Time to Celebrate Old School St. Louis Urbanism (c.1250)

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{an aerial rendering of urban Cahokia}

The first time I drove to St. Louis knowing that it would be my new home I had a keener eye than previous pass-throughs on my way to Colorado or Arkansas from Indiana. Specifically, I wanted to glimpse Cahokia Mounds, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was told that I could see at least the largest mound from I-70 just a few miles east of St. Louis. So I kept me eyes peeled on the horizon for an iconic symbol of a past civilization. And then I saw it, larger than I expected, the Gateway Arch peeking out from behind. I was excited to get closer and explore the area on foot. Of course what I was looking at was the gigantic landfill on the east side that we each contribute to every day, a modern day monument to consumerism and waste that dwarfs the actual Cahokia Mounds (which are to the south just before the landfill as you drive east on I-70).

So Cahokia may hold to a somewhat inglorious place in our modern world. Collinsville Road runs through the very middle of the remaining mounds and an Interstate and railroad lines define today's north and south borders of the site. From the top of Monk's Mound, Cahokia's largest you have an excellent view of eight-lanes of traffic and a number of billboards. And yet a larger recognition of Cahokia's importance in North American history may be coming (only let us hope that Mel Gibson does not purchase the movie rights).

Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir reviews University of Illinois-Champaign archaeologist (and Belleville native) Tim Pauketat's new book, "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi." He notes that large central temple pyramids were razed by modern development in the last century and a half and that "even a generation ago, many archaeologists and anthropologists would have found the phrase "Native American city" bizarre and self-contradictory."

Pauketat states in the Salon.com article that the city of Cahokia was "characterized by inequality, power struggles and social complexity," While O'Hehir notes, "These people were neither half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers; they had lived and died in a violent and sophisticated society with its own well-defined view of the universe." Imagine the crime reports!

The Post-Dispatch picks up on the Salon story and proclaims, "every time Cahokia Mounds makes national news, it's as if nobody's heard of it." I would only add that every time Cahokia Mounds makes local news, it's as if nobody's heard of it. And I'll leave you with an actual comment that follows the recent Post-Dispatch story: "I think more people outside St. Louis know about Crown Candy and Gus' Pretzels than stupid Cahokia Mounds. And for good reason." I imagine that if the commenter had lived in suburban Maryville in 1250 that their children would not have been allowed to travel to Cahokia.

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