Woodhenge: One Path to Reconstructing Mindsets and History

Cahokia is an ancient culture and city near Modern St. Louis that reveals much about the North American Indigenous history. It greatly affected the surrounding cultures of Indigenous societies, and the world is still feeling these effects today. However, the presence of Cahokia is not well-known to the general American public today, and the lack of Cahokia monuments does not help Cahokia become known to a variety of people. Thus existing monuments, like Woodhenge, are significant to the history of the site. Woodhenge is a monument very similar to Stonehenge, with its circle of wooden posts that aligns itself with astronomical and geometric qualifications (Pauketat 2009, 62). Its availability to the public is only possible because of the reconstruction done by archaeologists, opening up a path to Cahokia knowledge. 

The discovery of Woodhenge was accidental in the late 1960s, “Dr. Warren Wittry was studying excavation maps when he observed that numerous large oval-shaped pits seemed to be arranged in arcs of circles” (Keller, Young, Kronk 2022). Because of the careful arrangement of the holes, excavations continued, and posts made of red cedar were found alongside the post holes. This red cedar is significant to some Indigenous cultures in North America, and this representation suggests Woodhenge was possibly also sacred to the people of Cahokia. Because of this, in the reconstruction of Woodhenge, the team made sure to use red cedar logs, and when they couldn’t, they used black locusts instead that were painted red (Iseminger 2009). Thus, using the red cedar logs wasn’t just for accuracy; they also could convey to the visitors of Cahokia that red cedar is sacred to these cultures and keep the history of this connection alive. 

Figure 1. The red cedar logs in the recreation of Woodhenge. Photograph by John W. Schulze. April 2, 2010. Woodhenge and Monk’s Mound, Cahokia Mounds. Flickr.

Besides the reconstruction making an attraction that appeals to those who might want to visit, it also suggests the organization of the Cahokian people. The well-thought-out post holes are, “incontrovertible evidence of an ancient American Indian civilization with a sophisticated understanding of geometry, astronomy, and calendrics” (Pauketat 2009, 62). This structure reflects the large-scale planning that must have gone on to create such an incredible creation. The people had to carefully plan how the posts would align with astronomical and calendar events, and they had to use geometry to do so. Thus, reconstruction isn’t just valuable to show what Cahokia would’ve been like back in 1050. Reconstruction of the monument also helps reconstruct mindsets. By showing the general public that past Indigenous people were capable of such structures that display a thought-out plan, we can begin to deconstruct the idea that Native people were not intelligent and only gained knowledge when Europeans came to America. 

Figure 2. Layout of Woodhenge displaying the relationship between the poles and astronomy. Photograph by Herb Roe. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia is just the beginning of teaching the world of ancient Indigenous cultures. By exposing structures like Woodhenge to people, an interest in learning more might be sparked, allowing history to include more truths about the Americas before European colonization. Reconstruction is the first step to reaching a more accurate understanding of the past and should be valued more when examining history.

Further Readings: 




Keller, Ken and Young, Eric and Kronk, Gary. 2022. “Woodhenge”. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. https://cahokiamounds.org/explore/#tab-id-4

Iseminger, William R. August 28, 2009. “The Skywatchers of Cahokia”. Mexicolore https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/skywatchers-of-cahokia

Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi




Impact on Gender Roles in Archaeology

Archaeology is often corrupted by the cultural norms of men and women of today. The “Princess of Vix” burial exemplifies the idea that assumptions cannot be made when examining history, especially concerning the difference between sex and constructed gender roles

The Princess Vix burial discovered in east-central France in the 1950s is a grave full of traditional ‘male’ grave goods, including a decorated wagon and jewels. However, the skeleton in the grave was a female one. Some of those who found the grave believed that the skeleton was a “transvestite priest because it was considered inconceivable that a woman could be honored in such a way” (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 172). The very idea that the archaeologists tried to discredit the goods as being earned by a woman shows the bias occurring in archaeology when examining historical females. Archaeologists sometimes allow themselves to be blinded by differing definitions of sex and gender. Sex is defined as, “biologically determined and can be established archaeologically from skeletal remains” (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 171), while gender is seen as a social construct that is determined by roles in society that can easily change. The archaeologists carried previous assumptions about gender into their work and could have made serious mistakes that greatly altered the interpretation of the past.

Figure 1. Princess Vix grave, displaying the female skeleton and some of the treasures found. Photograph by Claude PIARD. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.Wikimedia Commons

Alongside traditional male-associated artifacts in the grave, archaeologists also found a long-searched artifact: the giant Greek bronze krater from the tall tale of Herodotus. This giant bronze krater was said by the Greek historian Herodotus to have been made for a great king of Lydia (Lewis 1984). Due to the nontraditional size of this theoretical jar, historians have mocked the existence of this artifact. However, a jar matching the exact descriptions was found in the Princess of Vix’s grave. The possible existence of it alone paired with it being found so far away from Greece in a woman’s grave opens up a whole set of questions about the past. Thus, biases aren’t just causing the past to be misinterpreted, but also preventing future findings from being discovered. If the grave was interpreted differently due to biases, this infamous artifact would’ve never been examined in this capacity.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Giant bronze krater allegedly from the famous tale of Herodotus. It was found in the grave of Princess Vix. Picture credit: Peter Northover. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.Wikimedia Common

One finding in the discovery of the Princess Vix grave not traditionally known is that the grave led to similar discoveries of other female graves, indicating the praised role of women in the historical Celtic society, seen in the quote, “Although it is the earliest, the Vix burial is not the only high-status Celtic female burial in the area. A series of similar graves spread over the Rhine and Moselle area where women were accorded burials sometimes more splendid than many male chieftains” (Sheldon 2022). Thus, archaeologists making assumptions about the roles of women in Celtic society being similar to how our society treated women in the past is seemingly wrong.

In the end, gender and gender roles should not be assumed in any regard, especially when taking interpretation into account. 

Further readings: 





Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson. 108-140.

Sheldon, Natalie. February 16, 2022. “The Princess of Vix: Trade, Culture, and Women in Celtic Society.” History and Archaeology Online https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/the-princess-of-vix-trade-culture-and-women-in-celtic-society/

Lewis, Paul. April 1, 1984. “A Greek Treasure in France”. The New York Times Company https://www.nytimes.com/1984/04/01/travel/a-greek-treasure-in-france.html?pagewanted=all