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Cahokia: Cosmic Landscape Architecture

Fig. 41. Ceremonial cynosure and synedoche. The clear-cut geometry of the mounds and plazas, and their orientation to eternal cosmic events, identifies Cahokia as a sacred ceremonial center, a place of perfection and permanence drawing pilgrims from miles around to the microcosm of the great universe of the sun beyond. The heart of the great metropolis was the Grand Plaza at Cahokia, with Twin Mounds in the foreground and Monks Mound as the ceremonial climax to the north.
Fig. 41. Ceremonial cynosure and synedoche. The clear-cut geometry of the mounds and plazas, and their orientation to eternal cosmic events, identifies Cahokia as a sacred ceremonial center, a place of perfection and permanence drawing pilgrims from miles around to the microcosm of the great universe of the sun beyond. The heart of the great metropolis was the Grand Plaza at Cahokia, with Twin Mounds in the foreground and Monks Mound as the ceremonial climax to the north.

An excerpt from Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos by Sally A. Kitt Chappell

Cahokia spider icon Seen from high above, the Cahokia landscape had mythic dimensions. Stretching for six square miles, more than one hundred mounds rose from the earth with monumental presence. At the center lay four vast plazas, honoring the cardinal directions, to the north, east, south, and west (fig. 42). At their crossing the great Monks Mound towered more than a hundred feet in the air. At other points woodhenges (large circular areas marked off by enormous red cedar posts) enclosed large circular plazas or ceremonial areas.

Figure 42: Lohmann/Stirling Phase Configuration of Cahokia
Figure 42

A whole city aligned with the cosmos! The idea reverberates with expressive power. The stars in the heavens shine radiantly; they are constant in both position and movement; they appear with reassuring regularity generation after generation. The North Star orients a hunter in the forest so he can find his way home. The moon lights his way in the darkness. The Pleiades promise a frost-free growing season. Our orbit around the sun brings four seasons, from spring to winter, echoing the life cycle of a person from youth to old age, with the promise of continuity in new generations.

Are there other symbolic messages hidden in the placement of the mounds and plazas in this eleventh-century city? How was its plan designed? What kind of social and political organization was necessary to erect public works of this magnitude? How was the labor force organized and motivated? What kind of surveying and engineering methods ensured stability and endurance?

Even today, traces of the four main plazas demonstrate their orientation: Monks Mound is aligned with the cardinal directions; the North Plaza is bounded by four mounds on each of the cardinal sides; the principal mounds in the center are aligned with Monks Mound and with each other. Seven mounds are lined up north-south in line with the west edge of Monks Mound. Another eight align with the east edge. Nine mounds are on an east-west line across the site and line up with Monks Mound.

As if designed by a landscape architect, each mound has sufficient space around it to set it off from the others, and the modular spacing between the major mounds serves to unify them. At the equinoxes two poles of the reconstructed Woodhenge align with the rising sun in the east. Solstice posts in the Woodhenge align at the beginning of summer and winter at sunrise and sunset. Several of the principal mounds are also on these alignments (fig. 45).

Figure 45: Celestial orientations from Monk's Mound and Mound 72
Figure 45

Fgure 118: A setting for mythic rituals. Majestic mounds and four plazas mark the cardinal directions,
A setting for mythic rituals. Majestic mounds and four plazas mark the cardinal directions,
a reflection of the cosmos in the heart of the midwestern prairie.

We do not know exactly what the religious beliefs of the Cahokians were, but when authorities with background knowledge allow themselves to speculate, the results are illuminating, especially about what might have happened during religious celebrations or on the other special occasions for which this elaborate sacred landscape was designed and built.

At the center of John Pfeiffer's imaginative account in Indian City on the Mississippi lay four logs pointing to the cardinal directions. Experts have recently provided some convincing arguments that the story is largely accurate. The evidence indicates that many Amerindian societies deliberately planned their communities after a cosmic model. Henri-Frédéric Amiel said in his nineteenth-century journal, "A landscape is a condition of the spirit." Scholar Paul Wheatley put it another way:

Sacrality (which is synonymous with reality) is achieved through the imitation of a celestial archetype....Although the whole world was the handiwork of the Gods its maximum potential sacredness was realizable only at a few points. Before territory could be inhabited, it had to be sacralized—that is cosmicized. Its consecration signified its reality and therefore sanctioned its habitation; but its establishment as an imitation of a celestial archetype required its delimitation and orientation as a sacred territory within a profane space.

