Saturday, September 25, 2010

a beautiful late september saturday so of course everyone's got to go outside; we started with two soccer games and both boys played respectably as far as i could tell though the games weren't outstanding as they were the week before. i'd like a big long fat cup of coffee on a saturday, and then another one when that's over, but it wasn't to be on this day as i came home, made another one but got caught up in something and lost track of it; lost track of maybe two or three in the course of the day. but that was because, when i had the chance, i came to this mini-computer and started googling the mound builders and mound 72.

turns out the whole american bottom is full of mounds; they even called st. louis "the mound city" because the whole area was full of them; the present-day cahokia site only encompasses a fraction of the known ones, and those known ones are only a fraction of the total. i started reading all kinds of stuff about these people every time i got to sit down, though later in the day i ended up almost entirely, every minute, with the five-year-old, all the late afternoon, dinner, into the evening, we went for a walk, and then i put him to bed. now for more of the mound people.

it also turns out they had quite an empire, as many people have pointed out. there is all this huge debate about why it went down, about 1200 or 1300, and it's known there was an earthquake around then that might have destabilized their mounds a bit; another time the mounds were destabilized was when the city depleted the water tables about 50 years ago. they were made with intense and well-planned vision, so that waters would keep the mud packed and the walls true, but that's another story; another reason the city might have declined, was simply that the arrival of the buffalo and other kinds of food made moving off into more egalitarian and less dense areas more attractive. this was a place that had a strict social structure; it killed people; rulers collected taxes and ruled its area with an iron fist. but yet at around 1000 it had an explosion; it became huge; it attracted people; it was in its heyday. now i've said that its 20,000 made it the largest city in north america for hundreds of years; it was the largest until philadelphia was to replace it in the mid 1700's. but at 20,000, in the year 1000, it was also bigger than london, and that was an accomplishment, since it stayed that way for a few hundred years. it clearly had a high point, a very charismatic leader.

so they were looking at these mounds one day and they noticed that one was at a 30 degree angle to the others, and that rung a bell with one archaeologist, because he knew enough about astronomy to know that in the saint louis area, the equinoxes came in at 30 degree angles, so these astronomers were placing their mounds according to their astronomic knowledge. and eventually the archeologists came to realize that all the so called "bathtub" structures they kept finding were places that they put the posts to make so-called "woodhenges"...these woodhenges were solar calendars, made entirely of telephone pole-type wood...and told the time exactly as according to the sun's regular behavior at the equinox and other times. it took them a while, because everything being made of wood and mud the way it was, everything was gone, by the time europeans or those who write about such stuff showed up. but then they opened up this mound 72, and the bodies they found in there kind of rocked the world of archaeology, you could say.

there were over 200 of them, but there were about 50 young women, and it was pretty clear that they had been sacrificed, and dna testing later showed they were unrelated to the rest. there was one clear leader, a man of about 40, resting on a bed of shells brought up from the sea, and laid out in the design of a thunderbird bird-man type of arrangement. there were four men with their hands and feet cut off, and there was a variety of other people in there, some of whom had been thrown in, it seems, not as part of a sacrifice, perhaps not even willingly.

now you'd think that such finds as this would set off a digging frenzy that would uncover most if not all of the other 150 or so mounds that dot the landscape, or at least the ones we know of. but, too late. the city of st. louis and the city of east st. louis, and collinsville, bellville and the rest, had already taken care of that more or less. there's been a steady string of development, development so bad that, in the 40's, some guy in a tract house dug his swimming pool right into the main plaza of the main mound. such things were happening all the time. archaeologists were criticizing previous archaeolgists for digging recklessly, not keeping track of what they found; they had feuds with each other; everyone criticized illinois for not caring enough, or for not preserving enough of it, or for building at least three interstates right up against it.

there are some other stories that stick out: those three interstates, 255, 55, and 70, all come together in a tangle of bridges and roads and the land is so low there that there are lots of rivers and bridges, and i often call it (as we drive through, on our way to the airport or peoria) "the bridges of madison county," although it's gritty, and the highway signs always point to toxic waste dumps like times beach and pntoon beach that are notorious to say the least. that intersection, though, was the center of it all, and one time an archaeologist actually saw a guy pushing a bulldozer into a stone figure that turned out to be half woman-half serpent, one of the major finds of all excavation. they apparently had a dualistic religion, you had the man-bird on god's side, on the side of light and good and order, and then there was this serpent character, that was more aligned with chaos, and the earth, and all the weeds that grew in it.

one article, it could have been the one that called the young women "the virgins of the mississippi," said that all this guessing about their religion and why it rose and fell is missing some crucial points. we always assume that we have become more developed over time, more organized, more hierarchical, more complex, etc. and we tend to romanticize native americans as non-violent, egalitarian, etc. when in fact they had organized religion, hierarchy, tax collection, lots of complex and developed stuff, and for a long time too. when desoto came up into the americas in about 1500, what was left of the mississippian culture turned him back, unlike what happened to the spanish in mexico or the south, where the spanish were able to move in and take over. here, the main palace of cahokia and the mounds that encompassed its suburbs were already overgrown with weeds, to the point that when lasalle and his buddies came down the river, they couldn't even recognize it as a city; they did, however, notice that piasa bird up by alton, and i'm still wondering how that ties in. but the point all these writers make is that so much is lost: what did they call themselves (cahokia is obviously a misnomer)? what did they speak? clearly they had access to shells from the sea, metals and minerals from canada, the rockies, the carolinas, the delta; they got around. the "virgins" clearly came from somewhere else too, and didn't eat as well as they did; but, after a point, everyone admits they're just guessing.

so then, you have these obvious questions. why is there dumb luck that circumstance converges to cover their empire with such a place as east st. louis, collinsville, etc.? why is it that even today the vast majority of americans have no clue about it, even as they begin to learn about such places as tikal, macchu picchu, etc.? who exactly were these poor women, sacrificed in mound 72, and would we find more like them if we could successfully uncover some of the other mounds? is it true that, as someone pointed out, they've never found any true connection between this city and the great ones of mexico and the south, leading to the conclusion that great cities sometimes spring up entirely of their own, getting their own complex social organization, by themselves and for their own reason, not inspired by "development" in other parts of the world...that, though the kinds of corn and the buffalo were to find them, eventually, by working their way over to illinois, they had enough here in the bottom - namely wood, corn, fish, and deer - to take care of themselves for a decade or twelve. they speculate based on what they've found: who were these people, and what happened.

i fall asleep easily here at the mini; it's still early, and i've played but a game or two of the bog, nothing more, fell asleep at that too, spent a fair amount of time worrying about the little and big guys passing through the place, plus the weight of the carbondale junior soccer leagues which falls on our family and others, on a saturday. so you'll have to forgive me if i got a few of the details wrong, and be warned: i tend to exaggerate, even on a good day. but this all, mark my words, is true: you can read it yourself on the web, in various spots. google cahokia, or mound builders, or mound 72; read 'em & weep. we here in the americas had mississippian cultures, and their people ran up and down its banks for years, building these mounds and then living on them, or burying people in them, or using them for various things, in one case just to represent the serpent of their religion; we know almost nothing of these people, and even tell history as if it started in what, 1619, or whatever. their calendars were, in fact, better than ours, or at least they stood out there under the sun and moon, and whatever system they had, it made it a lot longer than our paltry four or five hundred years. and yeah, it broke down; it went back to the earth from whence it came; it succumbed to the ravages of a large and occasionally unhappy river. but even that was nothing new, in the annals of this valley, i suppose.


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