Spring 2016: By Alexandra Witze.
Some 12 miles east of St. Louis in the midst of Looking Glass Prairie stands a ridge the height of a four-story building. Known as Emerald, it is a natural formation created by a mighty glacier that ground its way across North America during the chill of the last Ice Age. But Emerald is also an artificial phenomenon. At the start of the 11th century A.D., its occupants began dramatically re-shaping it. They flattened the top of the ridge, bulked up its sides, and built a dozen mounds lined up in rows. Emerald must have looked like a miniature version of its famous neighbor, the enormous Mississippian city of Cahokia, found nearly 15 miles to the west.
To Susan Alt, an archaeologist at Indiana University, it’s no coincidence that Emerald and Cahokia look so much alike. In fact, she argues that Emerald may have been the wellspring from which Cahokia’s power and influence arose. Over the past four years, excavations at Emerald have uncovered two dozen half-buried structures with burned materials in their hearths and a striking yellow plaster on their floors. Alt believes these are “shrine houses” that people would visit as part of a personal spiritual practice.
These shrine houses, along with astronomical alignments at Emerald, play a major role in a new concept of Cahokia’s rise. With Timothy Pauketat, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, Alt argues that people flocked to Emerald in search of a unique religious experience. Just as the Emerald City of Oz attracted Dorothy, the Emerald site of the Mississippians drew pilgrims looking for some type of personal transformation.
Summary. Read More in our Spring 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1. Browse Content of Spring 2016 Issue.
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