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| posted on 8/16/2008 at 09:31 PM|
The Ancient Midwest
By KEITH MULVIHILL
Published: August 15, 2008
OHIO FOR THE AGES Mound City is the 2,000-year-old cemetery of the Hopewell people.
THE earthworks left behind by the long vanished civilizations of the Midwest are harder to spot than the pueblos and kivas of Arizona and New Mexico. For a long time many of them were hidden in plain sight or dismissed as little more than heaps of soil. But the more today’s archaeologists learn about the Midwestern mounds, the more intriguing is the picture that emerges from 1,000 or more years ago: a city with thousands of people just a few miles from present-day St. Louis, a 1,348-foot earthen serpent that points to the summer solstice, artifacts made of materials that could only have arrived over lengthy trade routes.
The mound builders lived over a wide area. But on a road trip of a few days in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, you can get a sampling of their work — and, along the way, find some modern-day diversions. Start from St. Louis, which early European settlers called Mound City because of the Indian constructions that were soon flattened to build the modern city. Today the most prominent monument to human builders in St. Louis is Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch. Take the tram to the top and gaze out at the winding Mississippi. The river and its feeders, and the fertile land around them, figured as prominently in the lives of the Midwesterners of a millennium ago as they do in the region today. From the arch, head east over the Poplar Street Bridge and into Illinois on Interstates 55 north and 70 east. Take Exit 6, turn right onto Route 111 south and quickly left on Collinsville Road, and follow the signs to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
MILE 9: CAHOKIA Inside the museum at this 2,200-acre site, a single sentence on a placard stopped me in my tracks: “One of the great cities of the world, Cahokia was larger than London in A.D. 1250.” More than 10,000 people — estimates range as high as 20,000 — are thought to have lived in the settlement between 1050 and 1200. Its most impressive feature now, Monks Mound, is the largest prehistoric earthwork in all of the Americas, covering more than 14 acres at its base. It stands 100 feet high and was built in a series of stages over a period close to 200 years. That’s probably more than 15 million basket loads of soil — dug out with clamshells, in case you were wondering.
Cahokia drew the curiosity of 19th-century visitors, but archaeologists didn’t do serious work there until the 1960s. Now it’s thought that a chief ruler held sway in a structure atop Monks Mound, which towered over the sprawling city below. Nearby an ancient sun calendar has been reconstructed on the site where its remnants were found: an enormous ring of tall tree trunks stuck in the ground, called Woodhenge.
One hypothesis about Cahokia’s demise is that its own engineers, by rerouting a creek to increase their water supply and float logs from distant forests, may have set the stage for erosion and floods. Charles C. Mann, in his eye-opening and readable book “1491” (Knopf, 2005), describes current and recent scholarship that has explored issues like this, rewriting the history of the Americas in the last few decades. Before the arrival of the Europeans and the devastating epidemics that came with them, both North and South America probably had many more people and cities than anyone once suspected.
A small stone tablet dug up in 1971 from Monks Mound and now on display in the museum suggests the myths or mysticism of the Cahokians: engraved on it is the figure of a man with falconlike features and an outstretched wing.
MILE 13: THE HAPPY COW Turn right out of Cahokia Mounds onto Collinsville Road and right again on Route 157 south. When the road bears right, pull in and park at the Happy Cow, a favorite lunch spot with today’s workers at Cahokia. Restore your energy with a Happy Cow Supreme, a burger with bacon, pepper, onions and Swiss cheese ($4.25) or a B.L.T. ($3.25), and then continue south on 157. Turn east on I-64 and south on I-57.
MILE 103: WHITTINGTON, ILL. Relax and do some shopping at the Southern Illinois Artisan Shop & Art Gallery. These are today’s handicrafts: textiles, jewelry, ceramics, baskets — a variety that testifies in its own, modern way to human creativity.
MILE 153: HARRISBURG, ILL. Turn east on Route 13 and call it a day at the stately Lafayette Inn, where a large walnut staircase leads to spacious, tasteful rooms. Nearby, you can find the locals at dinner at the Bar B-Q Barn on Main Street. A sign above the kitchen reads: “Pie Fixes All.” In the morning, continue east on Highway 13, which becomes Route 60 as you traverse a slice of Kentucky and then cross the Ohio River to Evansville, Ind. Drive east on Interstate 164, roughly following the curves of the Ohio, to Exit 5. A right turn onto Covert Avenue East, another right on Stacer Road and a third on Pollack Avenue will bring you to an ancient village.
MILE 223: EVANSVILLE, IND. The luck of Angel Mounds, where 1,000 people lived between 1050 and 1400, is that it escaped extreme looting. Some of the millions of artifacts that have been uncovered there — including graceful reddish-brown painted pottery and delicate earrings and nose rings made of bone — are on display in the large museum. I was fascinated by a replica of Kneeling Man, an eight-inch-tall figurine carved in the translucent yellow mineral fluorite, unearthed from the site’s temple mound. Outside, as you walk the area and gaze at the large mounds, beneath your feet are the buried remains of a town that thrived for about 400 years.
MILE 336: LOUISVILLE Back on I-164 north and then I-64 east, drive to another encounter with the wide, winding Ohio, over which canoes carried cargo from settlement to settlement for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before Europeans arrived. See it up close at Louisville Waterfront Park. From I-64, take the Ninth Street exit and turn left on Market Street. Make another left on Brook Street, which dead-ends at Witherspoon Street and the park. You’ll find walking paths, an adventure playground for children and the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the nation, which offers a two-hour sightseeing tour. Eat aboard the boat or on land; Joe’s Crab Shack and Tumbleweeds, a Mexican Restaurant, are both in the park.
