Cahokia was one of the target destinations for our trip down south this last weekend – it may be the largest North American UNESCO World Heritage site you’ve never heard of.
Once the largest pre-conquest settlement north of Mexico City, covering 2,200 acres today and sheltering anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 people, the remains of Cahokia are today surrounded by Collinsville, a sleepy little town just east of St. Louis, whose scraggly little highway bisects the site.
Main attractions? Mounds. And plazas. And a well-intentioned interpretive center that went to town on their wide entry doors, devising a impenetrable bas-relief tableau in some kind of heavy metal that’s difficult to move, intended I’m sure, to rival Rodin’s Gates of Hell (doesn’t, but you’ve gotta appreciate the intent), and must be hell on the wheelchair bound (I had trouble moving them, and didn’t see an easy open switch, although there must have been one in the vicinity. There was a ramp out the back way – let’s hope that’s not the only accessible entrance.)
And let’s not forget the Woodhenge: “You know: like Stonehenge” said the sweet matron who oriented us to the site. Circular, yes; oriented to sun’s path through the sky, yes; massive and monumental like Stonehenge? Well, no. Lovely slim posts where the stones might otherwise be. But sweet. And close to home. 10 points.
And evidence of human sacrifice in some of the excavated mounds: that’s worth about 25 points. (Here’s a tip for you when you go: the round mounds? Contain bodies and stuff. The squared off mounds? Platforms mostly, for strutting and alpha-dog purposes.)
Monk’s Mound is the star attraction and it’s immense – a thigh aching climb, it exceeds El Castillo of Chichen Itza in Mexico at 100 feet high. But unlike the Mayan pyramids, which are built of stone and plastered over, this is a dirt mound, which requires a big broad base and makes the whole thing seem squatter than the pyramids down south.
Until you start climbing, of course. Ouch.
Also of interest: the wooden palisade that once skirted the perimeter of the site, and has been reconstructed in bits and pieces to demonstrate its girth and construction. While we were there some folks were excavating what they believed was one of the far corners, just turning the bend. The students were friendly and informative and pulled back plastic tarps to show us the soil stains (those dark impressions left behind by what once was) where the palisade once stood.
All good. Although my evaluation may be biased by my fondness for things pyramidal and plaza-like. There’s a sense of space and proportionality at Cahokia that is not unlike Maya site configurations and seems to suggest a kinship with the Central American sites. All in all a fine place for a picnic.
And all those mounds – an artificial mountain each, built up by the careful attentions of so many hands – made me feel a little less lonely, as a transplanted Rocky Mountain girl, to know that I’m not only one on these wide open flatlands who aches for the embrace that only altitude can give.