With its plazas aligned on the cardinal directions and the mound of greatest height at the crossing of the plazas, it is clear that Cahokia is a landscape cosmogram. John E. Kelly advocates looking for an explanation by approaching the question from both ends of a chronological continuum. Did other Native American communities create any analogous sacred landscape before the Cahokians? After the Cahokians? The answer is yes to both questions. We know the Hopewell circle-and-octagon mounds were used for sacred ceremonies and for astronomical observations. We have seen the evidence of a solar calendar at Poverty Point about 1500 B.C. Another pre-Cahokia example is the McKeithen site at Weeden Island in northern Florida, occupied between A.D. 200 and 700. Here three mounds form the corners of an isosceles triangle, and a perpendicular from the center of the baseline to the apex points toward the rising sun at the summer solstice.

After Cahokia, examples can be found in many Amerindian tribes, and we gain many insights through the ethnographic analogies that follow.

An Animated Landscape at Once Past, Present, and Future

Skywatching has always been a vital part of Native Americans' life, and it has influenced their religious beliefs, agricultural practices, social organization, and landscape architecture. As scholar William G. Gartner put it:

Native American architecture is an amalgam of design rules and always encodes many messages....Many ancient astronomers sought to equate the regular patterns of the heavens with cultural and natural phenomena here on earth, thereby empirically validating an established world view....The primary goal in many North American contexts was commemoration, often times a religious celebration of world creation and the once present and future animated landscape. Ancient sky watching was merely one empirical component for constructing a sacred geography.

This sacred geography, a material manifestation of a belief system, also could serve as a teaching device and a constant reminder to young and old of all classes of the society's religious views and social organization. As you walked out your front door every morning you saw a virtual replica of the orderly universe. On your way to work your path took you through this celestial microcosm. This three-dimensional cosmic diagram was also like an organizational chart of your community's class structure. Your own place in it was literally traced by your moccasins. If you were a worker, on ordinary days you were outside the palisade wall; on festival days you gathered with other common people in the plaza (see figure 48 below). If you were a member of the elite, you greeted the day from your house on a medium-sized platform mound within the palisade. The chief dominated the world around him as far as he could see from the height of the largest platform mound.

Figure 48: An ordinary day in a sacred city. Life at Cahokia was filled with workers going about daily activities
An ordinary day in a sacred city. Life at Cahokia was filled with workers going about daily activities
and the tasks of house building in the shadows of the tall mounds occupied by the elite.

Seeing some similarities in the emphasis on the cardinal directions in Cahokia and in contemporary Native American beliefs, Robert L. Hall suggests that Cahokia contained a "world center shrine" similar to those observed historically among the Zuni, the Hopi, the Tewa pueblo, the Osage, the Arapaho, and the Cheyenne. Many of these Native American villages are perceived by their inhabitants as being the cosmos in microcosm, and their own village center is seen as the center of the world. Hall also draws on the field observations of Frank Hamilton Cushing, written over a century ago:

The Zuni of today number scarcely 1,700 and, as is well known, they inhabit only a single large pueblo....This pueblo, however, is divided not always clearly to the eye, but very clearly in the estimation of the people themselves, into seven parts, corresponding, not perhaps in arrangement topographically, but in sequence, to their subdivisions of the "worlds" or world-quarters of this world. Thus, one division of the town is supposed to be related to the north and to be centered in its kiva or estufa, which may or may not be, however, in its center; another division represents the west, another the south, and another the east, yet another the upper world and another the lower world, while a final division represents the middle or mother and synthetic combinations of them all in this world.

This four-part horizontal division of the world (into north, east, south, and west) plus a three-part vertical division (into lower world, this world, and upper world) was also reflected in the ritual behavior of the Zuni around their religious shrines.

Ritual Behavior in a Sacred Land
Arrived at the field, [the Zuni man] goes to a well-known spot near its center. Here he digs in the soft sandy soil by pushing his prod down with his foot, equally distant from the central place; the first to the North, the second to the West, the third to the South and the fourth to the East. By the left side of the north hole he digs another to represent the Sky regions, and by the right side of the southern hole still another relating it to the Lower regions. In the central space he kneels facing the East, and drawing forth the plumed prayer-wand first marks by sprinkling prayer meal, a cross on the ground—to symbolize not only the four cardinal points, but also the stars which shall watch over his field by night-time. Then with prayer, he plants the plumed [prayer] stick at the intersection of the cross, sprinkles it with more corn meal...and withdraws."

