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Doug and I take in the view from the top of Monk's Mound at Cahokia Mounds World Heritage Site.

Doug and I take in the view from the top of Monk’s Mound at Cahokia Mounds World Heritage Site. You can see the St. Louis Arch in the background.

Have you ever dreamed of visiting something iconic, inspirational, and culturally significant to the history of humanity?  The Pyramids of Giza. Persepolis in Iran.  The archeological remains of Pompeii in Italy. The Temple of Apollo Epicurus in Greece.  The Taj Mahal in India. Stonehenge in Northern Ireland.

In 1994 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched an initiative to compile a list and work on the preservation of the most important cultural and natural sites in the world.  This list of World Heritage Sites is awash with one jaw-dropping wonder of the world after another.  It includes all of the sites I listed in the paragraph above and more.

Stone artifacts/axe heads found in various burial pits near Cahokia.

Stone artifacts/axe heads found in various burial pits near Cahokia.

Now to visit the amazing sites I listed above would take a whole lot of time and a whole lot of money.  But what if a true wonder of the world, a record of the technological achievements of man, a significant stage in human history preserved in the archaeological record, and an exceptional example of a civilization that has disappeared was located just two hours from where you’re sitting now?  Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to go and check it out?

Ladies and gentleman, I give you: Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois.

Recreated village scene at the visitor's center museum

Recreated village scene at the visitor’s center museum

My own trip to Cahokia (pronounced Ka-Hoke-ee-ah) came from one simple truth: we were tired of being in the car.  My friend Doug and I had just run the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon in Lexington, Kentucky and were headed home.  Over 5 hours into our trip home, I spotted a brown historic site marker on the highway and exclaimed, “We’re right by Cahokia Mounds! I’ve always wanted to see it!”  Doug made an impressively quick decision and an equally quick lane-change with the car, and just a few miles down the road, we arrived at the park.

Cahokia Mounds is the largest prehistoric Indian site north of Mexico.  At its height, the chiefton-based civilization covered 4000 acres, included numerous villages around the main city structure, and was home to nearly 20,000 people.  These Mississippian people flourished from 800 AD to approximately 1200 AD and had highly structured communities with a complex social system which included art, agriculture, community, trade networks, and many scientific and engineering achievements.  In AD 1200, Cahokia was larger than London.

The Cahokia Mounds site today, as it was in AD 800, is organized around a central Grand Plaza and the largest earthen pyramid in the US, Monk’s Mound.  Monk’s Mound and the 100+ surrounding mounds are made of earth and wood using stone and wood tools.  The earth was transported primarily on people’s backs in woven baskets.  It is estimated that Monk’s Mound- with a base that covers 14 acres and a height of 100 feet- is comprised of over 22,000 cubic feet of earth.  Anyone else’s back sore thinking about moving that much dirt?

Monk’s Mound was a cultural focal point and once was topped with a massive building where the most important chief would run the government and conduct ceremonies. Other mounds were built for other purposes.  Most contained burials, and some may have just been built to elevate the residence of important figures in the society.  Today some of the mounds have been excavated and amazing artifacts have been recovered and preserved.

Infographic at the main plaza. Monk's Mound can be seen to the left in the distance.

Infographic at the main plaza. Monk’s Mound can be seen to the left in the distance.

All of the mounds have been cataloged and numbered.  Of particular interest is Mound #72.  The excavation of this small mound found over 300 ceremonial burials, mostly of young women in mass graves.  Atop of this, an elite male, estimated to be 45 years old was buried on a platform of flat beads made out of shells.   The shells were arranged around the body to resemble an eagle or hawk.  There is a recreation of this chief’s burial inside of the park’s interpretative center which is truly amazing.

The interpretive center of the park is very nice and the displays are engaging for kids and adults alike.  There is no admission to the center, though there is a suggested donation of $4 for adults, $2 for kids and $10 for families.  Along with many wonderful artifacts like tools, beads and pottery, there is an auditorium which shows a film every hour as well as a recreated village to explore.

Since Doug and I had stopped on the way home from an exhausting weekend, we did not have the time to explore the true breadth of the park, however we did take the opportunity to climb to the top of Monk’s Mound.  Under cloud dotted skies, the view from the top of the mound was vast and gorgeous.  The St. Louis Gateway Arch and skyline, 7 miles away as the crow flies, was clearly visible to the southwest. Farm fields and lakes spread out to the north.  And all around, you could see tops of the mounds which made up this ancient city.  It was easy to imagine how inspiring this vantage point would have been to the people who lived here.

"Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi" by Timothy R. Pauketat is available at the Quincy Public Library.

“Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi” by Timothy R. Pauketat is available at the Quincy Public Library.

