Pyramidal Mystique

                                                                                                                                  (Published 3/24/16)






Chapter 1


North American Pyramids


When one thinks of the locations of important pyramid fields, North America is unlikely to be the first area to come to mind.  Pyramids are more commonly associated with places like Egypt, specifically Giza, or Mexico, specifically Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan.  And yet archaeological evidence indicates that the very first pyramidal structures were built by the Mississippian culture in North America, and were located primarily in the Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio River Valley, and the Great Lakes area.  The earliest of these structures was build about 3500 BC, 1000 years before the pyramids of Giza, and 3500 years before the pyramids of Teotihuacan.  While the North American structures (often referred to as “mounds”) did not incorporate the massive limestone or granite blocks of, say, the Giza pyramids, having been built primarily of rubble and clay, they nevertheless had a (truncated) pyramidal form.  They were generally platform mounds meant to be substructures for buildings or activities at their apex.  While intrusive burials sometimes occurred, entombment was not their primary purpose.  Because these structures did not weather well, they were generally renovated about every twenty years, with the addition of new layers of fill, a new surface of brightly colored clay, and a new structure on the now higher summit.

Among the notable pyramid fields in North America are Watson Brake in Louisiana, Poverty Point in Louisiana, Emerald Mound in Mississippi, and the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois.  The most important among these sites is Cahokia, which is considered to be the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico.

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The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which encompasses a state park with a visitors center and museum, is considered by some to be on a par with the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Taj Mahal.  The 4000-acre site, situated about a mile from the Mississippi River just north of East St. Louis, Illinois, preserves the remnants of the largest prehistoric settlement in the area.  A large walled city that flourished 1000 years ago, it covered an area of more than five miles square and dwarfed every other ruin in North America.  It was the largest, and most influential, urban settlement in the Mississippian culture.  Yet, despite its


Map — Cahokia Mounds, Illinois


size and importance, archaeologists still don’t understand how this vast, lost culture began, how it ended, or what went on in between.  Cahokia began to decline during the twelfth century AD, and was abandoned during the mid-thirteenth century AD, the area around it no longer being inhabited by indigenous tribes.  So far, archaeologists have uncovered no evidence of invasion, rampant disease, overpopulation, deforestation, or any other of the hallmarks of the decline and fall of a civilization.

Cahokia abounds in artifacts, but archaeologists have not yet made much sense of them in any meaningful way.  Cahokia included about 120 human-made earthen mounds in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and functions.  Its population, at its peak of about 40,000 in 1200 AD, would not be surpassed by any city in the United States until the late 18th century.  The inhabitants of Cahokia left no written records beyond symbols on pottery, shells, copper, wood, and stone, but the elaborately planned community, woodhenge, mounds, and burials reveal a complex and sophisticated society.  By the time Westerners came to the area, the Native Americans had no recollection of the civilizations that had originally created the mounds.

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The preeminent pyramid at Cahokia is Monks Mound, a flat-topped pyramid that was so named because a community of Trappist monks resided there for a short time during the 1800s.  Tracking of the construction sequence of Monks Mound reveals that the final size and shape was part of a highly developed plan.  Its construction began about 900 AD – 950 AD, on a site that had previously been occupied by other buildings.  The original concept seems to have been a much smaller mound, now buried deep within the northern end of the present structure. 

As built, the final mound was 92 feet high, 951 feet long and 836 feet wide.  At one point, it was surmounted by a 105 foot long by 48 foot wide temple, the height of which could have been as much as 50 feet.  The Monks Mound base covered about 14.4 acres and the structure had a volume of

about 800,000 cubic feet.  It consisted of more than 2.16 billion pounds of non-local soil types, primarily brightly colored clays that were not found in the surrounding



Monks Mound

alluvial floodplain, and had to be transported manually over significant distances.  In terms of volume, Monks Mound is the third or fourth largest pyramid in the world, being bigger than any of the three pyramids at Giza.  All carefully layered stages of its construction proceeded quickly as indicated by a complete absence of erosion or vegetation found between its layers.  Because of the nature of the materials used in its construction, and because of its flattened top, Monks Mound has tended to retain rainwater within its structure.  This has caused "slumping,” the avalanche-like sliding of large sections of the sides at the highest part of the mound.

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Spreading out to the south of Monks Mound was the Grand Plaza, part of the sophisticated engineering displayed throughout the site.  The Plaza covered roughly 50 acres and measures over 1,600 feet in length by over 900 feet in width.  It was used for large ceremonies and gatherings, as well as for ritual games.  Along with the Grand Plaza, to the south three other large plazas surround Monks Mound in the cardinal directions to the east, west, and north.  Beyond Monks Mound, as many as 120 more mounds stood at varying distances from the city center.  To date, 109 mounds have been located, 68 of which are in the park area.  The mounds are divided into several different types: platform, conical, ridge-top, etc.  Each appeared to have had its own meaning and function.

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To the west of Monks Mound, in a circle more than 400 feet in diameter, several dozen wooden posts rose to the height of telephone poles.  This “Woodhenge,” as the structure is now known, is a reconstruction of a series of circles found in the 1960s and ’70s when excavations unearthed the remains of several hundred houses and dozens of post pits.  At the autumnal equinox, the rising sun aligns exactly with one post when viewed from the center of the circle, just as it does at the spring equinox and the solstices.  These alignments can be taken as evidence that the posts may have functioned as a kind of calendar, marking the turn of the seasons.

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Mound 72, where one of Cahokia’s chiefs appears to have been buried, lies about a half mile south of Monks Mound.  It is a ridgetop mound, modest in size as compared to Monks Mound, but the site holds far grimmer implications about Cahokian society.  Excavations there in the late 1960s uncovered the remains of more than 270 people.  One of these, presumably the chief, was a tall middle-aged male who had been laid on a shelf of 20,000 seashell beads arranged in the shape of a bird.  He has since come to be spoken of as the “Birdman.”  He was buried with elaborate grave goods, and also apparently with several of his retainers.  In other parts of the site, the skeletons of more than 100 young women clearly indicate human sacrifice, as do those of a grouping of four young men with no hands or head.  Another 40 or so bodies appear to have been tossed into a mass grave haphazardly.  Other mass burials in Mound 72 show varying degrees of respect and carelessness — presumably reflecting some sort of social hierarchy.  Researchers theorize that those who are buried there could represent the lineage of a prominent family, their retainers, and multiple sacrificial victims.

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