John Kelly notes a similar physical manifestation at Cahokia with the "quadrilateral configuration of the plazas" plus the vertical dimension present in the Monks Mound, standing as the great mound does between the lower world and the upper world of the sky, with the ascending ramp like a cosmic stairway tying together earth, land, and sky.

Humans all over the globe have wanted height in their symbolic religious places, and the Cahokians solved the problem of their flat topography by creating enormous earth mounds. Where there were no natural heights, they created architectural heights to fill their spiritual needs.

Height is also a metaphor for power, and the Cahokian elite were powerful people. Conveniently, and not coincidentally, height served the personal-communal need for a sacred place and also the social-political need for a statement of civil order and a method of civil control. Tall structures are imposing. They demand to be noticed, respected, sometimes feared. If they are taller than the structures of a rival tribe, city, culture, or nation, they are also emblems of victory, trophies symbolizing the possession of the best engineering, architecture, social, and military organization and the greatest wealth. Tall structures demonstrate vigor and success. They show the surrounding world that the inhabitants are big, bold, and in command.

A Microcosm on Earth

The Midwest not only lacked natural heights, it was also devoid of limits, borders, or boundaries. Most often compared to an ocean of grass, the prairies too could be terrifyingly vast. Within the wild forests that bordered them the confusion could be equally disorienting. The microcosm on earth, the mound city, calmed by mirroring the cosmos as it clarified and ordered human experience, giving it a meaning it would otherwise not have.

Figure 5: Dawn at the equinox an aura of gold.
Dawn at the equinox—an aura of gold.

No set place for humans was provided by Mother Nature. The work of the human hand in marking a portion of the terrifying vastness with an ordered place gave material form to the workings of the human mind, orienting the self and the community within the scheme of things. The mounds create a sense of here, as opposed to infinite thereness. Mounds, terraced pyramids, cones and ridge-tops, and plazas—all these geometric shapes are clearly hand-made. Nature is altered, assisted, made neat and orderly as well as fructified by the efforts of human architecture and husbandry.

Vertical and Horizontal Cosmography Reflected in the Sacred Mound City

The human place in the cosmos is situated along two vectors, the horizontal and the vertical, and given scale as well as scope by the insertion of geometric shapes. Here in this broad land is our place in the horizontal sense. Here is the protected place; beyond is the place where we can travel, have adventures, and yet always return to an oriented place because the mounds do not move. The sun and the stars move, but the mounds always stay where they are.

If I am an ordinary Cahokian I find my vertical place in the social hierarchy in the lowest parts of the city. If I am a priest I am above all other creatures, approaching the celestial world.

Figure 49: This charming ceramic bowl shows a swimming beaver chewing on a stick held in his paws, no doubt on his way to build his home.
This charming ceramic bowl shows a swimming beaver chewing on a stick held in his paws, no doubt on his way to build his home.

Like the Mayans, the Cahokians probably believed the upper world represented order, the lower world disorder, and the middle world, or this world, a mixture of the two. Symbols of the upper world found in Cahokian artifacts are symbols of the sun's rays or of birds such as the falcon and the eagle. Snakes, frogs, and fish appear as emblems of the lower world. Deer, rabbits, and raccoons are of this world. Some animals thought to live in two worlds became special symbols, such as the beaver, the owl, and the cougar.

Cahokia figure iconAmong some peoples, such as the Cherokee, the water spider was heralded as the bringer of the sacred fire of the sun to earth. These spiders appear on most of the Mississippian shell gorgets in the area around Cahokia.

Many Native American ceremonies refer to myths of creation—the origin of people, fire, water, or other natural forces—all helping to make sense of life on earth. Their rituals may alsoserve as commemorative occasions, such as thanksgiving at harvestime, giving the participants a sense of connection with the past, the present, and the future. There are elements of their religious beliefs tied to directing natural processes such as rainfall, fertility of the soil, abundance of crops, or birth and death and other events in the life cycle. It is possible that even their sporting activities, such as chunkey—a game in which spears were thrown at a rolling stone—were influenced by their myths.

