Finding North America’s lost medieval city – Part 3

cahokia-03Heterarchy

When you’re excavating at Cahokia, you start to appreciate what it was like to build the mounds here a millennium ago. We shoveled clay into buckets, sweated, hydrated, and repeated. Our hands were covered in garbage and dirt. We watched the sun’s path overhead to mark the time, always wary of looming storm clouds. Of course, we hadn’t gone completely medieval. Baltus supplemented our personal observations with a couple of weather satellite apps on her phone. Even when the sky looked cloudless, the American Bottom could brew up a storm in less than an hour.

One afternoon, everyone’s mobiles lit up with dire warnings about a dangerous hailstorm. Racing against the weather, we packed up shovels and bags with military precision. Once the dark gray clouds gathered over the Mississippi, it could start pouring within minutes. We crammed ourselves into a van and took shelter at a nearby Mexican restaurant as thunder rattled the windows and winds uprooted trees in nearby East St. Louis.

Over steaming plates of enchiladas and pitchers of frozen margaritas, I pumped the archaeologists for information about what social structure united tens of thousands of people in Cahokia so long ago. What could have drawn so many people to perform backbreaking labor in the broiling humidity? My thoughts went to the charismatic leaders who led Cahokia’s revival movements. “Who got to be at the top of Monk’s Mound?” I asked. “Was it a chief or some kind of religious leader?” From the way the archaeologists looked at each other I could tell this was a trigger question. “This is a hotly debated topic,” Baltus said finally with a laugh.

Even if we imagined this revival coming from the teachings of one person, Baires warned that it probably wasn’t as if there was a single “chieftain” leading everyone to build their houses a certain way or line their borrow pits with colorful clay. “I don’t like the idea of a chieftain,” she explained. “I think power was more diverse than that. It was a heterarchy.”

I rolled the unfamiliar word around on my tongue. “Heterarchy—like, a monarchy except a lot of people are in power?” The margaritas didn’t help my listening comprehension.

The answer turned out to be yes and no. Cahokia’s heterarchy might have been a lot of different groups making decisions and governing themselves. Perhaps there were craft guilds or neighborhood associations. Already, I’d seen that the CABB Tract was full of ritual items. Perhaps they had their own leadership council, too? “If Cahokia was a religious movement, people might have engaged with that on their own terms,” Baltus said. “Their idea of spirituality may have come from home, not the top of the mound.”

Troubled times in Cahokia

If you look online or in books for illustrations that recreate Cahokia, you’ll notice an almost universal error. The mounds and swales of the city are shown covered in a light dusting of green grass, almost like a golf course. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a fascinating book called Envisioning Cahokia, a group of archaeologists explains that the city and its monuments would have been bald black mud. No grass would have survived within city limits, though many houses would have been surrounded by gardens for growing beans, squash, and other staples.

Against the dark, swampy mud, the wood-framed and thatched houses of Cahokians would have been colorful, decorated with mats, carvings, and plaster. Public areas featured wooden poles, possibly painted and decorated with fur, feathers, baskets of grain, and other symbolic items. People also decorated themselves. Several tools for making tattoos have been uncovered at Cahokia, as have beads and jewelry. Figurines found in Mississippian cities show that people wore body paint, patterned clothes, and earrings. Men played a game with pucks and spears called Chunkey. Women farmed on their knees, using handheld hoes made with wood and sharp stone. And as huge garbage pits full of animal bones, drug paraphernalia, and fancy pottery attest, everybody at Cahokia loved to party.

Archaeologists mark the eras of the city based on the orientation of its houses. During the Lohmann phase (1050-1100 CE), when people were first building Cahokia’s Grand Plaza and Monk’s Mound, most houses were organized into courtyard patterns. During the Stirling phase (1100-1200 CE), often called Classic Cahokia, most of the city was on a strict grid with houses and mounds oriented in a north-south direction. This was also the city’s heyday, when it had the biggest population. In the final Moorehead phase (1200-1350 CE), people returned to the courtyard plans of the Lohmann phase.

