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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: What to Know

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: What to Know

If you’re ever in the Midwest, be sure to check out Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site – it’s a fascinating and underrated archaeological site that offers a unique glimpse into America’s past.

Cahokia Mounds are located just a short drive from downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The site includes more than 80 mounds, which were built by the Mississippian people between 1050 and 1250 AD.

The largest of these mounds is Monks Mound, which is the size of three football fields and taller than a 10-story building. You can climb to the top of Monks Mound for a stunning view of the site.

There’s also a museum on-site that provides visitors with an overview of the Mississippian people and their way of life. The museum is small but well done, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating culture.

What are Cahokia Mounds?

View of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park from Monk's Mound

It’s the 11th century. Imagine a city as big as any other civilized city of its time, even bigger than London at this same time in history, stretching across the Midwest of the United States from the Mississippi River. It is also the most technologically advanced city of its time in its region, with nearly 20,000 people living there at any one time.

Situated along the Mississippi River, across from the city of St. Louis, the ancient city of Cahokia once stood proudly for an estimated 150 years of glory.

Today, there is most modern development over the ancient Cahokia site. You can still visit this ancient civilization, however, with a trip to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark.

Monks Mound

How big are the Cahokia Mounds?

The Cahokia Mounds cover an area of approximately 2,200 acres (890 hectares). This makes them one of the largest archaeological sites in North America.

How many mounds are at the Cahokia Mounds site?

There are over 100 earthen mounds at the Cahokia Mounds site. The largest of these mounds, known as Monks Mound, is approximately 100 feet (30 meters) high and covers an area of 14 acres (5.6 hectares).

What is the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site?

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a state-owned archaeological site that includes the remains of the Cahokia Mounds. The site also includes a museum and interpretive center, which offer visitors information about the Mississippian people and the Cahokia Mounds.

What was the purpose of the Cahokia Mounds?

The purpose of the Cahokia Mounds is still largely unknown. Some theories suggest that they were used for religious or ceremonial purposes, while others believe they may have served as a sort of ancient city center or capital.

Monk’s Mound Reaches 100 Feet Tall

Panorama of the Monk's Mound
Panorama View of Monk’s Mound

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is also home to the “Monk’s Mound,” a 100-foot-tall mound that was given its name, not because monks are buried within it, but because they lived near it centuries ago. This specific mound is known to be the largest prehistoric earthen mound in the Americas.

Unlike other ancient burial grounds for the native peoples of North America, however, Monk’s Mound appears to be primarily a temple site instead of primarily a burial site.

Investigators have found postholes dug in the top terrace of the mound, creating the theory that a temple once adorned the top of the mound itself.

Monk’s Mound has four terraces and it is considered to be the largest man-made mound in the United States.

Projections on Monk’s Mound, leading to the top throughout the four levels of terracing, are thought to have been ancient stairwells, thus fortifying the theory that this was a temple site.

Though a modern roadway was built through this mound in the 1800s because a gentleman decided he wanted to live on the top of it, much of the mound is still intact and helps visitors get a glimpse of what Cahokia used to be like.

Did Cahokia Have Its Own Version of Stonehenge?

Monk's Mound at Cahokia
Monk’s Mound at Cahokia Mounds

In the early 1960s, excavations in the area to create the interstate accidentally uncovered several large oval-shaped pits that seemed to be in concentric circular patterns.

The theory is that large wooden stakes were used inside these pits to help track the motion of the sun, thereby tracking the calendar year. With further study, it was determined that red cedar was likely used in these patterns. Thus the name “Woodhenge” was born.

As the sun tracks throughout the seasons, it is also interesting to note that the wooden posts marking the important dates of the year, such as the sunrise of the two equinoxes, point toward the important locations of Cahokia Mounds as well.

The 7-foot posts are also thought to point toward offertory pits within the city, which would have been utilized on other important calendar days.

A Stockade Once Protected Over 80 Different Mound Sites

Cahokia also had a two-mile stockade that archaeologists believe was rebuilt at least three times by mound builders.

Though there is no evidence that the city was ever attacked, because the wall cuts through what are thought to be residential areas, it is thought that attacks were often thought to be imminent.

This is backed up by the fact that the stockade also contained bastions, first round, then square, where archers could help to defend the city. Some believe the stockade may have also served as a social barrier as well.

Looking at the remains themselves, scientists have determined that there were at least two different social classes living in Cahokia.

There were some people who ate lots of meat, while others seemed to have a scavenger’s diet. There were likely three different social classes in total: priests, the wealthy/leadership, and everyone else.