The Sacred Order of the City Preserves the Social Order

Scholars also believe that the physical order of cosmographic cities played a vital role in expressing the social order of the city and preserving its political order.

Many eastern and midwestern Native American tribes that we know from historical records divided not only the physical aspects of their villages but their social order according to the cosmological principles of their religion. Garrick A. Bailey gives one good example for the Osage:

Just as the cosmos was divided between sky and earth, so the clans were divided into groups or moieties....the nine clans of the Sky People symbolically represented all of the forces of the sky, whereas the fifteen Earth clans symbolically represented all of the forces of the earth....Osage villages...were organized as mirror images of the cosmos. They were divided in half by an east-west street that symbolized the surface of the earth—the ho'-e-ga—and the path of the sun on its daily journey. Each clan had its own section of the village. Families of the Sky People were arranged by clan groupings in precise locations along the north side of the street. Similarly, families of the Earth People were arranged in clan order along the south side.

Archaeological discoveries in the late twentieth century indicated that some aspects of festival life in Cahokia dealt with what we would call the darker side of life. There are examples of human sacrifices of all kinds in other cultures, and apparently Cahokia was no exception. Although we do not know the nature of the ceremonies that accompanied such ritual behavior, Melvin L. Fowler's discovery of four headless and handless skeletons buried in Mound 72 suggests a foundation for this speculation.

Public Works Ritually Renewed to Preserve Civic Order

Perhaps human sacrifice was also part of a system of social control of the labor force. The archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that the mounds were built in stages and, like the plazas, palisades, woodhenges, and other public works at Cahokia, had to be regularly repaired and reconstructed. Although wood is a durable material if it is constantly wet or constantly dry, wood in damp earth is subject to the wet/dry conditions that promote rapid rot. Urban renewal was necessary almost continuously in Cahokia, and sometimes groups of buildings and even whole neighborhoods were swept away so as to reorder the earthly cosmos or clear land for new or rebuilt structures. Only strong social control and political power can make possible such large-scale changes in the civic fabric. In addition, public works of such magnitude required mobilizing and maintaining a large labor force.

The Human Cost of Public Works

Estimates for the hours of labor needed just for the palisade and its regularly placed bastions are an illuminating example of the time required for large structures. Nearly twenty thousand logs are needed for the kind of stockade fence that surrounded central Cahokia. A person with a stone ax can fell two nine-inch-diameter trees in an hour, meaning that 10,000 work hours would be needed just to obtain the raw material. Sizing, trimming, and debarking would require another one to two hours per tree. Transporting all the logs from the forest to the site takes more labor. Excavating the trenches for the foundation adds about 20,800 hours. The labor of erecting the posts, backfilling the trench around them with soil, tamping down the fill, collecting and preparing cordage and ropes to lash or interweave the supports with cross members, and other finishing operations such as mixing and applying daub plaster (which could make logs last longer) brings the total to nearly 180,000 work hours. Under ideal conditions (good weather, accessibility of timber, a sizable workforce, and ease of transportation) it would take two thousand men a week to build a palisade. But it probably took much longer.

Some useful numbers also help us grasp the enormous effort that goes into making a structure the size of Monks Mound with human labor. This pharaonic enterprise required carrying 14,666,666 baskets, each filled with 1.5 cubic feet of dirt, weighing about fifty-five pounds each, for a total of 22 million cubic feet. For comparison, an average pickup truck holds 96 cubic feet, so it would take 229,166 pickup loads to bring the dirt to the site. If thirty people each carried eight baskets of earth a day, the job would take 167 years. Various scholars have calculated time and labor estimates that differ widely, and we do know that the mounds usually were built not all at once but in a series of stages, sometimes over many years.

In addition to the four palisades, more than a hundred mounds, and five woodhenges, there were many other public buildings—granaries, the palace-temple of the chief, and the residences of other members of the elite. Erecting a woodhenge was complicated; it involved digging large bathtub-shaped foundation holes, aligning and measuring, and coordinating the work of pulling the posts upright (see figure 53 below). Large work crews were also assigned to level the plazas, filling in the swales and tamping the surface smooth.

Figure 53: Erecting a woodhenge. A solar calendar of the sun's movement helped determine when to hold ceremonies in preparation for planting, harvesting, and other events in the agricultural cycle and marked the all-important spring and fall equinox celebrations.

