Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Modern Mound Builders of Minnesota

The Man-Made Mound of Northern Minnesota 

      I am temporarily working out of Thief River Falls and, coming from the rolling terrain of central Montana, I am amazed at the vast flatness of the region. The town is located in the Red River Valley of Northwest Minnesota at the confluence of the Red Lake and Thief rivers. It is also at the bottom of the ancient lakebed of Lake Agassiz. The Red River valley is so wide and flat that spring usually brings a flooding concern as spring melts the abundant snows of winter. It will not take much to spill over its pathetic banks. The valley is so wide and flat that you cannot even see the hills that contain it. It is so flat that any visible rise in elevation is clearly man-made. The highest points are generally roads, railroads and county maintenance sand and gravel piles.
     So, this is where I am travelling each day when on the horizon I see a very large hill in the distance and from my knowledge of the region’s geology, I know this is not just a hill, it is a man-made mound. My mind goes back to my youth in Minneapolis and the swallowed up city of Mound which was named after the ancient Indian mounds. I also recall the many burial  mounds along the Big Sioux River on either side of  the border of South Dakota and Iowa from the time period when I lived nearby. And then… the Mother of all Mound communes: Cahokia, right across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis, the most sophisticated and largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico.
     The era of mound-building indigenous peoples of North America lasted some 5000 years and left behind thousands of mounds from the size of a dome shaped two-person tent to Monks Mound at Cahokia which is about 100 feet high, 955 feet  long, and 775 feet (236 m) wide.  ( That is one big man-made hill—and built to last, centuries after the people left for reasons unknown.

Monks Mound
     Why did they build these mounds? They were built for many reasons; burial, worship, rituals, sacrifice, and even foundations for a few homes of the elite. They came in different shapes too; rounded, cone-shaped, flat-topped, elongated, ridged, and even animal-shaped. Some even had designs worked into them with rocks or further raised earthworks. They were engineering marvels and built to last—long after the builder’s cultures and peoples disappeared from memory. It is only by archeology and anthropology that we have learned anything about them--and keeping developers from destroying any more of it! 
     These mounds and/or clusters of such were the center of many peoples’ lives—villages were built around them, commerce was conducted around them, and each culture had their own styles of building and reasons for building them. But one thing seems to be sure, they were the center of their lives.
     Now, back to the mound I see growing larger as I come closer. I begin to see something big and shiny on top. Could this be a modern monument to inform the visitor of the finds archeologists have found? Or perhaps it is a shelter to allow people to rest after climbing to the top? Closer, closer, I am beginning to make out a… what the?… a large tractor! Why is there a tractor on top of this mound? Surely something is afoul here.
      Then I smell vaguely foul odor and soon I see a sign identifying this modern marvel of a man-made mound. It is the Markit landfill near Hallock, Minnesota. It is man-made alright, but for hiding our waste out of sight—in plain sight. The center of their lives is no longer holy.
     The landfill is built as a hill to keep it well above the shallow water table. The waste has already been sorted for recycling and is baled up to reduce windblown liter. The area around the site was remarkably clean, so they must be doing something right
 The tip on top is the tractor
You can see the bales of trash stacked up ready to be buried 
You  can also see the road angling to the top on the right.
Here’s to the future. Oh, what a treasure trove for our progeny to dig up and wonder why in the year 2525.

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