You Can Visit Places Where Human Sacrifice Took Place

Two mounds in Cahokia in particular, Mounds 52 & 72, are thought to be the burial locations of ritual human sacrifice. Some think that the mound location is where the sacrifice took place, though, with the existence of wooden stretchers in the mounds, it may have taken place at Monks Mound as well.

Over 300 people are thought to have been sacrificed over the years of Cahokia’s existence, with many of them being sacrificed at the death of an important person within the city.

Guided tours of Cahokia Mounds

The National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cahokia are currently covered with over two hundred acres. The general public is welcome to explore 800 acres at this location if you prefer self-guided tours.

The journey cannot be completed without seeing the region or climbing up the 100-foot high mound. Monk’s Mound, the largest mound, and Woodhenge, which have been restored, are worth seeing.

A guided tour of the entire site takes about an hour. In the summer, guides will give excursions to the area during peak periods in April, September, and October.

Tours and other resources, including nature walking trails and culture hiking trails.

Interpretive Center

Figurine from Cahokia State Historic Site

Currently, the Interpretive Center is closed for renovations that started on March 1, 2022. If you’re looking to learn more about the area you’re visiting, the Interpretive Center is a great resource. Self-guided and with plenty of volunteers on hand to answer questions, the Interpretive Center Gallery is perfect for travelers who want to get the most out of their trip.

The Interpretive Center is the best place to visit if you’re looking to learn about the old Native American culture.

The Interpretive Center houses museum exhibit galleries, a museum shop, a gift shop, and an orientation show theater where they play games and tell stories about Mississippian culture and ancient people who lived before French explorers arrived.

There’s also a public programming auditorium that provides educational programs on Cahokian history all year long.

The main building acts as your guide through this fascinating continent-wide story (it even includes interactive exhibits) but doesn’t forget about its five acres worth of outdoor space either: we know summertime can be hot here in the Midwest.

If you want to learn while exploring, consider going on one of the interpretive trails to learn about the mounds of the ancient peoples, including the rattlesnake mound, Monk’s Mound, and the rattlesnake causeway.

The Interpretive Center Exhibits offer several informative guides and information about the area’s natural and human history. Admission is free, but a contribution is appreciated ($7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, $15 for families).

You may also make a group visit or school field trip by contacting the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau. So whether you want to learn more about the region’s natural or human history, be sure to pay them a visit.

Schedule Your Visit to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

The site features many of the artifacts that have been recovered from this ancient city with a visit to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

In addition, there is an interpretive center that offers more tours and historical artifacts found at the earthen mounds when they were first discovered.

Directions to Cahokia Mounds

It is located in Collinsville, Illinois off of Interstates 55/70 and 255. Cahokia Mounds is just fifteen minutes east of St. Louis, Missouri. 

Admission & Fees

Entrance to Cahokia Mounds is free of charge, although a donation of $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, or $15 for families is suggested.

Hours of Operation

The grounds are open from 8 am to sunset every day, with the exception of 7 holidays throughout the year.

The Interpretive Center, which is where many of the artifacts can be seen, is open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 am to 4 pm throughout most of the year, except May thru October when it is open every day.

Guided tours are available, as well as audio tours. The audio tours have an additional charge to the suggested donation.

For more information, be sure to check the official Cahokia Mounds website.

Best Places to Stay Near Cahokia Mounds

There are a few great hotels near the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

If you’re looking for a place close to the action, the Hampton Inn Collinsville/St. Louis is a great option, as it’s only minutes away from the site.

If you’re looking for something a little more rustic, the Beall Mansion, An Elegant Bed & Breakfast Inn is a great choice. This bed and breakfast is located in a beautiful, historic mansion that’s just a short drive from Cahokia Mounds.

If you want more options, check the lowest prices for accommodation on Booking.com near Cahokia Mounds.

Final Thoughts

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a great place to learn about the history of this ancient city and see some of the artifacts that have been recovered from the site. Be sure to schedule a visit when you’re in the area.

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FAQ

How did the Cahokia Mounds get their name?

The Cahokia Mounds were named after the historic Native American tribe that once inhabited the area. The name “Cahokia” is thought to be derived from a native word meaning “city of sun.”

When were the Cahokia Mounds built?

The Cahokia Mounds were built between approximately 950 and 1400 AD. This makes them one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America.

Who built the Cahokia Mounds?

The Cahokia Mounds were built by the Mississippian people, a Native American culture that was prevalent in the southeastern United States during this time period.

How Long is Needed at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site?

It takes about 2 hours to see everything at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

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