Historian takes on architecture

Author influenced by Cahokia Mounds in Illinois

— 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 archaeologists, and of the evidence of human sacrifice those researchers found in some of the smaller mounds.

The fascination lasted.

After her first chance visit, 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 archaeology, anthropology and geology, fields that had little to do with her academic specialty. At one point, the former professor even re-enrolled in college to study archaeological map making.

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

"I'd been looking for years for a piece of land to write a complete history of, and this was it," she said.

With the aid of site archaeologists William R. Iseminger and John E. Kelly, Chappell tells the story of how Cahokia came to be. She explains the geological and ecological 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 archaeologists' 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, purpose. She estimates that the 100-foot-tall Monk's Mound, the tallest manmade structure in the United States until 1867, 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 6-square-mile Mississippian city.

"All human beings like great height," Chappell said. "It has been associated with awe from greatest antiquity.

"It's estimated that about the year 1050, Cahokia may have been a bigger city than London was at that time," she said. "There were from 10,000 to 20,000 people living there full time, and the population could have reached 30,000 on festival days."

But while London lasted, Cahokia did not. By 1400, the site was abandoned, and remained uninhabited until Illini Indians moved into the area around 1650.

While most archaeological books on Cahokia end with the abandonment, Chappell's account takes the site's history up to the present day. She considers the 18th-century roles of French priests, traders and Trappist monks; the 19th-century impact on the site of American pioneers, farmers and railroaders; and the 20th-century struggle to preserve the mounds for posterity.

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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