Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cahokia Mounds

NOTE: This post was originally much longer, but a glitch in the system deleted it when I hit 'send', so I'm having to reconstruct this from an earlier draft

So, one of the highlights of our trip to Missouri (aside from seeing friends, enjoying the fireflies, and seeing just how much rain could fall on us in the shortest possible time) was our visit to Cahokia Mounds. This is a place I'd heard about in a vague way several years back but that had come into sharper focus on my horizon with the desultory reading I've been doing on and off about the Caddo, having all been part of the same general mound-building agrarian culture that took in most of the lower Mississippi River valley (and its tributaries). Then I saw there was quite a lot about it (and also a little about the Caddo as well, and what De Soto did to them*) in Charles Mann's 1491: NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS -- which I've still only skimmed but am v. much looking forward to reading in detail when things are a little less hectic (i.e., when multiple deadlines don't impinge). And, having made it to Toltec Mounds nr Little Rock a few years back (built by the Plum Bayou People), and the remnants of the mounds in Rockford just earlier this year,** being so close to Cahokia, the greatest of all North American mounds, was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I have to say I was impressed. I know that what survives is only about half at most of what was once there, but what survives is impressive: it's easy to forget that many of the most famous ancient monuments -- the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, Stonehenge -- are similarly ruinous. And it's impressive in itself that any of it survived, the similar Mounds in St. Louis ('Mound City') having all been destroyed in the 1870s or thereabouts.*** Even with all its structures gone, Monks Mound is huge: about a hundred feet high (almost as high as England's Silbury Hill), with two tiers, and a great view of the whole site, from 'Woodhenge' to the Great Plaza and, once upon a time, the Stockade as well. It's pretty clear that the same impulses that organized the great Mezoamerican cities was at work here as well, and that it was civilization in every sense of the term.

One good thing about visiting Cahokia is that a few days later I got to see Ka-Do-Ha village nr. Murfreesboro, which is to Cahokia as Magnolia is to St. Louis is to Magnolia: a town or village as opposed to a city, but clearly part of the same overall agrarian/moundbuilding culture. Here you could walk around the (looted) mounds (I think what you'd call 'a self-guided tour'), visit their museum room, hunt for arrowheads in the most stone-less field of red dirt I've ever seen (Janice did find one small black stone, which we carried away in triumph). But the main attraction, aside from the mounds themselves, was the museum store. I'd learned about this site from their online presence, The Caddo Trading Company. In addition to some Caddo pots, many arrowheads, and a great 'Native America Mount Rushmore', the standout items for me were two Mayan vases, both of which I'd have snatched up like a shot if I had the money to do so: beautiful.

What I did come away with, aside from memories of walking around both sites and a greater than ever appreciation of the Caddo/Mississippian farming/moundbuilding culture, were (a) books and (b) a replica of the Birdman Tablet. The books were CAHOKIA: CITY OF THE SUN and CAHOKIA MOUNDS: AMERICA'S FIRST CITY and Thames & Hudson's THE MOUNDBUILDERS on the one hand and on the other THE STORY OF THE KA-DO-HA INDIAN VILLAGE AND THE KADOHADOCHO PEOPLE (a grand name for a sixteen page pamphlet), SAM DILLINGER: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARKANSAS (about an archaeologist's struggles against the pot hunters, esp. those who looted Spiro Mound), and THE KENT AND JONNIE WESTBROOK COLLECTION (an artbook showing photos of many artifacts, mostly Caddo). So far I've only read the first items in each of these two lists, both of which suffer from state-speculation-as-fact disease, unfortunately. The tablet is a little four-inch-long piece of sandstone (nicely sized to fit in your hand) found on Monks Mound etched with the image of a bird-man (shades of Easter Isle!) that I found v. appealing.

So, I'd highly recommend a visit to Cahokia if you find yourself in the area, and I quite enjoyed Ka-Do-Ha village as well; it's a humbler site in every way, except that you can leave here with an actual artifact rather than a replica. For those who can't make the trip, here's a link to a site with some images that give a pretty good idea of the place; if you scroll down, on the right there's an image of the Birdman Tablet.

current reading: LEONARDE'S GHOST
current audiobook: PICKWICK PAPERS (resumed -- finally nearing the end)

*back in my Boy Scout days I went for a week every summer to Camp De Soto, over nr. El Dorado (appropriately enough). Looking back on it now, knowing what I now know about De Soto, I think Camp Charles Manson would have been less egregious a honorific.

**reminiscent of the all-but-obliterated mounds in one of the lakefront parks in Milwaukee and of course at Lake Lawn Lodge (now sadly defunct) in Delavan.

***I see on the map that there's also a Mound City in Illinois nr Cairo, but I gather it's on a much humbler scale.

****almost as tall as Silbury Hill, in fact. Perhaps I'll get a chance to compare

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