Monks Mound

Along the sleepy Mississippi river, just across from the modern Saarinen Arch at St. Louis, lies an enormous complex of pyramids, temples, and dwellings now reduced to gently sloping mounds. To the north of this area, however, looms a pyramid which has only recently presented an archaeological puzzle of unparalleled scope. This site is called Monks Mound or Cahokia Mounds was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 19, 1964, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was designated a World Heritage Site in 1982. The park protects 2200 acres (8.9 km²), and is the focus of ongoing archaeological research. This is one of only eight cultural World Heritage Sites in the United States as designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Cahokia was settled around 650 CE during the Late Woodland period. Mound building did not begin until about 1050 CE, at the beginning of the Mississippian cultural period. The inhabitants left no written records beyond symbols on pottery, shell, copper, wood, and stone. The city's original name is unknown.

The original site contained 120 earthen mounds over an area of six square miles, although only 80 survive today. To achieve that, workers moved more than an "estimated 55 million cubic feet of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres, rises 100 feet, and was topped by a massive 5,000 square-foot building another 50 feet high." The name "Cahokia" also refers to an unrelated clan of historic Illiniwek people living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the 1600s, long after Cahokia was abandoned by its original inhabitants. The living descendants of the Cahokia people associated with the Mound site are unknown, although many Native American groups are plausible.

Monk's Mound is the central focus of this great ceremonial center. A massive structure with four terraces, it is the largest man-made earthen mound in the Americas. Facing south, it is 92 feet (28 m) high, 951 feet (290 m) long and 836 feet (255 m) wide. Excavation on the top of Monk's Mound has revealed evidence of a large building — perhaps a temple or the residence of the paramount chief — that could have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 feet (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 feet (15 m) high. It was about 5000 square feet.

Modern archaeological tools had made great advances at uncovering many of its puzzles, yet pure chance has revealed another! The huge ceremonial area, with its estimated occupation of 20,000, was considered by early scientific explorers to be a total mystery, and much of its 3500-acre extent given over to farmland. Yet hidden beneath the crops lay a forgotten complex including a manmade plaza flanked at both ends by huge, standing earth structures in typical pyramidal but flat-topped form. Dating of the temple city was formerly placed at 900 - 1400 A.D., well in line with most other smaller mound complexes in the North American continent. The surprise discovery of what appears to be a totally unsuspected and large stone structure lying hidden below the great pyramidal mass known as Monks Mound could push the dates back much further, linking the area to others whose origins range from 3,000 to 3,500 years of age (such as Poverty Point). As it did over many centuries of the past, the pyramid itself stands proudly above the flat river floodplain, rising in gentle terraces to more than one hundred feet, and covers seventeen acres, a base larger than Giza’s Great Pyramid.

The apex, as at Giza, was left deliberately flat and is known to have held at least one temple building of heavy timbers whose evidences still remain. Originally designed to a slope of 26 degrees, according to Dr. William Woods of nearby Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the pyramid was constructed of 22-million cubic feet of soil, sand and earth carried in baskets on the backs of men, and deliberately engineered on its unusual clay foundation to withstand the humidity and rainfall of prehistoric Illinois. Such construction techniques are almost unique amongst these early temple builder cultures. This solid structure has undergone some amount of failure in the upper layers over the ten or more centuries since the great construction was completed, and it was in an effort to protect this outstanding monument from further erosion and slumping that the major new mystery was discovered.

Archaeologists had been surprised from time to time by this site, but the general thinking was that the huge temple held few more new discoveries. This perception was to be proven wrong. Early on a cold and snowy January 24 of 1998, a local drilling crew had begun work on a potential control, a new drainage system on the western face of the pyramid, when their flexible drill suddenly hit stone! No stone had ever been found at this site other than minor artifacts, tools, spear points and grain-grinding millstones; and the drill crew at first imagined that they’d struck an especially large artifact similar to the carved stone plaques found at Cahokia. When the drill, working at a horizontal level, continued to gouge into stone, however, the drillers wondered just what they’d found. Drill crews of this type can ‘feel’ what they are coring, and when the stone was found to continue horizontally for more than thirty feet, they began to withdraw the heavy drill, which broke as it was being extracted. Archaeologists at the site were alerted and they, too, were puzzled by the unseen stone, thinking it might be a large piece of some kind.

