Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

By UNESCO World Heritage

Constructing Woodhenge painting by Lloyd K. Townsend (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The remains of the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico

Cahokia Mounds, some 13 km north-east of St Louis, Missouri, is the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. It was occupied primarily during the Mississippian period (800–1400), when it covered nearly 1,600 ha and included some 120 mounds.

It is a striking example of a complex chiefdom society, with many satellite mound centres and numerous outlying hamlets and villages. This agricultural society may have had a population of 10–20,000 at its peak between 1050 and 1150. Primary features at the site include Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, covering over 5 ha and standing 30 m high.

Monks Mound (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Monks Mound, the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas. Rectangular in form, it contains an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth. All of this soil was dug by hand and carried using baskets and bags filled with approximately 40 pounds of soil. The base covers more than 14 acres, and it rises to a height of 100 feet. Today it consists of four terraces, each with its own characteristics and history.

A massive building once stood on the summit where the principal chief would live, conduct ceremonies and govern. Visitors can walk up the 156 steps leading to the top. From there, the Grand Plaza and Twin Mounds would be in view, as well as the city of St. Louis in the distance to the west.

Cahokia Mounds as painted by William Iseminger (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Dating from the Mississippian period (800–1350 at this site), Cahokia Mounds is the largest pre-Columbian archaeological site north of Mexico; it is also the earliest of the large Mississippian settlements. It is the pre-eminent example of a cultural, religious and economic center of the prehistoric Mississippian cultural tradition.

Twin Mounds (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Around the Cahokia site there are a number of paired mounds that consist of a rectangular platform mound and a conical mound. The largest pair, called the “Twin Mounds,” are at the south end of the Grand Plaza opposite Monks Mound. These two mounds are built upon a shared earthen platform. It is suggested that these mounds might be part of a mortuary complex and that a structure on top of the platform mound was probably a charnel house where the bodies of deceased were stored or prepared for burial, perhaps in the adjacent conical mound. There are four sets of these paired mounds on the site, each with different dimensions.

Image of the reconstructed Woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Mississippian buildings were of pole and thatch construction. A framework of wooden poles was first set into a two to three-foot dug trench. The trench was then filled in and the poles lashed together with saplings.

Painting of Mississippian house construction. (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The interior and sometimes exterior walls were either covered with layers of woven mats or were plastered with a mixture of clay and grass (daub). Bundles of prairie grass thatching covered the roofs. Most dwellings housed single families and averaged 12 X 18 feet. Other structures included council lodges, communal buildings and grain storage. Those on top of mounds were ceremonial structures or homes of the elite and rulers. Small circular structures have been found at Cahokia Mounds that were likely sweat lodges.

Stockade Stockade (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

In the late 1100s, the Stockade, a defensive feature was built around the central precinct of the site, enclosing Monks Mound, the Grand Plaza and 17 other mounds. It was about 3 218 m long with regularly-spaced bastions (guard towers), approximately 27 meters apart.

Stockade Four styles of Guard Towers (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Here you can find four styles of Guard Towers.

Map of the distributions of mounds at Cahokia (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Cahokia has the largest concentration of mounds of any Mississippian site. There were about 120 mounds over an area of nearly six square miles. Though the site was dynamic and changed over time, the general configuration of the site remained. The largest concentration of mounds is around Monks Mound, marking the center of the site. Small clusters of mounds are found at each of the corners of the site. In this map, you can see how mounds were grouped together and their orientations, as well as the overall plan of the site.

Interpretive Center (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Interpretive Center and Gallery

The Interpretive Center uses a full range of contemporary museum display techniques to tell the story of the Mississippians who lived here about 1,000 years ago. A large-scale model shows the principal known features of ancient Cahokia and an observation window offers a panoramic view of the immense Monks Mound just north of the Interpretive Center. The gallery is a series of exhibit islands, exploring in detail different aspects of Cahokia’s prehistory.

An award-winning orientation film provides a 17-minute summary of the ancient site and its people. Two new exhibits: Wetlands and Waterways: The Key to Cahokia and the Dugout Canoe exhibit, interpret the rich resources available at this location and how the Mississippians utilized them, ultimately facilitating a complex community.

Life-sized village scene from diorama (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Visitors emerge from the orientation theater, and its award-winning multimedia show, into a spectacular mirrored re-creation of a Cahokian neighborhood in AD 1150. Mannequins cast from living Native Americans depict typical activities of daily life from grinding corn and making projectile points to passing an afternoon in the sweat lodge.

Gallery view of exhibit islands (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The Interpretive Center gallery features 7 exhibit islands. Each explores a different topic relating to the Mississippian culture or the Cahokians who lived here 1,000 years ago. In addition to the Culture Island shown above, the gallery exhibit islands explore products, life, structures, city, time and archaeology.

Mississippian artifacts (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

To make products of everyday life, as well as special use items, Cahokians utilized plant, animal and mineral resources that were available to them in the region, as well as materials that were acquired from farther distances through trade.

Birdman Tablet Front of the Birdman Tablet (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The Birdman Tablet, approximately 4 inches high and 2 ½ inches wide, was found in excavations of the East Lobe of Monks Mound in 1971. This sandstone tablet depicts a man with a bird-like mask and winged costume in a dance pose, a common form of bird-man symbolism in the Mississippian culture.

Birdman Tablet Back of the Birdman Tablet (1982) by Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The reverse side of the Tablet is engraved with diagonal crosshatching, which may represent snake skin; thus, creatures of the Cahokian upper world, this world and the lowerworld are united on this tablet, reflecting the Mississippian cosmology. This iconic image is the logo of Cahokia Mounds.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau;

More on the Cahokia Mounds and World Heritage:

Photos: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; Mtchell Phelps; Pete Bostrom; Daniel Seurer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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