August 17, 2008

Touring America's Indian heartland

A travel article notes that you can Indian history throughout the Midwest--in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio--if you know where to look for it.

Ancient MidwestMILE 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.

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 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.

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.
Comment:  How many Americans have even heard of Cahokia? One in a hundred? How would guess that Cahokia was larger than London in A.D. 1250? One in a thousand?

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