Not quite Forgotten Treasures: Part 2, Cahokia

Illustration of Cahokia Mounds, Illinois

It took almost 400 years between Columbus’s arrival in the New World and the complete military domination of the USA by the invaders–but it happened.

The Americas before Columbus arrived were a place of amazing contrasts–from the igloo-dwelling, hunter-gathering Eskimo to the literate, city-building, cannibal Aztecs. At the southern tip of of Patagonia lies the Tierra del Fuego–so named because the nearly naked locals opted to cope with their frigid climate by carrying fire everywhere.

The oldest still-occupied towns in the US are the Acoma and Taos Pueblos of New Mexico, built nearly a thousand years ago (though today the vast majority of residents live in newer housing with electricity and running water built nearby the historic pueblos.) But the oldest overall is Cahokia, occupied between 600 and 1400 AD:

Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture that developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact.[5] Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico. …

Cahokia became the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert,[13] and whelk shells.

Mill Creek chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Cahokia’s control of the manufacture and distribution of these hand tools was an important economic activity that allowed the city to thrive.[14]Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia. Bartering, not money was used in trade.[15]

Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew rapidly after that date. According to a 2007 study in Quaternary Science Reviews, “Between AD 1050 and 1100, Cahokia’s population increased from between 1400 and 2800 people to between 10,200 and 15,300 people”.[16] an estimate that applies only to a 1.8 km2 high density central occupation area.[17] Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak,[citation needed] with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. … If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.[18]

Monk’s Mound, Cahokia

Like many early cities, Cahokia has distinctive, flat-topped pyramids, (here called “mounds”)–probably not because pyramids are magical or because the Cahokians were in contact with Egyptians or aliens, but because it’s the easiest large shape to build. The Cahokians lacked good stone build with and draft animals to haul materials over long distance, so Cahokia’s 120 mounds were built largely of compacted earth:

To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.”[4]

Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city: a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 100 ft (30 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide and covers 13.8 acres (5.6 ha).[24] It also contains about 814,000 cu yd (622,000 m3) of earth.[14] The mound was built higher and wider over the course of several centuries through as many as ten separate construction episodes, as the mound was built taller and the terraces and apron were added.[24]

Since the mounds are made of dirt and it rains in Illinois, erosion is an issue.

Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple or the residence of the paramount chief, which would have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 ft (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 ft (15 m) high. It was about 5,000 sq ft (460 m2).

A large flat plaza located adjacent to Monks Mound was a place where games and public rituals took place.

Reconstructed piece from Etowah Indian Mounds, Georgia

The Cahokians (and Mississippians in general) had mastered the art of copper working, producing fine ritual art like the dancing warrior to the left. Copper can be worked and shaped while still cold; the Mississippians had not learned how to make bronze nor smelt iron.

The Cahokians also built a Stonehenge-style “Woodhenge”:

a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle of 48 upright wooden posts.[1] Archaeologists date the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE.[2] Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, the eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions.

Woodhenge, Cahokia

If you make your sundial big enough, it can double as a clock–a useful trick for a society with a priestly class that wants to do special ceremonies on specific dates.

Woodhenge was eventually dismantled (and moved elsewhere), and the site converted to a cemetery. Some of the burials were of wealthy individuals–perhaps rulers–but most appear to be victims of mass human sacrifice:

A large rectangular pit was dug into the southeast corner of the mound and a mass burial of 24 women was made in it….

