This app lets you see what Cahokia Mounds looked like 1,000 years ago
COLLINSVILLE — Visitors to Cahokia Mounds have always needed to rely on their imagination to picture what life looked like 1,000 years ago.
“There’s really nothing to look at outside of the interpretive center, except for the mounds that are left behind,” said site superintendent Lori Belknap.
But a new augmented reality app now allows visitors to visualize the scale of the ancient city built by the Mississippians, which had a population between 10,000 and 20,000 at its height.
Before becoming superintendent in 2019, Belknap was executive director for the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, which supports educational programs at the site. In this capacity, Belknap said she wanted a way for guests to envision what the 2,200-acre site really looked like and decided augmented reality was the best option.
“I started pulling together the idea of providing this type of experience right around the time Pokemon Go was becoming popular,” she said. “That was the genesis of the idea.”
Belknap found grant funding that would pay for the development of an app, and the museum society spent five years working with a St. Louis-based developer to bring it to fruition.
“It really changes what you interpret was here,” she said.
The Cahokia AR Tour app, which is available only for iPhones and iPads right now, features six locations that uncover different views of the landscape at Monks Mound, the largest of the 72 mounds at the site. An additional six stops showing the Grand Plaza opposite Monks Mound will launch in the spring, Belknap said.
It’s the first chance for many to see the wooden structures where the Mississippians built them.
“All we can do is imagine what it was like,” said St. Louis resident Julie Winters on a recent trip to the site. “My imagination is totally different than what this reality shows. Totally different.”
The details in the app, from the locations of structures to the type of wood used, are based on years of archeological research, Belknap said.
“It’s not just visual images of a temple or what we think was here,” she said. “It’s based on the data of what we know was here.”
The app also illuminates how the ancient city 100 feet below Monks Mound looked.
“When you look at this big field, it’s just flat and green right now, but with something like this you can definitely see, ‘Oh this is where a community of people lived and this is where a wall was,’ and things like that,” said Phil Sticha, who stopped at Cahokia Mounds on his way to Pittsburgh from Mexico.
The app gave Effingham resident Patty Dyle a greater appreciation for the history.
“I don’t think people realize how big this area was and how populated it was when they come because they don’t see any of that,” she said. “It was a large community.”
The visual interaction augmented reality affords is critical to help more people understand and connect with the history at Cahokia Mounds, said John Kelly, an archeologist who has conducted extensive research at the site.
“It’s the only way you can begin to approach what was taking place here,” he said.
Kelly added that the augmented reality gives people a new way to understand and interact with what the Mississippians built.
“It’s a major part of the architecture of the site that we work on and try to understand,” he said. “The mounds are basically immovable. Tornadoes or whatever are not going to impact them.”
Illinois State Archeological Survey Director Tim Pauketat agrees.
“In many parts of the world you still have stone structures, whether it’s Egypt or the Southwest or Peru,” he said. “A place like Cahokia and lots of other places around the world where they built with wood, you don’t have that.”
Pauketat and Kelly hope the new augmented reality tour app makes it easier for people to appreciate the history at Cahokia Mounds, bringing the site more attention, support and resources for preservation, like a national park designation. Efforts to get that designation have been underway in Congress for years.
“Cahokia always seems to be this mystery,” Pauketat said. “So many people don’t even know it’s there.”
Belknap agrees, adding she and others associated with Cahokia Mounds continually seek new ways to bring the site to people’s attention.
“It’s Illinois’ best-kept secret,” she said.
Editors note: All videos are courtesy of Cahokia Mounds Museum Society
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.