After realizing that I had done nothing remotely interesting enough to blog about in the month of May, I decided that I couldn’t waste my entire summer in the same fashion. Since I’m not planning on any big trips in the near future, it seems only logical for me to focus on locations and sights nearby in both Illinois and Missouri. So with that plan in mind, I began a list of anything remotely interesting enough to fill my free time with, and set out the very next day to bring you my first local adventure… Cahokia Mounds.
Having grown up just a stones throw from the Native American sight, which sits just outside of Collinsville, IL., I took many a field trip to this ancient city in my elementary school days but haven’t been in close to 15-20 years. Since I seem to have retained nothing from my previous trips as a child, I was surprised to learn that the community at Cahokia mounds was larger than the city of London in 1250, and that until 1800 it was also the largest city in the United States. The sight is the largest prehistoric Indian center north of Mexico, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982. It is also listed as a National Historic Landmark, but still hasn’t been turned into a national park.
I arrived at Cahokia mounds mid afternoon in the sweltering heat, and headed for the interpretative center to learn more about the mounds I would be seeing. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged, and the center is currently being updated so a few of the exhibits are in disarray. The work taking place seems to be minor and did nothing to hinder my experience or distract from the exhibits. There’s even a mock village set up in the center of the museum that depicts the day-to-day life of the ancient people who once called Cahokia home.
Walking through the small, yet informative exhibits I learned all about the diet, weapons, and tools the Native Americans used, and began to understand a little about the many uses of the mounds. Some were used for burial purposes, and tend to be smaller and lower to the ground, while others are thought to be workshops for tools, weapon, and jewelry making. The main mound at Cahokia, named Monks Mound for the Trappist Monks that lived on a nearby mound for a short period of time, is most likely where the ruler of the city lived, and is also thought to have played host to special events and rituals. Today it’s the only mound you’re allowed to climb.
With a brain full of facts, I set off to do some walking. If you’re planning a visit to Cahokia Mounds, be sure to wear comfortable shoes, apply plenty of sun screen/bug spray, and pack a few bottles of water to keep you hydrated. The paths are long and winding, often broken, and on occasion lead you to back-wooded areas that make you feel as if you’ve somehow wandered off course and found yourself on private property. Along the way you’ll pass many mounds, a few remaining sections of the stockade that once encircled the community at Cahokia Mounds, and if you’re lucky like me you might even see a man doing push-ups on a bench…
The unfortunate thing about Cahokia Mounds is that many of the 120 mounds that had been discovered and documented are now gone. Some were bulldozed by the state in the 1960’s to build a highway, some are now part of nearby farm land, and others were simply destroyed over time by modern construction. In total 70 or 80 mounds (I’ve read articles with both numbers) still stand today and are being preserved thanks to the history they contain.
As you traverse the large plot of land containing the preserved mounds, you begin to understand exactly how large the community that resided here must have been. You’ll also realize that the state of Illinois did little to protect the site over the years as you listen to the traffic from 2 local highways, and watch cars zoom by on the road built right smack between monks mound and the majority of the other mounds on the opposite side.
Because of this “modern convenience”, I recommend driving from the interpretive center to both Monks Mound and Woodhenge down the road. It’s safer than dodging the traffic that doesn’t seem to slow down in the 45-50 mph zone. So following my own advice, I lazily drove across the street and parked to begin my ascent of Monks Mound.
Unlike every sight in Asia I visited, these steps were made for average people and are a lot easier to climb up. It takes only a few minutes to reach the top of Monks Mound, and the reward is well worth the effort. On a clear day, if you look South-West you’ll be treated to a fabulous view of the St. Louis skyline.
Unfortunately, other than a few plaques detailing some relevant information about the mound, the view of downtown St. Louis is really the only thing worth sticking around to look at. You can see the mounds on the other side of the street or one of the many local factories/refineries smogging up the air, but neither really seemed all that fascinating in the mid afternoon heat, so I headed back down to my car and drove to the next item on the list.
About a mile from Monks Mound stands something named Woodhenge. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and is thought to be a living calendar to mark the changing seasons. When it’s three circles were originally discovered, there was nothing standing apart from broken bits of wood and hollowed out areas indicating a pattern. In 1985 the third circle was replicated and is still standing today in place of the original. It is a sight to behold as you consider the man power and observation needed to construct it, and was actually saved from the highway construction in the 1960’s that claimed multiple mounds nearby. Luckily, the only concrete nearby is surrounding a plaque near the center post, serving as a reminder to all who visit that they’re lucky to be standing amid a circle of wooden posts.