Interesting Places to Visit, Little-Known History
Cahokia Mounds, an Ancient Native American City (Collinsville, Illinois)
By Phil Dotree — April 16, 2011
Cahokia Mounds isn’t the most visible landmark around St. Louis, Missouri.
Located on the Illinois side of the river in Collinsville, about 10 to 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis, the archaeological site is easy to miss. It’s not as big of a tourist destination as monuments like the Gateway Arch and some visitors to the area skip the mounds entirely.
Monk's Mound is the largest man-made earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Those visitors miss out on one of the most fantastic attractions in the Midwest. The Cahokia Mounds are, in a way, a much greater example of human ambition and the Westward expansion of civilization than is the Arch, and it’s certainly a worthwhile place to spend a few hours regardless of whether or not a visitor has a specific interest in archaeology.
What Are The Cahokia Mounds?
The mounds at Cahokia were once the site of a major Native American city, with permanent settlements beginning around A.D. 700. Around 1050–1150, it’s estimated that the settlement held from 10-20,000 people—more than London at the time.
front View of monk's mound at cahokia mounds, Collinsville, Illinois. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Cahokia mound site is often compared to the Egyptian pyramids due to the shape of the earthen mounds and archaeological significance. Some of the mounds were also used for burials, although their primary purpose was to elevate important buildings in the city.
Around the year A.D. 1400, the Cahokia Mounds were abandoned, probably due to gradually diminished agricultural productivity in the area. The mounds now offer key insights into the civilization that occupied them—and an important historical landmark for visitors.
The view to the west from the top of Monk's mound in Illinois. Note Saint Louis skyline in the distance and the St. Louis gateway arch. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Interpretive Center
There’s plenty of parking space at the Cahokia Mounds interpretive center, which is where visitors arrive and hopefully get a bit of a historical background on the mounds and the ancient Mississippian civilization before heading off to the mounds themselves.
The Interpretive Center is free to the public and features a large, extremely informative museum that realistically shows the lives of the ancient civilization. Displays show how axes were carved, how American Indians farmed, and give a better perspective on the immense size of the ancient city. Life sized models of American Indians are immaculately detailed to completely immerse visitors with scenes of hunting, agriculture, and the daily life of the ancient Mississippians.
In the interpretive center at Cahokia mounds, lifelike models show how American Indians lived in the ancient city. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There are also plenty of friendly archaeologists and museum staff in the Interpretive Center who offer insight into the various exhibits. It’s an exciting museum for children and adults alike, and it’s clear that a lot of time and care went into it. Every visitor absolutely needs to stop by the Interpretive Center before heading out to experience the rest of the site. It’s simply the best way to get a sense of what makes the Cahokia Mounds so interesting and exciting.
The Interpretive Center also has a gift shop, which offers audio tours via iPod Touch and tape as well as books and various gifts related to the Cahokia Mounds and its former inhabitants such as American Indian jewelry and crafts.
A portion of the rebuilt stockades at cahokia mounds, illinois. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
After leaving the Interpretive Center, most visitors make a beeline for Mound 48, better known as Monk’s Mound, which is the most famous and accessible of the over 120 mounds on the five-mile Cahokia site. Monk’s Mound has two large sets of steps. It’s the only mound that visitors are allowed to climb.
Monk’s Mound is a very tall and awe-inspiring structure—while some of the mounds seem like, well, just mounds, Monk’s Mound feels like more of a retreat to ancient times. It got its name from some French priests who built a chapel on it in the 1700s. They experienced illness and other problems and retreated back to France, but the local moniker of Monks Mound stuck and is still used to identify this enormous mound.
A model at the interpretive center at the cahokia mounds site depicting monk's mound and the structures you would have seen on it about 1000 years ago . (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Monk’s Mound is comprised of four terraces rising over 100 feet. It’s the largest completely earthen mound in the Western Hemisphere and offers a tremendous view for anyone who can make the climb. St. Louis is visible from the top of the mound on a clear day along with the rest of the Cahokia site, including rebuilt portions of wooden stockade walls which were used in times of warfare.
Trails Surrounding Cahokia Mounds
Signs throughout Cahokia Mounds give a few simple rules for visitors: Dogs are to be kept on leashes and cleaned up after and littering is certainly illegal. Many signs display a small blue box which reads, “This site and its mounds are sacred to American Indians. Please treat them with respect.”
Paths and walkways guide visitors among the various attractions and around the top of Monk's Mound at the cahokia mounds site near collinsville, illinois. Note the stone plaques along the path and the mound in the backround at left. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Visitors walk around the mounds on three marked trails. Plaques in the grass explain the significance of each mound. Some mounds were used for burials, some give archaeologists clear signs of the types of buildings that were constructed on them, and some are more mysterious. The mounds themselves vary greatly in size, but walking along the trails is interesting in and of itself. However, visitors should bring a water bottle on a hot day—there’s very little shade on the main trails.
A nature trail known as Volksmarch also extends around part of the site. The Volksmarch is a 10k trail designed for hiking and biking and provides a great experience for more adventurous families and wildlife lovers.
A view of the reconstructed Woodhenge, originally used to determine periodic equinox and solstice celebrations. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
One of the most interesting sites at Cahokia Mounds is Woodhenge, a circle of red cedar posts reconstructed on the basis of archaeological evidence. Woodhenge was an early sun calendar and indicated important dates to American Indians such as the equinoxes.
Solstice celebrations are held at Woodhenge every year to show how the sun’s location aligned with certain poles. There’s evidence that Woodhenge was rebuilt at least several times, although the reasons for the rebuilding aren’t clear.
One of the smaller mounds just outside of the interpretive center at the cahokia mounds site. The plaque before it reads: “Excavations into Mound 55 (Murdock Mound) took place in 1941, when about nine feet of the mound still remained, as it had been plowed over. Several pre-mound structures were found, one a large circular building, and another a rare cross-shaped building, showing this area had ritual use before the mound was built. the mound was built in several stages with a lower terrace extending towards the Grand Plaza and a building on the summit and fences around the edges. It was coated with black clay and could have been as much as 30 feet tall. It has been reconstructed in the original location.” (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Even without the signs that frequently remind visitors that they’re on sacred ground, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of quiet respect. Visitors to the Cahokia Mounds are free to wander around the site provided that they stick to the trails and avoid climbing on any of the mounds other than Monk’s Mound. On any given day there are at least a few visitors walking around on their own, but the mounds are free from the loud school fieldtrip environment that seems to prevail at other landmarks. People walk around semi-reverently, looking at the mounds that represent an enormous city. It’s a powerful and compelling experience.
The engrossing atmosphere of the place is largely due to the excellent presentation of Mississippian culture provided by the Interpretive Center and its staff. One can also attribute it to the sheer majesty of the man-made structures comprised solely of earth throughout the grounds. This may be only a brief glimpse of the culture and size of the ancient Mississippian city, but even a brief glimpse can be humbling.
A display at the Monk's Mound Interpretive Center shows the various paints and markings used by early native americans. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Cahokia Mounds are free to visit, but donations are accepted for the upkeep and maintenance of the site. Suggested donations are $4 per adult and $2 per child or $10 per family. Groups should register before visiting the Cahokia Mounds by calling 618-398-5995. For more information about the Cahokia Mounds or to see upcoming events, visit www.cahokiamounds.org. Guided tours are available most weekends and throughout the week, but times change throughout the summer. Call ahead to check availability.
Phil Dotree, a St. Louis native, has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Fark, Digg.com, etc.). He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com.