About an hour from where I live, in SW Illinois, is the largest archaeology site in the US, Cahokia Mounds. It is near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers. It is the most important site of the Mississippian Native Americans, the Mound Builders. It is simply an amazing place to visit.
The largest of the earthen mounds at Cahokia is Monk’s Mound. It is named after a group of monks who built a residence there in the 1800’s.
We know very little about these people, they left no written language. So, what we have learned has come from what we have dug up. Here are a few of the things we do know.
The influence of the Mississippians spread throughout much of N. American. We know that Cahokia was the center of their culture, their capital city in today’s terms. Their “empire” spread northward to Minnesota, southeast to Florida, east into Ohio and west only a short distance, in Missouri. But their commerce extended to the Pacific Northwest, what today we call New England, into the American SW and south into Central America. We know this because of things dug up at Cahokia.
By far the most physically impressive feature of Cahokia is Monk’s Mound. This earthen mound covers over 15 acres and rises over 10 stories (more than 100′). From the top one can see for miles and miles. Monks Mound was once the site of residence for the leaders of the empire. It also appears to have been the site of a large temple, the center of their religious beliefs.
It is estimated that it took over 250 years to build Monk’s Mound. The surrounding area does not have stone or forests. So the people built this mound out of dirt and clay. They dug and carried the materials on their backs, one basket at a time. Over 1 billions baskets of dirt.
Around 1000 CE, the city of Cahokia had around 20,000 residents. It was the most populous site north of what is now Mexico City and was larger than London or Paris at the time. The city was laid our with amazing planning. Water was provided by canals dug by hand. The immediate surrounding area could not have supported the population without incredible planning and management of food, transportation and other resources. The city itself was surrounded by a wooden stocade, replaced at least three times as the city expanded and/or the old stockade rotted away. The nearest source for logs large enough to build this wall was miles away and continued to move even further away as the forests were depleted.
Also located near Monk’s Mound is what has become know as Wood Henge. This is a large circle of wooden poles which served as an astronomical calendar. It was extremely accurate for measuring the movements of the sun, telling the seasons. Like similar ancient structures throughout the world, it was most certainly used for agriculture and commerce, but it most likely also served for religious purposes.
Archaeology has also shown us that there was a huge plaza at the base of Monk’s Mound used, probably, for festivals and games. And there were dozens of lesser mounds of different shapes and sizes that served particular purposes. Some were burial sites, and we are certain from what has been found in some of them that these people believed in an afterlife.
Over time, the site of Cahokia has been greatly degraded or destroyed by the ravages of time, agriculture, looting and other factors of human habitation. We’ve lost a lot of learning and understanding about these mysterious people. We don’t even know what they called themselves.
The culture grew and flourished from about 600 CE until the site was totally abandoned about 1200 CE. The pinnacle of this culture was between 800-1100 CE.
What happened to the power and influence? We don’t really know. Perhaps it was war, although there is no wholesale destruction like we find in other such lost cultures. Maybe the resources became so depleted the population could not longer be sustained. But the surrounding area is one of the richest agricultural areas in the US today. It could have been disease, but there is no evidence of that either.
One of the leading theories points to the decay of leadership. By building to the sky and living atop Monks Mound, the leaders of this culture may have done what so many others have done, thought that they were gods. We’re simply not sure, but this has certainly happened in other ancient cultures. Recall the Tower of Babel?
So, why include this under the category of Biblical Archaeology? It has no direct tie to anything mentioned in the Bible.
What it does do is show us some of human nature. Throughout the world and all of history humankind has build toward the heavens in the belief that they could be like God, or their own particular gods. They have been sky builders. And their empires have fallen, just as their towers have fallen or been abandoned.
Have we learned our lessons from these ancient sky builders? Look around the world at the edifices built or being built to the glory of man…
We still have our sky builders.