Significant & Insignificant Mounds

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There was a double presence which was forced upon the mind - the presence of

those who since the beginning of historic times has visited the region and gazed 

upon this very monument and written descriptions of it, one after the other,

until a volume of literature has accumulated and the presence of those who in 

prehistoric times filled the valley with their works, but were unable to make any 

record of themselves except such as is contained in these silent witnesses.

-- E.O. Randall 1908

It was a good town.

There was no veil of hypocrisy here,

but a wickedness, frank, ungilded, and open.

-- W.E.B. DuBois 1917

The air resounded in all directions with the loud chirping of the frogs, who,

with the pigs,(a course ugly breed, as unwholesome-looking as though they were the

spontaneous growth of the country), had the whole scene to themselves.

-- Charles Dickens 1842

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What a city! What a population there must have been at that time on this alluvial plain.

This view is also strongly evidenced by the fact this this rich plain, which is some 75 miles

long, and 5 to 10 miles wide, is a veritable cemetery of the past, and full of evidences of

long human occupation. Relics of the stone age protrude from the banks of every creek and

ravine. In the rich fields opposite St. Louis and for miles up the Cahokia creek, we have

many times seen the market gardener literally plow through human bones. The little labor

with which enormous crops are grown here would excite the envy of the plodding planter on 

the banks of the Nile.

-- History of Madison County 1882

-- Graham Taylor 1915

Beyond stretches a swampy area, criss crossed with railways and dotted with occasional factories and houses.

Still farther north the settled area peters out to straggling houses and hovels . . . unkempt, amphibious.

What a stupendous pile of earth!

-- Henry Marie Brakenridge 1811

Some of them possess features in common with all classes, and seem to have been

appropriated to a double purpose; while others in our present state of knowledge

concerning them, are entirely inexplicable. As those mounds differ individually

from each other, it is of course impossible to present anything like a general view of 

their character.

-- Squier and Davis 1848

I crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis and after passing through the wood that borders

the river . . . entered an extensive plain. In 15 minutes, I found myself in the midst

of a group of mounds, mostly of a circular shape, and at a distance resembling enourmous 

haystacks scattered through a meadow . . . Around me, I counted forty-five mounds, or

pyramids, besides a great number of small artificial elevations; these form

something more than a semicircle about a mile in extent, the open space on the river.

-- Henry Marie Brakenridge 1811

A dismal swamp on which half-built houses rot away; cleared here and there for

space of a few yards; teaming then with rank unwholesome vegetation in whose

baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die and

lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it . . . a hotbed

of disease, and ugly sepulcher, a grave by any gleam of promise: a place without

one single quality, in earth, air, water, to commend it.

-- Charles Dickens 1842

We have seen mounds which would require the labor of a thousand men employed

upon our canals, with all their mechanical aids, and the improved implements

of their labor for months. We have more than once hesitated, in view of one of 

these prodigious mounds, wether it were not really a natural hill. But they are

uniformly so placed, in reference to the adjacent country, and their conformation

is so unique and similar, that no eye hesitates long in referring them to the class of

artificial erections.

-- Flint's Geography

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A more congenial soil for cultivation I believe nowhere exists,

it may be called the Elysium of America.

-- Settler 1817

Bottoms low & level & very full of heavy wood.

-- GLO survey notes 1817

We had a pair of very strong horses, but traveled at the rate of a little more than a

couple of miles an hour, through one unbroken slough of black mud and water.

It had no variety but in depth.

-- Charles Dickens 1842

being no less profoundly than the artifacts

of the mind builders of pre-history. Slag
heap, salt dome, aggregate piles, landfill,
mulch mound—these are the forms of our
cosmologies.


As a landscape, these mound clusters and
their floodplain context is quite simply a
difficult landscape to see. “Forbidding both
to the eye and hand” writes the author
of an 1881 history of the region. And
with this forbidding, also understood as
a withholding, closure is deferred. It is an
irreducible landscape: irreducible to any of
the easy theoretical and aesthetic categories
that inhabit our ways of thinking through

landscapes–natural/manmade, human/non-
human, productive/waste. It is a landscape

that, through the visible presence of traces and active processes of (re)inscription, resists easy closure.


Which is to say, in landscape, it all matters. It
all has meaning.

The American Bottom floodplain that lies to
the east of St. Louis is rightly celebrated as the
center of a vast pre-European civilization that
had as its central architectural and landscape
expression the construction of earthen

mounds. Mound complexes from the well-
known Cahokia Mounds to the lesser-known

Big Mound and Grassy Lake sites remain
the defining traces of a long and advanced
era of North American settlement. By most
archeological accounts this constellation of
mounds marks the largest urban center north
of Mexico—with the apex of Native American mound building in the region spanning the years between 800 and 1100 CE.

Yet the construction of mounds continues.
Mound building has, if anything, even
increased. While the civic and cosmic
ordering that animated so much of the
Mississippian era mound builders has, in this
new era of mound building, been sidelined
for the logistical and the proximate, our

contemporary mounds index a way-of-

-- Jesse Vogler

© Jennifer Colten 2020