Erecting a woodhenge. A solar calendar of the sun's movement helped determine when to hold ceremonies in preparation for planting, harvesting, and other events in the agricultural cycle and marked the all-important spring and fall equinox celebrations.

It is clear that organizational control was a vital part of Cahokia society. Archaeologist Timothy R. Pauketat supports the view that the Cahokia public works were more than symbols of religious beliefs in the powers of the cosmos: "Cahokian monuments it seems, to be monuments, required the regular mobilization of community labor, no doubt a means of perpetuating both elite control of community labor and the common perception that elite caretakers were necessary for the very existence of the community."

Archaeologist Rinita Dalan continues the argument persuasively:

Delayed returns associated with agriculture necessitate the establishment of a stable and cooperative labor pool....The communal construction and use of mounds, plazas and other earthen features would have provided a means of creating and perpetuating social relations, and establishing and maintaining the labor force necessary for large-scale agricultural pursuits. The durability of this construction and its attendant message of group permanence would have assured a commitment to place and to the transformation, both social and ecological, of the landscape....

Monks Mound and the Grand Plaza were clearly critical in the definition and creation of a large integrated community...simultaneously emphasizing the importance of the ruling hierarchy and the masses. The large, accessible plaza, which appears to have been capable of accommodating the resident population and more, provided a centralized location for ritual activities and served as a collective representation of the group. In contrast, the mounds represented an intricate system in which the relationships of different community and polity groups were ordered. The power of the chief was manifested in a mound that stood above all others. The power of the center was expressed in the profusion of its mounds.

In this way powerful chiefs and their affiliated ruling class could perpetuate their control and position. By associating themselves with the power of the sky they provided celestial legitimacy for their status, and by erecting a monumental city around them they perpetuated the belief system and their own place at the top of the social, religious, and political hierarchy. In addition, the system ensured public safety.

In other words, the chief at Cahokia appropriated the celestial cosmology that ordered the religious beliefs of his people to strengthen the social hierarchy he headed. Melvin L. Fowler summed it up well:

The creation of a sacred landscape is accomplished through the building of monumental constructions within, or near, a specific community. These sacred landscapes serve as the focal point of ceremonies in the ritual calendar in which "chiefs acted as gods on earth connected to cosmic forces."

The astronomical connotations of woodhenges and other constructions at Cahokia belong to the vocabulary of consolidated political power during the decades preceding Cahokia's Emergent Mississippian era. Because authority in this community was always in contention, the community was stabilized through the use of symbols which legitimized the status of the elite. The construction of mounds, post circles, and plazas consumed labor on a massive scale. Through civic construction, Cahokia's elite created highly visible expressions of the power that mobilized that labor in the first place. These displayed the social structure of Cahokia with daily reminders that no one residing in the city, or visiting it, could ignore, for they defined the geographical, social and political landscape with architectural spectacle....

The greater Cahokia site...relates the hierarchy of the social structure to the architecture of the cosmos. Through mythical ancestors and celestial divinities, the elite allied themselves with the power of the sky. Plazas located at the cardinal directions link the architecture of Cahokia to the architecture of the heavens, providing celestial legitimacy for social stratification and elite ranking. The plan of Cahokia is a portrait of Cahokia society.

...A complex community like Cahokia establishes its territorial claims and prerogatives, then, by operating symbolically as a miniaturization of the cosmos, it conforms itself with the topographical features of the sacred landscape by making its layout a template of cosmic order. This usually means that celestial events, which reveal cosmic order, are in one way or another incorporated into the design. Cardinal orientation, seasonal solar alignment, and calendric ritual all may play a role.

We have seen the cosmological legacy the Mississippians inherited from their predecessors—for example, the solar calendar at Poverty Point—and we know there are historical analogues of their beliefs in the Amerindian tribes that came after them. The interpretation of Cahokia as a symbolic microcosm seems reasonable at this stage of our understanding

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 51-65 of Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos by Sally A. Kitt Chappell, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos

Sally A. Kitt Chappell
Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos
©2002, 238 pages, 57 color plates, 71 halftones, 8-1/2 x 9 1/2
Cloth $38.00 ISBN: 0-226-10136-3

For information on purchasing the book, please go to the webpage for Cahokia.

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