MILE 436: CINCINNATI Drive another 90 minutes to Cincinnati and find your way to the charming Clifton Gaslight District in the northwest part of the city, a few miles off I-75 south (exit at Hopple Street). A good stop for the night is the Clifton House, a 1900 mansion a few blocks’ walk from lively Ludlow Street with its coffeehouses, restaurants and bars. Cincinnati, like St. Louis, had ancient earthworks that were described in the 19th century, but as in St. Louis, the mounds were flattened long before anyone thought to explore their meaning. When the sun has risen again, set out to the east on Route 32 (take Exit 63B from Cincinnati’s beltway, I-275). Near the tiny town of Peebles, Ohio, turn northwest on State Route 73.
MILE 506: SERPENT MOUND This effigy mound, an enormous earthen sculpture of a snake, is nothing short of astonishing. Walking the footpath that circumnavigates the undulating body or gazing down from the 35-foot platform, it’s hard to wrap your head around this ancient accomplishment. The serpent measures 1,348 feet long, 10 to 15 feet wide and roughly 3 feet high. It is the largest earthen effigy in North America, constructed around 1070. “It’s not an art project built by a bunch of bored people,” said Keith Bengtson, the site manager. “It has a very specific design and intent.” The serpent was documented by surveyors in the mid-19th century, but it was not until the late 1980s that scholars realized its astronomical purpose: its head and coils are aligned to mark the solstices and equinoxes. During the summer solstice, the setting sun descends in perfect alignment with the snake’s head. Hundreds of visitors now come from around the world each year to watch.
Spend some time in the Serpent Mound Museum and then return to Route 73 and continue east. Turn north on Route 41 and drive to Chillicothe, Ohio.
MILE 556: MOUND CITY Walking from the visitors center at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park to the Mound City Group’s 2,000-year-old cemetery is magically disorienting. A lush green field of huge curvilinear mounds of varying shapes and sizes conveys the sense of stepping into a page from a high school geometry textbook. In all, 23 mounds are enclosed by a low earthen wall at this site — one of five in this sprawling park. The artifacts found in the mounds help tell the story of the people buried there. The Hopewell must have been traders — they had materials like obsidian from the area of Yellowstone National Park, shells from the Atlantic Ocean and copper from near the Great Lakes. Gifted artisans made beautiful creations like copper parrots, human hand shapes cut from sheets of mica and whimsical clay effigy pipes in the shapes of woodland creatures.
“I hope visitors would take away with them that 2,000 years ago there were people with high levels of artistry and complex spiritual cosmology that lived here,” said Bruce Lombardo, a park ranger. “You don’t have to go to Stonehenge or the pyramids of Egypt." The Midwest has its own ancient mysteries.
MOUNDS AND EARTHWORKS
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, 30 Ramey Street, Collinsville, Ill.; (618) 346-5160; www.cahokiamounds.com; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; donation $4.
Angel Mounds State Historic Site, 8215 Pollack Avenue, Evansville, Ind.; (812) 853-3956; www.angelmounds.org; 9 a.m. to 5 pm. Tuesday to Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday; admission $4.
Serpent Mound, 3850 State Route 73, Peebles, Ohio; (937) 587-2796; www.ohiohistory.org/places; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $7 per vehicle.
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe, Ohio; (740) 774-1126; www.nps.gov/hocu; 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; free.
FOOD AND LODGING
Happy Cow, 601 North Main Street, Caseyville, Ill.; (618) 346-7421.
Lafayette Inn, 204 West Poplar Street, Harrisburg, Ill.; (618) 252-7599; www.lafayetteinn-il.com; rooms start at $59.
Bar B-Q Barn, 632 North Main Street, Harrisburg, Ill.; (618) 252-6190.
Clifton House, 500 Terrace Avenue, Cincinnati; (513) 221-7600; www.thecliftonhouse.com; rooms from $145.
SHOPPING AND ENTERTAINMENT
Southern Illinois Art & Artisans Center, 14967 Gun Creek Trail, Whittington; (618) 629-2220); www.museum.state.il.us/ismsites/so-il; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Louisville Waterfront Park, www.louisvillewaterfront.com.
Belle of Louisville, 401 West River Road; (502) 574-2992; www.belleoflouisville.org; the Ohio River tour is $16.
[Edited on 8/17/2008 by DerekFromCincinnati]
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| posted on 8/16/2008 at 11:38 PM|
|I'll read the article later, but for now, that's quite a photograph.|
A Peach Supreme
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| posted on 8/17/2008 at 03:17 AM|
|Cool - thanks|
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| posted on 8/17/2008 at 06:12 AM|
|Hey Derek...... Thats my neck of the woods..... |
I live bout' 20 miles from Mounds City.......
South of Harrisburg.........bout' 20 too........
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| posted on 8/18/2008 at 03:10 PM|
|Very cool article, Derek (and the picture is absolutely amazing!) Thanks for sharing I've done some camping in upper NE Iowa along the Mississippi and hiked an area there known as Effigy Mounds which contains a lot of Indian burial mounds. A beautiful spot, age old, but very spiritual nature to this place. I've included some links if you wish to read more about it. |
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| posted on 8/18/2008 at 03:13 PM|
Not sure if you knew this but Mound Street in downtown Columbus is ironically named. The founders of the city in 1812 tore down the Indian Mounds but kept the name....
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