A prehistoric puzzle

One of the Cahokia Mounds, Illinois, USA.

One of the Cahokia Mounds, Illinois, USA.

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic site, in Illinois (USA), is an UNESCO World Heritage site. It is most famous for its almost 100 human-made earthen mounds and for its Woodhenge, a circle of evenly spaced red cedars aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Cahokia’s centre is Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas, whose base covers almost fifteen acres (over five and a half hectares) and which stands one hundred feet (thirty meters) high.

Archaeologists don’t know who built Cahokia or why, but during its peak from 1050 to 1200 CE it supported a population of between ten and twenty thousand native Americans. It was a highly structured society, which cultivated maize and squash on an industrial scale. They must have also manufactured textiles on an industrial scale. Numerous ceramic spindle whorls (often made from pieces of broken pottery) have been excavated in Cahokia and from its surroundings.

Fragments of dyed fabric have been found in the nearby Spiro Mounds (Oklahoma), which was under Cahokia’s rule. The fabric had with geometric patterns in red, black and yellow. Carbonized textile remains (of both cordage and fabric) have also been discovered. In at least one case, impressions left in the soil of a burial pit left clues as to how mats were woven from reeds or rushes.

These traces, and the study of historic native American textile production, reveal that the people of Cahokia used techniques such as finger weaving, braiding and twining. Deer sinew was pounded and separated into fibres for sewing hides together. Needles and pins were made from deer bones. Fur from rabbits and dogs (and perhaps other fur-bearing mammals) was spun into thread for weaving or sewing clothing; human hair was also spun or braided in order to make bowstrings. The stems of plants such as milkweed and dogbane was processed and spun to produce a silky-like thread for weaving; likewise the inner bark of trees like basswood, black locust, and cedar was made into strips for clothing, cordage, baskets, floor mats and sleeping mats.

Garments were made from animal hides and from plant fibres. Depictions of clothing (e.g., on carvings and petroglyphs) show both men and women wearing fringed kilts, with geometric patterns and wide sashes. Textiles were also decorated with shell beads, as the spectacular excavation of Mound 72 has shown. Over 280 bodies were excavated in the 1960s. It appeared to be the burial tomb of an elite male, who was found lying on a two-inch-thick layer of twenty thousand marine shell beads. The beads are thought to have decorated a bird-shaped cape or blanket about six feet long, which had disintegrated.

The grave goods buried in Mound 72 included mica and beaten copper (both used for jewellery), over seven hundred arrow heads and another cache of 36000 shell beads. Many of these goods came from hundreds of kilometres away, which point to extensive trade contacts. Cahokia and its excellent Interpretive Center are well worth a visit, both for anyone interested in ancient civilizations in general, or the pre/history of native American people in particular.

Shelley Anderson, 8th August 2017


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Current exhibition: For a few sacks more ...., until 28th June

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The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden. Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
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