The top of Monk’s Mound is made even more significant by its placement in relation to the rest of the structures in the society.  Its crest falls at the point at which the sun rises during the equinox, making a strong connection between the chief and the life-giving sun.  Another unique structure at Cahokia is a sun-calendar known as “Woodhenge.”  This site, discovered in the 1960’s, was built of concentric circles of enormous cedar posts that aligned with the sun at the equinox, and would have probably been important as both markers in the calendar and for ceremonial gatherings.  One of the rings of “Woodhenge” has been recreated at the park and can be viewed both up close and from the crest of Monk’s Mound.

Now listen, AF readers… I don’t normally get bossy with my advice, but I’m telling you:  Go to Cahokia. 2 hours from Quincy lies a site of significance to the whole world, and you shouldn’t miss it.  I’m glad I finally had the chance to visit, and I plan on returning to walk more of the grounds and explore.  For further reading on Cahokia, visit:

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/198

http://www.cahokiamounds.org

And check out this book (also available at the Quincy Public Library): http://www.amazon.com/Cahokia-Ancient-Americas-Mississippi-American/dp/0143117475

PLEASE CLICK HERE TO ENTER MY ADVENTURE FOOT PHOTO CONTEST! WIN AMAZING PRIZES FROM NUUN HYDRATION AND V FUEL ENDURANCE 

Also, a special hello to Amanda… who we met on the top of the pyramid.  🙂  Hope your adventure was fun and educational!

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I know you’re all waiting for my RAGBRAI recap, and I promise I will get to it. It’s just tough to put a whole week into a blog!  In the meantime though, I have to tell you about 2 Big Events coming to the Muddy Mississippi!

Ladies Night Kayaking

It’s me– kayaking! You should kayak with me.

Calling all ladies!  I will be leading two girls-only paddling clinics on the Quincy riverfront this month at a special reduced rate!  The classes will be $25 per person and will include your boat and equipment, your life jacket, and instruction in basic kayaking.  I’ll also be demonstrating kayak rescues.  The classes will be held at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, August 21 and on Tuesday, August  28 both at 5:30 pm. 

Spaces are limited and you are required to RSVP by either contacting me on my Facebook page or emailing quincykayak@yahoo.com with your name and phone number.

And as long as you’re learning to kayak, you might want to join in for:

The Quincy 5-Miler Hand Powered Boat Race!

The Quincy Five Miler is a 5.4 mile head race on the Mississippi River and Quincy Bay from Knapheide Landing along the Illinois shore, through The Cut and into Quincy Bay, below the course of the First Quincy Boat Race (1872), and under the bridges to the finish line at the South Side Boat Club.  It will be held September 15th at 11 am.  Entry fee is $25 and will include a t-shirt and prizes to winners of each division.

The great thing about this race is just about anyone can enter and you stand a great chance of winning a prize.   You can literally enter any river-worthy hand or foot powered boat.  I’ll be rolling in a Valley Avocet Kayak in fire engine red!  But you could show up with a canoe, a paddleboat, a stand up paddle board, a row boat, an outrigger canoe, a racing shell…  heck, you can build a Huckleberry Finn style raft and grab some sticks and paddle it on down the river if you want to.    The divisions will be set the day of the event based on type of craft and men’s and women’s divisions.

There is a lot of history behind the race in Quincy.   Once a rowing powerhouse, Quincy has a history of waterborne competition going back to the first race in 1872. The first race was a two miler (out one mile and return), put on by the newly formed Nautilus Rowing Club. The start line was on Quincy Bay 2 1/2 miles North of Maine Street. First prize for the Single Scull race was $40 in gold; second was a pair of spruce sculls. The race included singles, pairs, skiffs, and “working boats”. The “four oared” race included entries from Quincy’s Union and Nautilus rowing clubs.

The South Side Boat Club was formed in 1886 and for the next seventy years Quincy provided strong crews for regional and even international competition. Aggressive recruitment included calls for the most able bodied to join the clubs and promises of expert coaching and paid expenses to races. Race boats were loaded onto train cars on Front Street and transported to Central States Amateur Rowing Association regattas throughout the Midwest. The many trophies and medals on the walls of the South Side Boat Club at 640 S. Front Street in Quincy attest to the considerable success of its crews which include numerous regional championships, a national championship in 1904, and a second (losing out on 1st place by only 2/5 second) in the World Rowing Championship of 1934 in Liege, Belgium.

Quincy’s last racing eight was sold in 1950 after decline in the sport after WWII. Quincy’s recreational water interests moved to power boating and folks gradually lost sight of human powered boating as a popular activity. As Quincy Bay silted in over the years (a controversial local topic) power boat access has become more and more limited. However the shallow draft of paddle and row boats provides easy access from downtown to a wildlife-filled scenic waterway that stretches north from town along North Bottom Road.

To find out all of the details on the race and to print the waiver and registration, please click here to visit the race website.   If you would like to race but need to rent a kayak, you can contact me at quincykayak@yahoo.com  I have a limited number of kayaks available for a rental fee of $10 (which includes life jackets and paddles) and they will be assigned on a first-come basis.  You must have some paddling experience to rent a boat (no first-timers!)

 I hope to see you on the water!

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