The driller, however, revealed that his flexible point had gone through what he knew had to be stones of fair size, but closely placed in a continuous and deliberate manner, deep into the western face at about 140 feet, and 40 feet below the ‘terrace’ surface on that side. Nothing had ever been encountered at that level. On-site archaeologists Andy Martignoni and Steve Fulton quickly alerted Woods, who’d been asleep. He then hurried to the site and was astounded at the possibilities the totally unsuspected stone might portend. “This was a really interesting find—not to mention that the closest source of any stone is more than ten miles from Cahokia.” There have been several small excavations in the past and several vertical corings through the Mound, but they’d completely missed this amazing feature. More extensive work had not been planned, as it might have accelerated the slumping of the earthen face. It was decided to bring the aid of modern technology to the problem and to use the latest of scanning equipment in order to determine what other surprises might lie beneath the mound itself.

Bill Iseminger, Cahokia Archaeologist and PR Director, listed sources of such scans which encompass everything from seismic ‘shock-wave’ studies popularized by Jurassic Park, to oilgeology- based satellite scans from space, plus magnetometry and resistivity tests which are being used in this ongoing detection effort Some surmises can be made already, based on what the scans are revealing; plus the known architecture of sites in Mexico and Central America built along similar lines. Mayan plaza-temple sites were built exclusively of stone, which was not easily available to early Mississippian cultures which ostensibly began construction at Cahokia.

Woodhenge at Cahokia

This complex lies in a deep-mud area called the American Bottom, circumscribed by many waterways, large and small, and is but a few miles from the oftflooding Mississippi. Stone lies too deep or too far away to be useful. As exploration has shown, most such complexes were devoted to Sun worship, and in this aspect Cahokia is no different. The immense ceremonial area contains several observatories called ‘wood henges’ to distinguish them from Stonehenge in the UK. These were huge circles of wooden posts designed as solar horizon markers, allowing observation of the yearly equinoxes to an exact degree. Some of the smaller ‘henges’ may have been used to properly align the flatted pyramids which supported ancient temples at Cahokia. Few visitors to the Site were aware of these enormous additions to Cahokia’s extensive plan until a discovery in 1961 of trenches and postholes in exact circular design. One of these observatories has now been reconstructed, though the largest is bisected by a four-lane highway.

At Cahokia, the usual format of pyramids at either end of a large parade and ceremonial plaza is followed. The Grand Plaza, largest of these was more than forty acres in area, and is sharply defined by a drop-off at one existing Aerial View of Monk’s Mound taken in 1936. end. This assured archaeologists that the Plaza had been built on a surface which was hand-leveled and filled with clays and soil materials to make a completely hard, flat surface for ceremonial usage. Causeways fed into the Grand Plaza, also engineered in the same manner.

Studies have shown that an unusually sophisticated and advanced method of architecture formerly unsuspected in supposedly primitive societies was employed in building the great pyramid base. It incorporated a twenty-foot-high platform of clay that was topped by very deliberately chosen and laid layers of sand, clays and soils that would withstand rains and erosions of the climate. This ingenious building method utilized a melding of the known drainage properties of clays and soils within the structure, designed to facilitate an artificial drainage system for surface water which would percolate down into the pyramid from above. It was an increasingly wet environment that has created the present problems— and led to the surprise discovery of the stone interior form. “If they hadn’t built it the way they did, the massive weight of that much earth and clay would have resulted in just one big mud pancake.” Woods grins at the idea.

Monks is three football fields long, and only slightly smaller in width. Evidence of an enormous temple palace upon the top still exists in the soil. A modern two-level concrete staircase made to look like wood has recently been finished, adding even more to the look of a typical Mayan structure. Exactly as seen in Mayan temple cities, the looming pyramid’s massive structure is faced by a smaller pyramidbase at the southerly end of the Grand Plaza, just as the pyramids of Sun and Moon are placed in Mexico and other jungle complexes. Beside the smaller base is a cone-shaped mound which may contain burials, but has not been excavated. Mound 72, which has yielded the largest number of gravesites, including a spectacularly grand burial of an undoubted ruler or noble, lies only a few hundred yards south of the ‘twins’. (Not thought to be common in this culture, this burial was accompanied by many bodies of obviously sacrificed attendants, wives and family).

