The Cahokia Mounds site has been studied for some time, but much of its history remains unknown or has been lost over the years to erosion and modern agriculture, said Justin Vilbig, who is a geospatial data scientist at the Taylor Geospatial Institute and the SLU Ph.D. student leading the university’s work at Cahokia. The sprawling ancient city included dozens of burial and ritual mounds – some topped with temples or homes of leaders; causeways connecting some of the structures; and borrow pits, where the earth was dug to build the mounds and then often used as trash dumps.
“There are a lot of questions about Cahokia’s past that can be answered by remote sensing and LiDAR data," Vilbig said. “This gives the full landscape – where features were in context with each other – and what were the priorities of the Cahokians.’’
From a storytelling perspective, Vilbig hopes the NGA-SLU work can not only shed more light on the full layout of the ancient city, but also indicate more clearly how its people lived. From a modern practical perspective, he believes the work will help with site preservation and provide guidance to other researchers about where best to pursue or not pursue excavation for further study.
Owned and managed by the state of Illinois, Cahokia Mounds is both a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site, located near the city of Collinsville, Ill., features dozens of preserved mounds, including the multi-terraced Monks Mound, the largest earthen, man-made mound in North America.
Once one of the greatest cities of the world, Cahokia was a bustling center of trade and had a population of about 15,000 to 20,000 people at its peak from A.D. 1100 to A.D. 1200. Although not as well-known as the Mayan, Incan and Aztec civilizations of Central and South America, Cahokia’s urban settlement near the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers rivaled those Mesoamerican cultures and thrived centuries before Europeans arrived in the New World.