Archive for August 14th, 2015


indian mounds


A couple years after Holly died, I took my first of many road trips, and the “Forrest Gump” period of my life had commenced. The first road trip, significantly, was a drive from Minneapolis, down the Mississippi to Cairo IL, and then up the Ohio River, visiting one mound site after another.

The eastern terminus of the trip was the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County in southern Ohio (above), with a side trip to visit an old professor at my alma mater Ohio University in Athens OH.

Road to CahokiaAt the time, I was vastly interested in sacred sites, and the trip was a series of extreme ups and downs (no pun intended). Some sites, such as the Serpent Mound, were well-preserved and well-honored. But most of the sites were a big disappointment, encroached upon by inappropriate roadways, farms (where many mounds had been ploughed under by generations of white farmers), and human habitation of the worst kind.

For the most part, the trip was a confirmation of the hubristic-and-unwarranted belief in the superiority of the white race by generations of toothless rednecks. My second night on the road, I checked into a motel near the Cahokia mounds outside of St. Louis, and quickly discovered that it was a dive frequented by prostitutes and their johns, a skanky scene out of hell. I immediately got a refund and drove on to find a better room.

The next day I spent most of the day at Cahokia. Back in the day, Cahokia was one of the greatest cities of the world—larger than London was in 1250 CE—and although there is some evidence of Late Archaic period (approximately 1200 BCE) occupation in and around the site, Cahokia (as it is now defined) was settled around 600 CE during the Late Woodland period. At the high-point of its development, Cahokia was the largest urban center north of the great Mesoamerican cities in Mexico and Central America. Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before 1050 CE, its population grew explosively after that date. Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak.

Today the site is a sterile shadow of its former glory. The park covers 2,200 acres, or about 3.5 square miles, and contains about 80 mounds, but the ancient city was much larger. In its heyday, Cahokia covered about 6 square miles and included about 120 human-made earthen mounds in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and functions. By comparing only two features of present-day Cahokia with what once was, you can imagine the depths of my disappointment.

Woodhenge Actual

Woodhenge ReconstructionI spent a great amount of time at Woodhenge, a circle of posts once used to make astronomical sightings. Woodhenge is the site of five different circles that were constructed by the people who occupied the site from 900-1100 CE and served as a calendar that marked solstices and equinoxes. The first circle consisted of 24 posts, and the second circle consisted of 36 posts. The third circle (1000 CE) is the one reconstructed on the present site in the 1960s, and consists of 48 posts (except for 9 which are missing on the west side, displaced by a highway borrow pit), and the fourth consisted of 60 posts. The last Woodhenge was only partially constructed and was made of 12, or possibly 13 posts, along the eastern sunrise arc. Comparing the 1960s reconstruction with what was once present is indicative of the present poverty of the site.

Monk's MoundJust to the east of Woodhenge is the Monk’s Mound, the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas and the largest pyramid north of Mesoamerica. Construction of Monk’s Mound by the Mississippian culture began about 900–950 CE on a site which had already been occupied by buildings, and continued until its completion around 1100 CE. The mound size was calculated in 1988 as about 100 feet high, 955 feet long including the access ramp at the southern end, and 775 feet wide, making itcahokia ancient roughly the same size at its base as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Unlike Egyptian pyramids which were built of stone, Monk’s Mound was constructed almost entirely of layers of basket-transported soil and clay. Because of this construction and its flattened top, over the years it retained rainwater within the structure. This has caused “slumping,” the avalanche-like sliding of large sections of the sides at the highest part of the mound.

As can be seen in the artist’s reconstruction above, an area was raised slightly higher still, on which was placed a building of over 100 ft. I climbed to the top of Monk’s Mound, but somehow it did not seem as big an accomplishment as scaling the Great Pyramid of Giza. All I could think of at the top was all the earthworks that had been destroyed by white settlers over the years.

There were a few sublime moments on that trip. Visiting the Great Serpent Mound was one highlight. Its age is still a mystery; scholars who have conducted carbon dating on the site have yielded dates of 1070 CE to some two thousand years earlier. What is indisputable is that it is the largest effigy mound in the world. The place was crowded, and the visitors gave every indication that they felt respect and even reverence for the place. In 2015, however, the site was vandalized when an Ohio man drove a pickup truck on several of the site’s mounds.

Hopewell culture mounds Chillicothe OHI also had a memorable experience when I visited the so-called Hopewellian Mounds near Chillicothe OH. These monumental structures were built by Native American hands almost 2,000 years ago. Hopewellian people gathered at these earthworks for feasts, funerals, and rites of passage. On the morning that I visited, I was the only person present at the site, and I can honestly say that in my solitude, these beautifully-maintained structures imparted a truly spiritual experience.

Effigy Mounds IAOne of my most stunning experiences took place at the effigy mounds in northeastern Iowa. Situated on the high ground overlooking the Mississippi Valley below, are more than 200 ceremonial and burial mounds including numerous effigy mounds shaped like animals, including bears and birds. Prehistoric earthworks by mound builder cultures are common in the Midwest. However, with the exception of the Great Spirit Mound in Ohio and one other (of a soaring bird) in Louisiana, mounds in the shape of mammals, birds, or reptiles (known as effigies) only exist in southern Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, and small parts of Minnesota and Illinois.

The largest, Great Bear Mound, measures nearly 138 feet from head to tail and rises over three feet above the original ground level.

Stewardship of this precious site by the National Park Service has recently come under severe criticism.

From 1999 until her voluntary transfer in 2010, superintendent Phyllis Ewing presided over a construction boom throughout Effigy Mounds National Monument in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act and other statutes. Now it has come to light that the National Park Service has shelved a blistering internal report that details a “decade of dysfunction” as the agency allowed dozens of illegal construction projects to cause significant damage to an ancient Iowa burial ground that Indian tribes consider sacred.