But these different city phases weren’t just architectural fads. Indiana University, Bloomington, archaeologist Susan Alt argues the transformation “marked social change.“ Nowhere are these changes more obvious than in the downtown area where Monk’s Mound rises above the Grand Plaza. This central meeting place was an engineering marvel, carefully sloped during the city’s construction to allow water to drain off during public events. Everything about the architecture here suggests a highly stratified society led by charismatic figures who lived above Cahokia’s sprawl on the smoothed top of Monk’s Mound. Ordinary residents of the city spent many long hours ritualistically hauling clay in baskets from borrow pits to build the mounds. The leaders repaid them with words of wisdom and massive feasts. But at some point that wasn’t enough anymore.

During the late Stirling phase, there must have been quite a bit of urban unrest. The elites of Monk’s Mound erected an enormous wooden palisade wall all the way around the Grand Plaza, effectively enclosing themselves in a walled neighborhood. This may have led to more problems. If people were literally kept out of the downtown area by a giant wall, as Baltus puts it, “they might feel disenfranchised.“ Shortly thereafter, the Grand Plaza fell into disrepair. Alt writes, „Domestic buildings and refuse-filled features seem to have been relocated around and onto the plaza perimeter, perhaps as part of a general redesign of downtown Cahokia in conjunction with the recently built palisade wall. By 1300, there were probably few to no residents left in this inner sanctum.“ In other words, non-elites moved into the area and even dumped trash there. During this period, Woodhenge was also torn down.

As the city reshaped itself during the Moorehead phase, Cahokians violently rejected the people and symbols of their once-monumental downtown. Roughly half the city’s population moved away, and those remaining began to retreat into their own neighborhoods, conducting smaller public rituals and events. The courtyard and public buildings in the CABB Tract reflect this new kind of social organization. The city’s central authority had been supplanted by local communities.

Why did the people of Cahokia lose faith in the revival that built a city? The answer may lie inside the mounds themselves.

Theatrical sacrifice

Back in the 1960s, when scientists were still in the habit of digging up Native American ancestors without permission, an early Cahokia archaeologist named Melvin L. Fowler opened up a mound. There, he found the remains of several public rituals—and over two hundred and fifty bodies—that give us a glimpse of politics and spirituality in Stirling-era Cahokia.

Fowler knew that the classical Cahokia grid was mostly aligned on a north-south axis. But there was one oddly shaped mound that didn’t fit. Mound 72 is one of the city’s few “ridge top mounds,” meaning its rectangular body was constructed with a peaked top like a roof. And though it stood precisely south of Monk’s Mound, it was angled 30 degrees off the east-west axis, pointing in the exact direction of the summer and winter solstice. Fowler suspected this mound might be something special.

When Fowler and his colleagues dug, they discovered that Mound 72’s ridge top was actually built over three previous mounds, each one marking a significant moment in the city’s history during the 10th and 11th centuries. One of those mounds contained the bodies of 52 young women, sacrificed in some way that did not leave marks on their bones. Their bodies had been stacked in two tidy layers on top of clay platforms, then ritualistically covered over with earth. Another held the bodies of men on litters, similarly arrayed. Buried beneath thousands of pounds of clay for centuries, their skeletons were pressed as flat as flowers between the pages of a book. Oxygen isotope analysis of their teeth, which can pinpoint where people were born, shows these people were all local to the American Bottom.

Perhaps the most famous burial in Mound 72 contains the bodies of two people, one atop the other, in what’s called the “beaded burial.” The top body was placed on a river of valuable blue shell beads and may have worn a cloak fashioned to look like a falcon. The burial included hundreds of gorgeous ceremonial projectile points, as well as piles of other valuable offerings. Alongside the beaded body were the remains of several other people, including some who had no heads. The find presented a tantalizing tableau for scientists who wondered about the spiritual and political beliefs of Cahokians.

Debates over the meaning of the beaded burial have raged in the archaeological community for decades. Initially the bead-adorned skeletons were described as male, with the top one dubbed “the Birdman.” Fowler and other archaeologists assumed the Birdman was a celebrated ruler or warrior, perhaps the source for contemporary Siouan stories of the superhero Red Horn. But this interpretation has been pushed aside in the wake of a groundbreaking 2016 study by Illinois State Archaeological Survey Director Tom Emerson and his colleagues, which chronicles the first comprehensive skeletal analysis of the bodies in Mound 72. They discovered that the two people at the center of the tableau are in fact a young male and female, suggesting a ritual of fertility. This interpretation is bolstered by the remains of other male/female pairs buried with them, as well as the 52 young women who also represented reproductive bounty.