A small platform was constructed near the southeastern ramp and four young males with their arms interlocked and missing their hands and skulls were laid out on the platform.[6] Some researchers have concluded that the four men may represent the four cardinal directions.[11]

In a pit excavated next to these four men were placed the bodies of a large group of young women. This mass grave contained the remains of 53 females ranging in age between 15–30 years of age, arranged in two layers separated by matting.[4][6][8] The young women show evidence of having been strangled before being arranged in neat rows in the pit.[11] Analysis of bones and dental traits of these women have led archaeologists to believe these individuals were not from the same social class and ethnic group as other individuals interred in the mound. …

Next to this mound to the southwest another mass burial was made.[4] This burial is the most grisly found at the site, containing 39 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. … The victims were then killed and thrown over the edge of the pit. These people showed signs of meeting a violent end, including several being incompletely decapitated, some with fractured skulls and others with fractured jawbones.[6] The evidence shows that some of these individuals were buried alive: “From the vertical position of some of the fingers, which appear to have been digging in the sand, it is apparent that not all of the victims were dead when they were interred – that some had been trying to pull themselves out of the mass of bodies.”[4] The presence of arrowheads in the back of some of these victims, coupled with the beheadings and other evidence of violent death, has led some researchers to conclude that these victims show evidence of warfare or were even the losers of a rebellion against the rulers of Cahokia … On top of them were the remains of 15 elite individuals laid out upon litters made from cedar poles and cane matting .[6] Radiocarbon dating of the cedar poles used for the litters in the top layer burials in this pit determined that this burial was made approximately 100 years after the woodhenge circle had been constructed, or in approximately 1030 CE.[4]

Lovely people.

Since the Mississippian culture had not entirely disappeared by the time European chronicles arrived in the area, we actually have an account of a royal Mississippian burial accompanied by ritual sacrifice. According to Wikipedia:

Upon the death of “Tattooed Serpent” [of the Natchez,] in 1725, the war chief and younger brother of the “Great Sun” or Chief of the Natchez; two of his wives, one of his sisters… his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant’s wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die and be interred with him, as well as several old women and an infant who was strangled by his parents.[14] Great honor was associated with such a sacrifice, and their kin was held in high esteem.[15] After a funeral procession with the chiefs body carried on a litter made of cane matting and cedar poles ended at the temple (which was located on top of a low platform mound); the retainers with their faces painted red and accompanied by their relatives dressed up in their finest garments, were drugged with large doses of nicotine and ritually strangled. Tattooed Serpent was then buried in a trench inside the temple floor and the retainers were buried in other locations atop the mound surrounding the temple. …[14]

Artsist’s conception of Watson Brake

Cahokia is only one of the Mississippian people’s many settlements–at least 85 similar sites have been discovered, and that’s just the Mississippians. Other cultures also built mounds, such as the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, built around 3500 BC. (Perhaps these were really all the same culture, but archaeologists classify them as different ones.) The Mississippian sites are generally distinguished by:

  1. Earthen pyramids or mounds
  2. The development of large-scale, corn-based agriculture
  3. Shell-tempered pottery
  4. Large trade network extending from the Rockies to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico
  5. Social hierarchy and centralization of political power, with cities like Cahokia dominant over smaller towns
  6. A particular style of art and artifacts, reflecting Mississippian religious beliefs and lifestyles

Though Cahokia itself was abandoned around 1300 AD, Early European explorers such as Hernando de Soto encountered other Mississippian peoples and made records of them:

De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.

But like Etzanoa, by the time the Europeans returned, the settlements had been abandoned, most likely due to diseases caught from the French and Spanish.

New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 1/3)

Bronze Age Greek palace of Knossos

(Go to Part 2, Part 3)

The Bronze Age is difficult to study because written language was a lot less widespread back then, and all of the artifacts have had a lot longer to be destroyed than more recent ones. We tend to think, therefore, about the “start” of European history as the rise of the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta with their flowering of philosophy, mathematics, and literature. (In short, the Iron Age.) If we think back before Homer’s day, our focus shifts, from the edge of Europe to the edges of Asia and Africa–Egypt, Anatolia, and Judea. (Indeed, our notion that “continents” are important units by which people are defined is probably faulty in this context, where bodies of water are probably equally important.)

Sewers of Knossos (source)
Sewers of Knossos

But there were fortified towns of +5,000 people in Greece a good 6,000 years before Homer composed his epics, way back in the neolithic. By the Bronze Age, Greece had cities and palaces with aqueducts, sewers, tons of art, writing, and international trade. (The Greek Bronze Age began around 3,200 BC.)

