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Curiosity Sparks New History of Illinois Mounds


CHICAGO — While she was teaching, architectural historian Sally A. Kitt Chappell specialized in modern buildings and city planning, but in retirement she has turned her eyes to some of Illinois' oldest architecture--the Cahokia Mounds.

The shift of focus happened accidentally.

Shortly after she retired from DePaul University in 1994, Chappell and her husband, Walter Kitt, were driving to St. Louis for a blues festival. Early in the afternoon, they passed a sign for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

" 'Let's take a look,' I said, and Walter agreed," Chappell recalled in a recent interview. "We looked around, and I was hooked. I just knew something wonderful had happened at that site. We spent four hours there that afternoon and then returned the next day."

On that first visit, Chappell learned facts and theories about the mound complex and the Mississippian Indians who built it around the year 1000. She learned that the central Monks Mound was the largest pre-Columbian structure north of Mexico and the largest all-earthen pyramid in the New World. She learned of the Woodhenge, the solar calendar of wooden posts unearthed by the site's archeologists, and of the evidence of human sacrifice those researchers found in some of the smaller mounds.

The fascination lasted.

Chappell found herself returning repeatedly to the mounds over a five-year period. She stood on Monks Mound to watch an eclipse of the moon and the streaming tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet. She stood at the reconstructed Woodhenge on equinoxes and solstices to watch the rising sun align with the wooden poles.

Chappell also began educating herself in archeology, anthropology and geology, fields that had little to do with her academic specialty.

The result of Chappell's near-obsession is "Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos," published this spring by the University of Chicago Press.

With the aid of site archeologists William R. Iseminger and John E. Kelly, Chappell forces that created the "American Bottom," the fertile alluvial plain where the ancestors of the Mississippians settled. She tells of how their hunter-gatherer lifestyle gradually evolved into an agricultural civilization based on corn.

Such a civilization required an organized society and a division of labor. Chappell recounts what researchers have learned of the Mississippian culture. She presents many photographs of the sculpture, tools and ceramics produced by its artisans, as well as archeologists' hypotheses on its social structure and religious beliefs.

Above all, Chappell uses her own expertise in architecture and city planning to examine the mounds themselves--their structure and purpose. She estimates that the 100-foot-tall Monk's Mound required more than 16.6 million 55-pound baskets of clay and packed earth.

That giant mound, surrounded by four great plazas, was the centerpiece of the six-square-mile Mississippian city.

"It's estimated that about the year 1050, Cahokia may have been a bigger city than London was at that time," she said.

But by 1400 the site was abandoned. It remained uninhabited until Illini Indians moved into the area about 1650.

While most archeological books on Cahokia end with the abandonment, Chappell's account takes the site's history up to the present day.

Cahokia was designated as a World Heritage Site by a United Nations agency in 1982, one of only eight cultural sites in the United States so honored. But before that honor, the mound complex was subjected to various indignities, including the building of tract homes, an X-rated drive-in movie theater, and even a poorly conceived airport built on marshland.

Looking back at the five years she spent on the book, Chappell, 72, called it "a break with my past and a surrender to my curiosity. But it's your curiosity, after all, that feeds your energy."


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