Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2022

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Cahokia is the largest known PreColumbian settlement north of Mexico and includes over 100 documented earthworks, generally called “mounds.” Additionally, it contains several plazas and occupation areas, or village areas, that are divided into management units called tracts. The Ramey Field is one such tract that includes mounds, plazas, village areas, and portions of large palisade walls that enclosed the central core of the site. The research findings presented here focus on the timing and scale of landscape modifications that included construction of multiple mounds and an East Plaza that co-existed with three other plazas oriented to the cardinal directions around Monks Mound. This dissertation presents the material culture and describes their archaeological contexts in the northern portion of the Ramey Field, reports all existing dates for the Cahokia site within a series of Bayesian models, and incorporates newly sampled AMS dates from the Ramey Field. Results of several artifact analyses, Bayesian modeling efforts, geophysical surveys, and excavations indicate that this portion of the Cahokia landscape was dramatically transformed in ways that are not apparent from the modern ground surface.Much lies hidden in Cahokia’s deeper stratigraphic contexts, including buried mounds and features that survived additions and corrections to its palimpsestic landscape. My results make it clear that the Bareis Mounds, Mound 109, and the East Plaza were rapidly constructed, largely during the 11th and 12th centuries. Evidence of occupation predates and post-dates these constructions, and material culture evidence indicates that the Ramey Field was a locus of both domestic and ceremonial activity. Superimposed occupation features and the cultural materials they contained have been dated to the 11th through 14th centuries. The latest occupation features and their associated AMS dates provide the latest known occupation evidence for Cahokia, which lasted into the first decade of the 15th century. Even at this late date, decorated ceramics, marine shell debris, pigments, and sociotechnic chert artifacts suggest that the Ramey Field’s East Plaza was still in use, despite the existence of Cahokia’s massive palisade wall. Altogether the data demonstrate that the Ramey Field’s material history is represented by a series of superimposing architectural creations that symbolically relate to enduring cosmological themes in Native American ethnohistory. Scholars of the modern era were divided on the urban character of the Cahokia site and it’s potential existence as a city, as existing excavations (although impressive and large-scale) did not cover a significant amount of the site’s 13.5 km2 footprint. Moreover, the site’s chronology underwent several revisions that began with James Griffin’s original typology after WWII. More recently, the tack of existing scholarship has emphasized a “Big Bang” perspective of Cahokia’s development that highlights its most spectacular architectural features (Monks Mound, the Grand Plaza, and elaborate Mound 72 mortuaries) as evidence for a meteoric rise to prominence, followed by a collapse that mirrored its development in several ways. This dissertation, however, completely samples a “typical” or average-sized mound that was subsequently buried by plaza fill to infer behaviors that may be more characteristic of the events that collectively resulted in Cahokia’s existence before its decline and abandonment. Moreover, these findings are placed within a revised radiocarbon-focused chronology aided by Bayesian statistics to demonstrate how archaeological methods are now equipped to examine event-specific contexts within the temporal scale of a single generation. Married with traditional methods that championed existing knowledge about the Cahokia site, these approaches offer an avenue into new insights about Eastern Woodland cultures before European Contact. As with other emerging studies that draw from correspondences between excavation, geophysical prospection, micromorphology, accelerated mass spectrometry, material (artifact) analysis, and Bayesian statistical modeling, this dissertation suggests that Cahokia’s development is much more nuanced and delightfully complicated than current perspectives characterizing it as an explosive singularity do. Conversely, it does not reproduce neoevolutionary perspectives that emphasize a gradual development involving a steady negotiation of changes to existing traditions. These perspectives being weighed, the following chapters propose that Cahokia’s unwritten history consisted of an effervescence of events varying in scale and social impact, much like bubbles eventually spill over the lip of a bathtub during a long soak. Surely, some of Cahokia’s greatest moments “splashed” across the American Bottom region with consequences that affected communities beyond it, but not without the repeated gurglings or poppings of moments that interrupted everyday routines. To examine these smaller contributions to large-scale changes emphasized by divisions in traditional culture histories, this dissertation draws from the admired beliefs and practices of Native American tribes, in hopes that the increasingly rapid incorporation of New World philosophies will enhance the equally rapid advancements of archaeological science.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Tristram R. Kidder

Committee Members

Nicola Aravecchia


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