Sunday, August 5, 2012

White Castle, Monks Mound and carrying dirt

For almost 30 years, as long as I've lived in Illinois, I've driven past Cahokia Mounds on the way to St. Louis. Monks' Mound rose impressively on the left of the highway, but I never visited the state historic site. However, last Monday after a doctor's appointment in St. Louis, Ron and I decided to break with tradition.

Ron hadn't been there either so after lunch at White Castle (one of Ron's favorites but not mine -- those little onions on the sliders do weird things to my digestive tract) we drove to Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville. Leaving the interstate, we ventured into what appeared to be substandard commercial area. There were a lot of businesses with bars on the windows, never a good sign, but we pressed on and soon were rewarded with a sign pointing to the Cahokia Mounds visitor center.

Pulling into the parking lot, we were surrounded by many mounds of various sizes. The landscape was beautiful, tree-lined and rolling, no surprise that the ancient people decided to settle here way back in 900 A.D. Of course, the fact that Cahokia sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers doesn't hurt its desirability as a location either.

Monks Mound back in the day
 We watched a movie that told us some backstory including:
  • Between 10,000 and 20,000 people lived here at the height of Cahokian influence, around 1250 A.D.
  • The city covered 6 miles and contained 120 mounds made of earth. This earth was carried in baskets to make the mounds. Now that's manual labor! Some were used as burial mounds but the majority had ceremonial uses and were bases for temples or the homes of leaders. If you were important you lived on a mound, looking superiorly down at the rank-and-file.
  • The inhabitants of Cahokia didn't even get credit for building Monk's Mound! Even though they spent 300 years hauling 814,000 cubic yards of dirt, the largest man-made earthen mound in North America was named after some Trappist Monks who lived on one of the nearby mounds. I think something like Generations-of Indians-Who-Worked-Their-Butts-Off-Carrying-Dirt Mound would have been more appropriate, but no one asked me.
Note the subdivision in the lower part of the photo.
The Big Mound in St. Louis
The site has had a chequered past and briefly was both a subdivision and a state park. Nearby St. Louis used to be known as The Mound City because of its abundance of Indian mounds (all sadly destroyed). The largest Native American mound in St. Louis was the Big Mound, which stood at least 30 feet high, was 150 feet in length, and had three terraced approaches facing the river for religious ceremonies. At one point in the 1820s, a small resort building was constructed at the top of the mound.

Ron climbs Monks Mound
Kukulkan Pyramid
After the movie, we walked around and Ron decided to climb Monks Mound. I would have too, but there was no accessible trail so I contented myself with taking photos. Monks Mound looks like the Mayan pyramids that were built about the same time. El Castillo (The Kukulkan Pyramid) at Chichen Itza in Mexico is a 75-foot-high stone pyramid, shorter than the 100-foot-tall Monk's Mound and built earlier, between 550 and 800 AD. The Great Pyramid in Giza is bigger, 481 feet, than either and was built around 2500 B.C. Still, they all three have similar shapes, triangles pointing up to heaven. Even 2,500 years before Christ man had a need for to worship.

Don't bring your sled to Monks Mound!
Now when we drive by Monks Mound on the way to St. Louis I can say I've been there.