Finding North America’s lost medieval city – Part 2

cahokia-mounds-02The Mississippians

Mound cities are an ancient tradition in North America, going back millennia before Cahokia. The continent’s first known earthwork is at Poverty Point in Louisiana, built 3,400 years ago, when many of the Egyptian pyramids were still under construction. Today you can still see its remains in crescent-shaped ridge mounds that look like huge nested parentheses on a bluff overlooking a now-dry riverbed. Over a thousand years after Poverty Point was abandoned, people from the Hopewell culture built even more astounding mound cities in Ohio and throughout the northeast.

The framers of Cahokia would have known about some of these ancient places and probably wanted to build a city in their image. They also wanted to build it fast.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign archaeologist Tim Pauketat has studied Cahokia for most of his career. He writes that its mounds appear so abruptly in the archaeological record that it’s as if they were built directly on top of a constellation of small towns that belonged to people known today as Woodland Indians. As the city grew, farms full of maize and other starchy seeds spread outward from Cahokia into the Illinois uplands.

Pauketat believes that something like a religious revival spurred the city’s sudden appearance. Revival movements were common among Native Americans of the southeast. Indian oral histories and writings from European observers recount how charismatic spiritual leaders emerged to lead cultural transformations in eighteenth and nineteenth century Native American communities. Groups would come from miles around to hear the leader’s teachings and set up temporary camps for feasting and celebration. The new leaders‘ ideas would spread like wildfire, carried by people who had gone to the revival camps or storytellers repeating what they had heard.

Many of these revivals were inspired by astronomical events. Pauketat suggests this might have been the case with the revival that founded Cahokia: In 1054, just as the city was growing, a supernova lit up the sky for almost a month. It was so bright that it would have been visible during the day and as luminous as the full Moon at night. It’s possible that an enterprising group of religious or political leaders took the supernova as a sign that it was time to found a new kind of civilization. Pauketat suggests that Cahokia’s earliest residents were immigrants from all over the area, possibly even from as far away as Mexico’s mound-building Toltec civilization. Perhaps the exploding star inspired a new set of beliefs that united previously disparate groups in a common purpose.

Shortly after Cahokia’s founding, the Cahokian way of life spread to the entire Mississippian region. Along the Mississippi River, Pauketat writes, archaeologists have found the remains of countless southern cities modeled on Cahokia, “populated by people who grew corn, built rectangular pyramidal mounds and flat plazas, and crafted or decorated objects with images of sky and earth gods and godlike ancestors.” Cahokians made a distinctive form of ceremonial pottery, called Ramey, that can be found throughout the Mississippian settlements. People shared Ramey far and wide to honor the city that founded their civilization.
How to dig up a lost city

Cahokia lies in a crazy quilt of ecosystems along the Mississippi River called the American Bottom. Rain and floods fill the area with seasonal ponds and swamps, while the surrounding bluffs give way to prairies perfect for growing food staples like maize and other starchy seeds.

Over the CABB Tract the sky was a scalding blue, and the heat was clotted with humidity.

Baires and Watts revealed their secret to staying cool: bring a bottle of completely frozen water in the morning, and it will have melted to chilled perfection by mid-day. It’s excellent for pressing against sweaty foreheads as it defrosts, too. Even though the pits were shaded with canvas roofs, we took frequent breaks to guzzle water and reapply sunblock. Everyone wore hats with varying degrees of sartorial cunning. Ultimately it didn’t matter how dorky you looked, as long as you didn’t go home with a burned neck or face.

At first, I wandered between the excavation blocks, trailing after Baires and Baltus as they made their rounds and checked the students’ work. At EB1 and EB2, there were dozens of finds: chunks of ceremonial pottery, a tiny human face recreated in clay, projectile points, the remains of a woven mat, and the triangular handle of a beaker that once held Black Drink, a highly caffeinated beverage used during ceremonies to induce hallucinations and vomiting. EB3 remained a mystery. It looked like part of a palisade wall ringing the neighborhood on the magnetometry survey, but Baires and Baltus had come to believe it might be something else.

The two crouched together at the edge of each block, conferring with Watts and the students. Occasionally they directed the students to wrap an especially valuable find in tin foil, or fold it into a lunch bag. Everything was carefully labeled, and even the soil itself was scooped into buckets and pushed through a sieve later to catch any remaining items.

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