacated the area hundreds of years ago is an ongoing mystery, notes the author.”
Both Spiro and Cahokia seemed to face a decline at the same time, although the reasons are not entirely clear. The Illinois authorities note that by the mid-1300s, Cahokia was largely abandoned, a mere shell of its former glory. “Depletion of resources, climate change, extended droughts, changes to political and economic power, and disease likely were all contributing factors to its demise.” A cautionary tale for any civilization, it would seem.
Cahokia - which was made a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 –was centered around Monks Mound, the tallest and largest mound on the site, containing an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth, while covering 14 acres and reaching a height of 100 feet.
Named Monks Mound for the French Trappist monks who lived there for a time, excavations on Monks Mound seem to reveal that a large building, likely for a chief, was on top of the mound, which was built over the course of many years.
The purposes of the mounds – over 100 have been found, with 68 on the historic site – is not always clear. However, the excavation of “Mound 72” revealed that it was a burial mound. For instance, a man believed to have been a Cahokian ruler was found buried in the mound on a bed of shells formed in the shape of a falcon. This “birdman” iconography is important in Mississippian artwork. Additionally, the arrowheads found were said to be from different areas of North America, which, like Spiro Mounds, indicates that their trading area was far and wide.
Grim discoveries were also made in Mound 72. It appears that many young women and some young men were sacrificed and buried in this mound, with evidence showing that some were even buried alive. The mound itself– which originally had been a series of smaller mounds –was aligned for the solstice, researchers discovered.
Like England’s Stone henge, but constructed of large, evenly spaced cedar poles, excavations revealed that Cahokia had “five circular sun calendars, called Woodhenges, used to determine the changing seasons and ceremonial dates,” according to the Cahokia State Historic Site website.
The circle of wooden posts was believed to have been crafted in the 12th century C.E. and, the historians write, “were an impressive example of science and engineering.” The posts, in many instances, align perfectly with the rising sun on the Spring equinoxes and Summer and Winter solstices. At the historic site today, as I learned, Woodhenge was reconstructed with 48 wooden posts making up a 410-foot diameter circle.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources usually organizes equinox and solstice observances but does not lead any ritualistic ceremonies out of respect for Native American beliefs. Of course, that does not mean that while the museum and interpretive center are closed, private individuals cannot have their own private rituals and ceremonies at this sacred spot.
Yes, on this particular visit, the buildings at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site were closed due to COVID-19, but that did not mean folks could not climb the 156 steps to the top of Monks Mound. From there, you can see the skyline of St. Louis in the distance, including the dramatic Gateway Arch.
MONKS MOUND MADNESS
Climbing it on a cold and windy December day, one can sense something different in the air. It is hard to describe, but just as some of the mounds at Spiro have a “spiritual” quality and an accompanying “high strangeness” factor, Cahokia’s Monks Mound seems to as well. In fact, those Trappist Monks who occupied the mound in the very early 19th century are said to have “gone mad” and eventually fled the mound in terror. Considering all of the violent deaths linked to the mounds, perhaps they tapped into something as well.
Simply consider that Monks Mound, at its base of 14 acres, is slightly larger than Egypt’s Great Pyramid and Monks Mound is not so dissimilar from the Meso- American step-pyramids of Mexico. One can presume that the connections between these remarkable man-made mounds- in Illinois, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio, etc. - and pyramids of Mexico, Egypt and beyond, are numerous.
On top of Monks Mound, it is from this vantage point that visitors can see the stockade, where sentries stood guard to protect the city, as well as other mounds that are on the site.
According to the Belleville News-Democrat, Cahokia covered nearly 6 square miles and researchers believe its Native American population peaked at 10,000 to 20,000 people.
Further afield, on the site, was a “Grand Plaza” where public gatherings and ceremonies took place.
ANCIENT MYSTERIES REVEALED
So, with all of this talk about ancient mounds and mound builders here in North America, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City is going to bring Spiro Mounds to their NW 63rd Street museum beginning on Feb. 12, 2021.
As Natalie Shirley, president and CEO of the museum noted in a press release, “After nearly a decade of toil by the Museum and Curator of Ethnology Eric Singleton, Ph.D., the exhibition “Spiro and the Art of the Mississippian World” opens to the public February 12 and con The Spiro Exhibition upends common misconceptions about life in North America prior to contact with Europeans.”
Shirley said that the museum worked in collaboration with the Caddo Nation, Wichita, and Affiliated Tribes and “scholars from a dozen universities and museums” who worked to make this exhibit a “cultural milestone for this institution.”
And the artifacts on display will be many, Shirley explains. “These artifacts reveal a direct through-line from the Mississippians’ spiritual and artistic beliefs to those held by their descendants today, including the Caddo, Wichita, Pawnee, Osage, Lakota, Chickasaw, Cherokee Muscogee (Creek) and countless other Native communities.”
Southwest Ledger will be attending the opening of the Spiro exhibit and will have a full report on it in February. For more information, go to nationalcowboymuseum.org.