CAHOKIA: North America’s Largest Woodhenge & Temple Mound

CAHOKIA MOUNDS PARK

Cahokia Mounds is currently a State Historic Site. Cahokia is the area of an ancient city built around 600–1400 CE. It is near present day Collinsville, Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.

The Cahokia Mounds were named after a clan of historic Illiniwek people living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the 17th century. As this was centuries after Cahokia was abandoned by its original inhabitants, the Cahokia were not necessarily descendants of the original Mississippian people. The city’s original name is unknown.

The 2,200 acre site originally included 120 man-made earthwork mounds over an area of six square miles, although only 80 survive. Cahokia Mounds is the largest archaeological site related to the Mississippian Late Woodland culture, which developed advanced societies in North America, centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

It is a National Historic Landmark and designated site for state protection. In addition, it is one of only twenty UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the territory of the United States. It is the largest American Indian earthen construction in the Americas north of Mexico.

They used woven baskets to move most of the earth to build the mounds and plazas. In every culture there are usual social, political, spiritual, and defense reasons to place buildings on raised bases. In the case of Cahokia, there is an added reason: the site is on a flood plain near the Mississippi River.

Monks Mound

Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city. It is a massive mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 92 feet high, 951 feet long and 836 feet wide.

Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple used by the Chief and shaman for residence and public functions. This building was about 105 feet long and 48 feet wide, and could have been as much as 50 feet high. It was about 5,000 square feet.

Cahokia Woodhenge

This woodhenge, like others found in Europe, was a circle of posts used for cosmic alignments relevant to agriculture. It stood to the west of Monk’s Mound. Archaeologists discovered Woodhenge during excavation, and noted that the placement of posts marked solstices and equinoxes. Woodhenge was rebuilt several times during the urban center’s roughly 300-year history. There were probably other woodhenges in America over the centuries, as one was discovered near Mound 72, south of Monks Mound.

A beaker found in a pit near the winter solstice post bore a circle and cross symbol that for many Native Americans symbolizes the Earth and the four cardinal directions. Radiating lines probably symbolized the sun, as they have in countless other civilizations. During excavation of Mound 72, archaeologists found a birdman burial for a leader, and 250 other skeletons from around 1000 CE. Other mounds had workshops for copper smiting and trading.

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