It was once the biggest city north of Mexico, with somewhere around 20,000 residents -- farmers, hunters, craftsmen, traders, priests -- at its peak in A.D. 1100–1200. Archaeologists have named them the Mississippians, but we don't know what they called themselves, because they left no writings behind. An air of mystery hangs over this site, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Who were these people and what was their world like? The answers are hauntingly elusive.
Exhibits at the site's visitor center show how archaeologists play detective with the ancient past. The variety of arrowheads dug up, for example, proves that these people were sophisticated enough to trade with tribes as far away as southern Minnesota and the Gulf Coast. Experts gather that the mounds were built by hand, with workers carrying dirt in baskets on their backs from so-called "borrow pits" to the mounds. Ordinary citizens apparently lived in simple houses with pole walls and thatched roofs, but they labored to erect these immense earthen structures -- 109 still exist, 68 of them in this park -- for public ceremonies.
After viewing the center's model of the ancient city, you can take tours of three different sections of the 2,200-acre site -- hour-long ranger-led tours, or 30- to 45-minute self-guided walks (maps and audiotapes available; iPod tours are also offered for a fee) of each area. You certainly can't miss Monks Mound, a four-terraced platform mound that once held the home of the city's ruler; it's the biggest mound in the western hemisphere, covering 16 acres at its base and rising 100 feet. Climb the modern steps to its now-grass-covered flat top, and you gaze over a huge leveled plaza, bounded by the city's 2-mile-long log stockade wall, bits of which have been reconstructed. From this vantage point, the kids can identify several mound shapes -- flat-top, conical, ridge-top -- which apparently had various purposes. Unlike other cultures, the Mississippians generally did not use mounds for burials, although in a few cases skeletons have been unearthed with all the trappings of a prince or chieftain; other skeletons found are mostly those of young women or men with hands and feet cut off, which suggests they were human sacrifices. (Mound 72 was particularly full of sacrificial burials.)
Once archaeologists started to dig, they found something even more amazing: the remains of an astronomical observatory, similar to Stonehenge but built of red cedar logs instead of stones: Woodhenge, the scientists have named it. How did two prehistoric cultures on different continents each get the same idea? And why did this great Mississippian city die? Archaeologists keep on digging, for they still have a lot of questions to answer.
Nearest Airport: Lambert–St. Louis International, St. Louis, MO, 22 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Drury Inn Union Station, 201 S. 20th St., St. Louis, MO (tel. 800/378-7946 or 314/231-3900; www.druryhotels.com). $$$ Embassy Suites, 11237 Lone Eagle Dr., Bridgeton, MO (tel. 800/362-2779 or 314/739-8929; embassysuites1.hilton.com)).