Pipe Dreaming Saturday: Delos and Cahokia

The Mediterranean- center of ancient culture and knowledge, and ruins. Lots and lots of ruins. So much so that it can get repetitive: hordes of tourists, long lines, and pricey entrance fees. It’s gotten so bad in some places that these delicate, ancient places have lost their historical charm.

But there is one place that’s different from its popular cousins: Delos, Greece. A tiny island of a little more than 1 square mile, Delos is a few miles southwest of famous Mykonos, in the Cyclades region of the Aegean Sea. The great thing about Delos is that the island’s majority is a UNESCO World Heritage site (since the 1990s), and is completely uninhabited. And it’s dotted with interesting archaeological sites.

Stone lions perch sentinel over ancient Delos from the Terrace of Lions. Photo courtesy of Visit Greece.
Stone lions perch sentinel over ancient Delos from the Terrace of Lions. Photo courtesy of Visit Greece.

This means that the only reason people set foot on Delos is to explore its ancient wonders. Visitors arrive via a short ferry from Mykonos harbor every day of the week (except Mondays) to trek around Delos’ rocky landscape with maps in hand of the island’s archaeological sites. It all dates back to the 3rd millennium B.C, when Delos and its inhabitants, the Delians, were near the center of Greek civilization. In Greek mythology Delos is the mythical birthplace of the sun god Apollo and his sister Artemis. Delos saw the rule of Naxians, Parians, Athenians, Macedonians, Egyptians, Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Saracens, Venetians, and Ottoman Turks, and at one time had a relatively impressive population of 25,000 due to its central location as a Mediterranean Port.

Today the best way to enjoy Delos is to truly discover it- walk around with a map and stumble upon an uncrowded archaeological site like the Sanctuary of Apollo, the Theatre, or the famous Terrace of Lions. And it’s likely that you won’t run into any sunburned, shutter-clicking tourists.

Well obviously the US can’t touch Delos. We don’t have any ancient archaeological sites or fascinating artifacts of antiquity- or do we?

We do, actually: mounds. Built by Native Americans at around the same time as the famous cliff dwellings of the southwest, the mounds are less aesthetically pleasing- but perhaps even more interesting. One such collection of mounds was called Cahokia in, of all places, Collinsville, IL. While not quite as ancient as Delos, Cahokia has a closer connection to us as Americans, seeing that it was settled by the Mississippian tribes.

The massive Monks Mound, centerpiece of the impressive Cahokia archaeological site. Photo courtesy of Tripomatic.
The massive Monks Mound, centerpiece of the impressive Cahokia archaeological site. Photo courtesy of Tripomatic.

Starting out as a tiny collection of settling Native Americans, Cahokia grew into a massive city. During its golden age in the 1100s A.D, Cahokia was believed to be larger than twelfth century London, with a population of over 20,000. It was an ancient urban and ceremonial center for midwest tribes, and prospered tremendously until it was gradually abandoned after the 1300s.

Why mounds? On the midwest plains, dirt was the largest commodity. And Native Americans built grand structures using it. Some mounds (typically the largest ones) were used for decoration and ceremony, while others were used as foundations for homes and other buildings. Today, visitors stroll Cahokia’s grasses and stare up at the strange and unnatural mounds. Monks Mound, the largest in North America, is also the only mound with more than two terraces in most of the eastern US. Ruined wooden piles arranged in circles (dubbed “Woodhenges” by archaeologists) were believed to have been used by ancient Cahokians to tell time. The two-mile long Stockade, a wall believed to have been used for defense, is also interesting to learn more about in the Cahokia Interpretive Museum. This seemingly boring collection of mounds seems a worthy rival to an island of ruins, after all.


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