Now it would seem that the beaded burial wasn’t marking the grave of a great warrior or Cahokian founder. Instead, Emerson argues, we’re probably seeing the remains of a public performance where people representing mythical figures were sacrificed. The city’s elites may have led the performance to show their political and spiritual power, much the way their European counterparts of the same era were conducting public executions and crusades. “This scene looks more like a theatrical sacrifice rather than a burial,” Emerson and his colleagues write. They suggest it might have been a pageant where the city celebrated creation and renewal. Many of the offerings, like shells, are associated with the Underworld in local Native American belief systems—and the Underworld, in turn, is connected to farming and the land’s fecundity.

Sacrifices like the ones in Mound 72 may have involved joyous retellings of a creation story during the height of Cahokia’s power. They might have been parties to commemorate a fruitful harvest. But over time they may have led to resentment, especially if decisions over life and death were in the hands of a few people ruling from on high. It’s possible there was a political rebellion. Evidence from the Grand Plaza’s decline would seem to support this idea. After the fall of the downtown area, we also see an abrupt end to human sacrifice. Maybe Cahokia’s citizens toppled the regime that occupied Monk’s Mound and created a new social model.

The Upper World and the Underworld

Without a time machine, we’ll never know exactly what the Cahokians‘ political struggles were about. Still, we have some hints about how they saw the world. The symbols they left behind suggest they divided the universe into an Upper World of spirits and ancestors, an Underworld of Earth and animals, and a human world in between. These worlds were not entirely separated, and the liminal spaces where they intermingled were places of great power. Images that bring worlds together are common in Mississippian art. The Upper World, represented by thunder and spirits, and the Underworld, represented by water and agriculture, are intertwined.

Baires and Baltus think Cahokians used water and fire in their everyday rituals to draw the Upper World and Underworld together.

We can see the transformative power of water written into the layout of Cahokia. Though the city’s mounds attract the eye, the deep borrow pits were no less important to urbanites. Left open to the elements, they filled with water on a seasonal basis. The borrow pit that provided clay for Monk’s Mound is so enduring that it’s still filled with water to this day. Many pieces of ceremonial Ramey pottery are covered in images of water and fish, while shells filled burial mounds throughout the Mississippian world.

During the CABB Tract excavation, I got a chance to see how one neighborhood sculpted water into its daily activities. Baires pointed at a deep hole the students dug at EB3, uncovering several feet of a sloping ramp paved in yellow soils. It was obvious this yellow layer wasn’t natural: it wasn’t found in soil from the area and followed an exact 30-degree slope downward. Baires, Baltus, and Watts speculated that it was once the entrance to a shallow borrow pit that supplied this neighborhood with mud. We could see a history of this pit in its sediment layers. At first, the locals allowed the trough to become a seasonal pond. Later, they filled it back up with carefully layered clay, almost like they were building an inverted mound. “We caught the edge of a deliberately filled borrow pit,” Baires explained with a grin. It was an incredibly unusual find, which added evidence to the idea that pits were as important to Cahokians as mounds.

Fire was even more important, especially late in the city’s history. Fire could join worlds, because what was burned on Earth could ascend to the Upper World through smoke. Everywhere archaeologists dig at Cahokia, they find charred sacrifices. In 2013, construction workers building a freeway in East St. Louis discovered the remains of a late Cahokian neighborhood built entirely for the purpose of ritual burning. Dozens of tiny houses, full of corn and other valuables, were constructed rapidly and then torched. Nobody had ever lived in those homes. It appears that the entire neighborhood was essentially burned in effigy.

At the CABB Tract, all our excavation blocks were layered with periodic burns. The group at EB1 dug up enough ground for Baires and Baltus to figure out where all its overlapping structures once stood. The lowest level was a clay floor from the Stirling phase, at the height of Cahokia’s power. That floor was burned at some point and covered in another layer of clay for the floor of a later structure. In the later structure, people dug a pit into the floor, carefully lined it with a mat, then filled it with valuables like the beaker handle and ancient Woodland projectile point. That pit and its contents were burned too, possibly to commemorate the first burn.

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