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September 23, 2017

When spring and autumn arrived in the ancient city of Cahokia, the city’s chief reaffirmed his connection to the cosmos. On the equinoxes, priests watched the sunrise from inside a ring of tall poles that served as a calendar. They saw the Sun climb into view behind Monks Mound, a great pile of earth topped by the chief’s home and court. The Sun was reborn — and so was the chief.

Cahokia stands across the Mississippi River from present-day Saint Louis. The city reached its peak around eight centuries ago. It covered about six square miles, incorporated more than a hundred earthen mounds, and its population swelled to perhaps 20,000 — larger than London.

The focal point for Cahokia was Monks Mound — the largest earthen structure in the early Americas. It covered 14 acres and rose a hundred feet into the sky. Most of it is still standing.

To the west of the mound, inhabitants built a calendar circle. Archaeologists named it Woodhenge because of its resemblance to Stonehenge. The Cahokians actually built five Woodhenge circles. Each consisted of a central Sun-watching station, surrounded by a ring of cedar poles. The Sun aligned with these poles on the equinoxes, solstices, and other important dates.

Archaeologists have rebuilt one of the rings, which spans more than 400 feet. Visitors watch the equinox sunrise from Woodhenge even now — observing an act of nature that was a potent symbol for a long-ago culture.

Script by Damond Benningfield


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