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Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos
Introduction > Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos

P ublic works ritually renewed to preserve civic order
Perhaps human sacrifice was also part of a system of social control of the labor force. The archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that the mounds were built in stages and, like the plazas, palisades, woodhenges, and other public works at Cahokia, had to be regularly repaired and reconstructed. Although wood is a durable material if it is constantly wet or constantly dry, wood in damp earth is subject to the wet/dry conditions that promote rapid rot. Urban renewal was necessary almost continuously in Cahokia, and sometimes groups of buildings and even whole neighborhoods were swept away so as to reorder the earthly cosmos or clear land for new or rebuilt structures. Only strong social control and political power can make possible such large-scale changes in the civic fabric. In addition, public works of such magnitude required mobilizing and maintaining a large labor force.

The human cost of public works
Some useful numbers also help us grasp the enormous effort that goes into making a structure the size of Monks Mound with human labor. This pharaonic enterprise required carrying 14,666,666 baskets, each filled with 1.5 cubic feet of dirt, weighing about fifty-five pounds each, for a total of 22 million cubic feet. For comparison, an average pickup truck holds 96 cubic feet, so it would take 229,166 pickup loads to bring the dirt to the site. If thirty people each carried eight baskets of earth a day, the job would take 167 years. Various scholars have calculated time and labor estimates that differ widely, and we do know that the mounds usually were built not all at once but in a series of stages, sometimes over many years.

In addition to the four palisades, more than a hundred mounds, and five woodhenges, there were many other public buildings--granaries, the palace-temple of the chief, and the residences of other members of the elite. Erecting a woodhenge was complicated; it involved digging large bathtub-shaped foundation holes, aligning and measuring, and coordinating the work of pulling the posts upright. Large work crews were also assigned to level the plazas, filling in the swales and tamping the surface smooth.

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Figure #4: Cahokia Rendering (Lloyd K. Townsend)  »

Learn more about Cahokia in Bringing the Heavens to Earth.

For more information, visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

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