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Ionarts at Cahokia

Well, I was driving right by it on the way to see Gloriana (see my review), so I had to stop at Cahokia Mounds State Park, on a day that was, as the admirable saying goes, hotter than the hinges of hell. This is the North American version of Teotihuacan (which Mark visited last year in Mexico), the site of a massive holy city, with temporary dwellings clustered around a series of sacred mounds. At the Visitors’ Center, there is a model of what the entire site looks like, as well as a painted image attempting to reconstruct what Cahokia may have been like when it was still functioning (shown here). The date when most of Cahokia was built makes it approximately contemporary with the height of the Carolingian and Romanesque eras of church construction in Europe. Americans tend to feel like a people without deep historical routes, but that is only because we have forgotten, at best—and intentionally obliterated, at worst—the history of what was here before Europeans arrived. The conquerors of North America may not have been as sensationally vicious as Cortés and Pizarro in their single-minded destruction of non-Christian sites, but the ultimate effect has been much the same. In spite of having heard regularly about Native Americans as a schoolboy, I have no recollection of ever learning about Cahokia or similar sites in North America.

The largest of the structures at Cahokia, now known as Monks Mound, dominated the city, an earthen pyramid fashioned by people carrying dirt in baskets to cover a mound that is 14 acres at its base and rises far into the air, shaped into what looked like a stepped pyramid or ziggurat, just not made of stone. What I did not know about the site was that this main mound is only one of over 100 such mounds. You can also see a henge, with wooden trunks staked in a perfect circle around a central trunk for use as an astronomical calendar. (This site was established and then rebuilt numerous times over the centuries.) As my visit nearly coincided with the summer solstice, the henge was lined up with the sun’s smoldering descent as I peered at it from the top of Monks Mound. The later towers to the American gods, the Gateway Arch and the skyscrapers of modern St. Louis, were visible in a view made slightly less spectacular by the haze of heat and pollution. The area around old Cahokia is less than savory, as I discovered. Right next to the Cahokia park, just behind where I took these photographs, is the most unseemly of sites, a garbage dump. That such things would one day be visible all around—the interstates cutting through the countryside, a bustling metropolis in the polluted distance, the silvery rainbow of the arch—could surely not have been conceived by the people who put their sweat to raise this mound toward the sky.

The Cahokia flea started itching in my ear when I posted about the exhibit of Woodlands and Mississippian artifacts that is coming to Washington next month. Cahokia had been mostly abandoned when Europeans began to settle this area, but French Jesuits did discover a few Native Americans living at the site, in a community nestled on the first terrace of Monks Mound. (This situation is true of Teotihuacan also, a city built by a lost culture, which was then assimilated and protected by later cultures.) Out of concern for their souls, les pères built a little Catholic chapel in the early 18th century and converted many of them. The remains of these last residents were excavated from the little cemetery by the chapel. Most of the mounds on the site were razed as farming and industry took hold (the same is true of the glorious Cistercian monasteries of Yorkshire, for example, used as stone quarries after the Anglicans closed them all and stole their land), but Monks Mound was so large that the basic outline of its imposing shape has been preserved. It is well worth a visit if you are in or near St. Louis.

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