Chalcolithic town of Los Millares, Spain
Model of the Chalcolithic town of Los Millares

Egypt in the Bronze Age built its famous pyramids; across the Mediterranean, in Spain, we find the pre-bronze fortified town of Los Millares (population +1,000), the many towns of El Agar, and the impressive city of La Bastida.

A few locations excepted (for reasons that will become clear in a moment,) the Bronze Age required long-term navigation, trade, and techno-social complexity.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Copper is abundant and relatively easy to find, but too soft to make good tools. Mixing it with tin makes it harder and more functional, but tin is much rarer and harder to find–and tends not to be located anywhere near the copper ores. Bronze Age peoples, therefore, had to engage in long-distance trade to make their bronze.

1024px-Metallurgical_diffusionSpain was one of the Mediterranean’s major sources of tin; Cornwall (southern Britain) and the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge,) in southern Germany were the others.

The Nebra Sky Disk, c. 1600 BC Germany, contains Cornish tin, Austrian copper, and Cornish or Carpathian gold. Trade in Cornish tin was long believed to be controlled by the the Phoenician Empire of North Africa. While it may be that the Phoenicians only controlled the Mediterranean end of the tin trade, a great many Phoenician coins have been found in southern Britain.

The Amber Road
The Amber Road

Another major trade item was amber, probably used primarily for jewelry but also sometimes burned as incense. Amber hails from northern Europe/Scandinavia, whose trade routes I wrote about back in Elsewhere in the Baltic: Gotland; the “Amber Road” stretches from the southern shores of the Baltic to northern Italy. From there it was traded to Carthage, Egypt, and Syria. (King Tut was interred with ornaments made of Baltic amber.) If amber made it to the Silk Road, it could have traveled even further afield.

So I wonder: How advanced were things circa 1,000 BC? Certainly most people were subsistence farmers, but then again, most people today are still farmers. Did the Europe of 1,000 or 6,000 BC look much like the Europe of 1,000 AD, but with fewer cathedrals? Did the Roman and Greek eras introduce major changes in the level of organization and the general shape of European daily life (even allowing for the massive collapse that followed in the western half of the Roman Empire,) or was this more or less the road Europe was already on? Would the culture of bronze age Europe be remotely familiar to us, or was it totally different? And how much of an effect (if any) did all of this trade have on the lives of ordinary people?

To be continued… (Go to Part 2, Part 3)


Europe before Rome


Herodotus’s world (You don’t want to travel to the land of the Androphagi, that’s for sure.)

The civilization of Greece and Rome make such an impact upon the pages of history that everything before and after is cast in shadow. Despite this, history since the fall of the Roman Empire has been fairly well documented–but European history before Herodotus laid quill to parchment is known almost solely through archaeology (and, increasingly, genetics.)

What was Europe like before the Romans conquered it? Was it rather like Europe after the Fall of Rome, but with less Christianity and fewer scribes? Had Europe already started down the path to technological development and innovation, or was it still a barbarian backwater that only became significant later–perhaps because of the Romans, Christianity, or trade routes to other, more developed parts of the world?

Oddly, some of the world’s oldest still-standing houses are found on a tiny island off the far northern tip of Scotland, at a site named Skara Brae, (occupied between 3180 and 2500 BC):








Or perhaps this isn’t so odd–not because people on windswept islands in the middle of the North Atlantic developed house-building skills before anyone else, but because they had to work in stone because they had so few trees. Most people–especially folks living in hot places–build houses out of materials like wood and reeds, which biodegrade over the course of a few thousand years. Skara Brae, built in a nearly treeless, cold, windy island, looks an igloo made of stone instead of ice and surrounded for insulation with turf instead of snow.

Skara Brae’s isolation has probably also helped preserve it–there haven’t been a bunch of people wandering around the Orkneys, plowing up the land, building hotels, and generally obliterating ancient sites.

Likewise, those footprints on the moon are likely to be there for a very long time.