Along the Grand Plaza, site of major ceremonial processions, lay a series of smaller temples, buildings in which the aristocracy, priests and royalty lived, and others in which ceremonial materials were cached. These were constructed on sturdy earthen platforms, which have now slumped into anonymous ‘mounds’. It was the weathering of the once-pristine platforms that has resulted in the designation of ‘moundbuilders’, for the cultures which once were built with such difficult precision.

Cahokia also possesses another anomaly amongst temple cities, the fact that the entire main ceremonial area, including the pyramid and 17 other platform constructions, a total of roughly 200 acres, was completely enclosed in a solid stockade of 20,000 timbers set into the ground almost five feet deep and furnished with outlooks and guard station placements along its two miles of length. This unique wood construction is currently being studied and excavated by field teams from colleges and universities around the U.S. Outside the solid barrier lay the smaller subsidiary earth platforms on which the more modest homes of lesser nobles were built and surrounded by homes of the general population. It is these mounded remains that have been gradually plowed, dug away, and many eventually lost, so that estimates reveal only 80 of the 120 such platforms are still in place.

News of the amazing new find at Cahokia flashed across the archaeological world, conjuring images of a Mayan stone pyramid lurking beneath the innocent- appearing mound. Some cited the prospect of more tablets of carved stone, such as the ‘Birdman’ tablet which was found on one face of the pyramid, featuring a winged ‘messenger’ figure with a beaked mask, along with a second image on the ‘Ramey tablet’ found just East of the pyramid; showing several figures with a decidedly Mayan look to their highbridged noses and bunned hair. It has long been speculated that many more such tablets formed a decorative facing of the large pyramid, but have since vanished into the ground (or private collections).

More conservative thinking held that the obviously worked and placed stones might protect a previously unknown burial tomb, even more splendid than the one in Mound 72; or an elaborately built ceremonial platform of fascinatingly unsuspected nature. Other theorists wondered, yet were content to wait until the more modern scanning techniques have yielded additional data. Cahokia’s own archaeologists and those nearby at SIUE are literally holding their collective breath at this point. William Woods comments, enigmatically, “We just have no idea what we’re likely to find under this thing.” while Bill Iseminger echoes this, adding “This was undoubtedly the largest community on the continent in its time. And a major trading center.

Twenty two million cubic feet of soil, sand and clay were used to construct just Monks Mound, yet we know so little about the people.” Completely unspoken is the fact that early scan returns have shown that several ‘anomalies’ (walls?) appear to stand above the area thought to be a platform, and perhaps more beneath. Is there a connection to the Mayan temple plaza sites, the supposedly much older Poverty Point site? Or does some link exist to the Toltec or the Mixtec cultures? Or not?

(Sources : Atlantis Rising Magazine vol.21 : “New Discovery Beneath an Old Mound Perplexes Investigators” written by Beverly Jaegers and Wikipedia)

(Pics sources :;


gregasola said...

Fascinating piece on the Monks Mound and the worldwide study and technology employed in the research of these ancient structures. You do mention that "...most such complexes were devoted to Sun worship, and in this aspect Cahokia is no different."
This brings me to the biggest mystery of all, which is that whilst we go to great lengths to study these solar inspired sites all over the world, we never entertain the possibility that the Native Americans, the Maya, the Celts, the Egyptians, the Persians, and all those other ancient cultures were right to see the Sun as a living being rather than a senseless ball of light.
Our immediate response is to regard that aspect of their culture as primitive and ignorant, without recognizing that it was a jealous Church that sidelined Sun worship, not science or scientific enquiry. Scientists and philosophers were burned, as well as Pagan Sun worshipers.
The understanding of a conscious Sun is explored in my book Sun of gOd, recently published by Weiser Books. The mystery is not why people regarded the Sun as a higher being, but how on Earth we have lost this understanding over centuries of Biblical indoctrination. Webpage at

tripzibit said...

(Gregchaos) Hi, Mr.Greg. Thanks for share your thought here. Thats very interesting explanation about the sun. By the way i have bookmark your site

Cruiselife & Co said...

What an interesting subject and not something I know that much about. It almost resembles New Grange, which I just recently found out was home to a porthole of the otherworld. Celtic Druids. Scholars objects, but I still like the mystery.

tripzibit said...

(Dr. Lauren) Hi, Dr. Lauren, I didn't know that New Grange was home to a porthole of the otherworld. Thank you for this information. Mysteries is always interesting :)

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