Friday, June 10, 2011

Cahokia, Native American Urban Center on the Mississippi

 The Mississippian center of Cahokia, in Illinois across the Mississippi from St. Louis, is one of the great cities of the ancient world. I have a special reason for discussing Cahokia now: there is a challenge taking place to raise funds to help preserve the site. This is the "This Place Matters Community Challenge,"  a contest presented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The top three sites will receive a cash prize to help preserve their site.  The challenge hopes to "highlight the important role that historic buildings and properties play in preserving our national heritage as well as in preserving our environment." While I don't want to belittle the other historical structures and districts that are participating, in my mind none of them is anywhere close to Cahokia in its world importance. Please go to the website and cast your vote for Cahokia. And here are some reasons why you should do that.

Monk's mound, home of the chief

  • Of all the known traditions of ancient urbanism around the world, the Mississippian cities are among the most poorly known. Their builders used earth instead of stone for their monuments, many of which have not survived well. There is a long-standing bias against recognizing the achievements of Native Americans and their ancestors, part of which is a common attitude that they built only ceremonial centers, not true cities. Yet Cahokia and many other Mississippian centers can easily be classified as "urban."
  • Arrow points from elite burials
  • If one takes the demographic approach to defining urbanism, the 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants of Cahokia and their economic and political complexity classify it as a city. And if one takes the functional definition of urbanism, the political, religious, and economic activities at the city served larger hinterlands, thus putting Cahokia into the category of a city. (See my earlier discussion of definitions of urbanism here).

  • The chiefs or kings of Cahokia were powerful rulers. The size of their main palace, Monk's Mound is evidence of this, and rich burials point to an elite class as well (see the photo of hundreds of  
    Excavation of the palisade 
    arrow points from elite burial offerings). Warfare was common during Mississippian times, and a large palisade was built around the center of the city (photo).
  • Stone drills and shell ornaments
    This was a complex economy. Imports from all over eastern North America have been excavated at Cahokia, and goods and styles from the city were found hundreds of miles away. Craft production was both an economic force and an aesthetic activity. The photo shows hundreds of chipped stone drills, used to manufacture beads and other ornaments from stone.
  • The Birger figurine
  • The people of Cahokia had a rich religious life, with many family-level and city-level ceremonies. One important find was this stone figure of a woman cultivating crops, with a squash vine running up her back. It is known as the "Birger figurine" after the owner of the property where it wasexcavated. It is from the "BBB Motors site" just east of Cahokia proper, a village associated with Cahokia. This is a special site to me, since this is where I had my archaeological fieldschool with Chuck Bareis back in the 1970s. We didn't find the figurine, though. We excavated a bunch of test pits, and later the plow zone was stripped off with heavy machinery (and they found the figurine).
  • The "woodhenge"
  • Another type of ceremony focused on astronomical observations. Cahokia's priest-scientists built the "woodhenge", a circular arrangement of poles used for sighting sunrise and sunset on important annual dates. Like so many intellectual activities in ancient cultures, this was part science, part ritual, and part politics.

    From the perspective of the Wide Urban World, Cahokia presents an important addition to the roster of urban forms around the world. It was a city by any definition, but a distinctive city from a tradition of urbanism that is not widely known or appreciated. The site needs better preservation today, and you can help by following the links to the contest.


    Finally, here is what the Cahokia Mounds people have to say about why you should vote for Cahokia:
    This place matters to our community because it is a place that preserves the cultural and historical remains of this 1000 year-old economic, residential, and religious center of Mississippian culture. Cahokia was the center of a large metropolitan complex that included four other major mound centers, a number of single-mound local centers, and numerous small villages, hamlets and farmsteads.  Evidence of Cahokia's influence has been found as far away as Minnesota, Florida, Oklahoma, and Georgia.  The state property preserves the central portion of the site, but about 1/3 of the original city lies outside of this boundary and is threatened by contemporary activities.  Funds are needed to acquire and preserve these threatened areas.   Our community stands to lose much information about America's first city if 1/3 of the site is destroyed.  Not only does this site preserve and interpret Mississippian culture for our community, the nation, and the world, but it also fosters a sense of preservation and prehistoric appreciation, educates on the science of archaeology, and the achievements of ancient Native Americans. This place matters to all Americans, and is a pivotal point in American History that deserves to be shared.
    Again, click here for the link to the contest

    To read more about Cahokia, try some of these works:

    Emerson, Thomas E.
    1997    Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

    Fowler, Melvin L.
    1989    The Cahokia Atlas: A Historical Atlas of Cahokia Archaeology. Studies in Illinois Archaeology. Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, Springfield.

    Iseminger, William R.
    1996    Mighty Cahokia. Archaeology 49(3):30-37.

    Milner, George R.
    1998    The Cahokia Chiefdom. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

    Pauketat, Timothy R.
    2009    Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi. Viking, New York.

    Young, Biloine Whiting and Melvin L. Fowler
    2000    Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

    Also, check out the website for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

    I want to thank Elyse Butler, a Graduate Research Assistant at Cahokia Mounds, for bringing the contest to my attention, and for supplying the text quoted above.