The Orkney islands boast some even older houses, at the Knap of Howar (occupied between 3,700 and 2,800 BC):








Most of the other structures we have from this time period appear to be tombs or stone circles. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is a giant tomb (and since it was built in 2,560 BC, it’s younger than Skara Brae.) Stonehenge was built sometime between 3,000 and 2,000 BC and serves no obvious purpose, but given the 100+ people interred there, it probably also began as a fancy graveyard.

The preservation of houses and other structures on the Orkney islands may be an accident of geography, but it is a lucky one, for it allows us a rare glimpse into how these people lived.

Orkney boasts not just houses, of course, but also chambered tombs and stone circles, more houses at the Links of Noltland, and a possibly ceremonial complex–or just regular complex of buildings–now known as Ness Brodgar (photos and map belong to the Ness of Brodgar excavation site):

ness2015plan Site-overview






(Sorry these pictures are oriented in different directions, and the map shows a different stage in the excavation than the photos.)

Structure-10-note-more-of-the-paving-around-it-revealed-at-the-bottom-of-the-photoFor orientation, Structure 10 is in the lower right on the map, the lower left in the overview photo, and oriented toward the top of the second, close-up photo. For comparison, there is a modern house in the lower-left hand corner of the overview photo, which does not appear much bigger than the excavated structures.


Wikipedia gives us some more detailed descriptions of the site:

There are the remains of a large stone wall (the “Great Wall of Brodgar”) that may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on …

The temple-like structure, which was discovered in 2008, has walls 4 metres (13 ft) thick and the shape and size of the building are visible, with the walls still standing to a height of more 1 metre (3.3 ft). The structure is 25 metres (82 ft) long and 20 metres (66 ft) wide … The archaeological team believe it is the largest structure of its kind anywhere in the north of Britain…

In July 2010, a remarkable rock coloured red, orange, and yellow was unearthed. This is the first discovery in Britain of evidence that Neolithic peoples used paint to decorate their buildings … Only a week later a stone with a zigzag chevron pattern painted with a red pigment was discovered nearby.[14]

A baked clay artefact known as the “Brodgar Boy”, and thought to be a figurine with a head, body, and two eyes, was also unearthed in the rubble of one structure in 2011… archaeologists discovered a carved stone ball, a very rare find of such an object in situ in “a modern archaeological context”.[17]

Prehistoric roof tiles were used in Ness of Brodgar. The archaeologists at the ongoing Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) excavations have found Orkney’s first real evidence of a Neolithic roof. In most reconstructions of prehistoric buildings, one will often see the roof made of turf, animal skins or thatch. But on the Ness, the builders used stone slates for at least one of their buildings the remains of which have been uncovered within the side recesses along the interior walls of Structure Eight.[18]

The Wikipedia page on Prehistoric Scotland gives a quick description of the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae :

At the wonderfully well preserved stone house at Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray (occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC) the walls stand to a low eaves height, and the stone furniture is intact. Evidence from middens shows that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, farming barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats. …

The houses at Skara Brae on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands are very similar, but grouped into a village linked by low passageways. This settlement was occupied from about 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Pottery found here is of the grooved ware style which is found across Britain as far away as Wessex.

Old map of the Orkney Islands
Old map of the Orkney Islands

The page on Skara Brae further notes:

On average, the houses measure 40 square metres (430 sq ft) in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.[5] …

The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed “by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs”.[9] A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village’s design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.

Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door… Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband’s bed was the larger and the wife’s was the smaller.[10] The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. …

One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes.


Continuing on:

Other artefacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 10 inches (25 cm) long.[32] These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures.[33] So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles.[34] Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland.

Not bad for such a small, isolated place!

In the spirit of speculation, BBC Travel asks, Were these remote, wild islands the center of everything?

“…the Ness of Brodgar, an elaborate ceremonial complex the size of four US football fields, is reshaping our understanding of the people who lived more than 5,000 years ago. …

To appreciate the Ness, though, you also have to visit the Ring of Brodgar: … Each of the stones, measuring up to 4.5m tall, was dragged from quarries as far as 10 miles away. (The earliest example of a wheel in Britain dates to about 1100 BC, some 600 years later.) The surrounding ditch was cut 9m wide and 3m deep through bedrock – all without the use of metal. Including the ditch and bank … the Ring of Brodgar’s diameter is 130m… Among Neolithic structures in Britain, its size is exceeded only by Avebury and Stanton Drew; it edges out Stonehenge, whose ditch and bank measure 100m. In all, the Ring of Brodgar is estimated to have taken as many as 80,000 man hours to complete.

The Ness of Brodgar underscores that even further. Both the size and intricacy of the complex are unlike anything that’s been found in Europe before. The main building, nicknamed the “cathedral”, had an area of some 465sqm, including a forecourt; the entire Ness was surrounded by a wall more than 365m long…

All of that opulence was for something likely never meant to be a permanent settlement. Instead, the Ness was used periodically for more than 1,300 years. Around 2300 BC, near the end of its life, shinbones from some 400 cattle were deposited on the site – likely the remains of a very large feast, when you consider that a single cow could feed about 200 people.

… that final ceremony – along with the rest of the finds, and the size and design of the buildings themselves – has led archaeologists to believe that its purpose was largely ritual, with people gathering here from many miles away. … It’s also adding evidence to what might be the most surprising takeaway of all: that this corner of Scotland wasn’t just a centre of Neolithic civilisation in Britain. It may have been the centre.

Today, the remote location of the archipelago’s 70 islands means that it is widely ignored by all but the savviest of history- (or prehistory-) loving travellers. But once, it was this very location made them a centre of civilisation. The islands were along the North Sea route that prehistoric people would have taken from northern Europe to Britain and back. Archaeologists have already found, for example, that Orkney invented grooved-ware pottery some 5,100 to 5,300 years ago – a development that later made its way across the rest of Britain, probably accompanied by other types of technology, art and ideas.

The grooved ware pottery point is interesting. According to Wikipedia:

Unlike the later Beaker ware, Grooved culture was not an import from the continent but seems to have developed in Orkney, early in the 3rd millennium BC, and was soon adopted in Britain and Ireland.[1]…

Since many Grooved ware pots have been found at henge sites and in burials, it is possible that they may have had a ritual purpose as well as a functional one. …

The earliest examples have been found in Orkney and may have evolved from earlier Unstan ware bowls. … The style soon spread and it was used by the builders of the first phase of Stonehenge. Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance in recent excavations at Durrington Walls and Marden Henge in Wiltshire. …

One way the tradition may have spread is through trade routes up the west coast of Britain. … Evidence at some early Henges (Mayburgh Henge, Ring of Brodgar, Arbor Low) suggests that there were staging and trading points on a national ‘motorway’ during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. This evidence perhaps explains how Cumbrian stone axes found their way to Orkney.

Was Orkney some sort of important trade point?

Since the invention of the wheel, the road, and the internal combustion engine, I suspect that we moderns have begun defaulting to thinking about trade routes in terms of places you can get to by car (or train.) But these sites were constructed before the wheel reached Britain–in the days when burdens taken overland had to be carried on one’s back or loaded onto an animal.

It was likely far easier to trade by water than by land–simply load all of your goods into a boat, shove off, and row. The close association between “Greek” cities and “Turkish” cities in Hellenic times exemplifies this–it makes more sense to think of ancient Greek civilization as an island-hopping Aegean-based people than to think of them as a land-based people. Even today, human settlements cluster around ports–the easiest places to load and unload shipped goods.

Just as the Aegean was to Greece, the Mediterranean to Rome, the Nile to Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates to Babylon, and the monsoon trade routes to the Indian ocean, so may the Baltic have been to northern Europe:


This map doesn’t show Scotland, but it is rather to the West of the southern tip of Norway. It is not a coastal-hugging route, but if you just aim your boat due West, you’ll probably hit it.

But due to the big chunk of hard-to traverse European land in between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, none of these potential trade routes connect with Herodotus’s world.