The Importance of Woodhenge & Skywatchers

Cahokia is a city aligned five degrees off of true north. At first, this confused scientists as the rest of their society was so in tune with the stars, the sun, and every part of nature. After all, the city had four main plazas that indicated the four cardinal directions, so why wasn’t it perfectly aligned? This can be answered with the solar calendar. The city is perfectly aligned with the areas of the summer solstice, the lunar moonrise, and moonset maximums. 

Further evidence of this is the presence of at least five woodhenges in Cahokia, which aided in the religious observances and farming cycles of the Cahokian people. A woodhenge is a ring of cedar posts, all evenly spaced and about 20 feet tall, and could identify the equinox, and the summer and winter solstices. Aside from calendars, there are theories that the woodhenges also served as aligners for the community. Each post was painted red, after “traces of ochre [were] found by archeaologists in the ground at Woodhenge” (White). The woodhenges were not randomly placed, but perfectly aligned so that at equinox the sun would rise in the east, in line with Monks Mound, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Woodhenge Alignment with Monks Mound (Saint Louis Bank)

According to Iseminger, the central post was offset from the true center of the woodhenge around 5.6 feet, “which makes it align better with the perimeter post marking the winter and summer solstice positions at this latitude” (Iseminger). No detail was too small for the Cahokians, and woodhenges were curated to ensure their community could live and farm effectively. Another intricate observation of the woodhenge is the sunrise from Monks Mound. This was the chief’s mound, and as the sun rose in line with the mound it gave the illusion that the sun emerged from the mound. This is believed to be why Cahokians referred to their chief as a “brother” of the sun or believed that he represented the sun deity as an earthly presence (Iseminger).

The direct correlation with the skies is thought to be an attempt to equate the patterns of heaven with those of earth, the manifestation of the belief systems of Cahokian religious practices. Skywatching, an ancient practice commonly used in Cahokia, established a sacred geography through aligning it to the deities. It also provided a material presence of religion and was essential when passing culture through each generation. Skywatchers were common in a majority of Native American societies. Every mound had a purpose and a specific position. One theory exists that Cahokia as a whole falls into the shape of the constellation Orion, seen in Figure 2. 

Figure 2 – Cahokia Mounds Map (Cahokia Mounds Museum Society)

Cahokia relied on the sun, moon, and stars to guide their way of life: from what they ate to whom they prayed to, and their vast knowledge of the sky’s interworking with the resources they had continues to fascinate researchers.



“Cahokia Mounds Map.” Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. Accessed 11 November 2023 

Iseminger, William R. “The Skywatchers of Cahokia.” Mexicolore, 2009. Accessed 10 November 2023

“The Real Name of Cahokia Mounds.” Saint Louis Bank, 2021. Accessed 10 November 2023. 

White, AJ. “Cahokia.” ORIAS, University of California, Berkeley. Accessed 9 November 2023,and%20Woodhenge%20marked%20the%20occasions

Looking Deeper: Kivas

Kivas are underground structures made for ceremonial purposes, including both religious and cultural contexts. “Kiva” stands for “ceremonial room” in Hopi, and it was adopted by archaeologists from the late 1800s and early 1900s (Lekson 1988, p. 215). They evolved from pit houses, semi-subterranean buildings used for warmth during winter, food storage, and occasionally cultural practices such as dancing and storytelling. These underground structures were mainly used by Native American tribes in the Southwest, from the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma tribes to name a few. 

One main use of the kiva is to hold religious ceremonies. The entrance symbolizes the physical world, while the kiva serves as a glimpse into the spiritual world. The sipapu, a small hole in the wall, creates this spiritual environment, as tribes believed it was where ancestors emerged from the underworld into their realm. The fire inside also holds spiritual connotations, and its smoke is believed to hold the prayers and offerings of those participating in the ceremony. Aligned with the ladder, the fire’s smoke ascends to the spirits, while displaying reverence for the community’s beliefs. As each person arrives and leaves, they interact with the smoke as they use the ladder. In the ceremony itself, kiva participants circle around the fire and all are aware of its sacredness.

  • Kiva, Far View Sites Complex, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. 11th-12th century. 

Besides religious ceremonies, kivas provide a sense of community. Simply building the kiva inspired comradery as it required multiple people to build one. The technique passes down to each generation, and it serves as just one of many enduring traditions of the indigenous tribes. Along with the creation of the kiva, other events in the kiva allowed for culture to pass through generations. Many meetings, storytellings, and feasts were held in kivas, which allowed for culture and knowledge to continuously flow through tribes.

Kivas were not plain, barren pits. They held various murals, altars, textiles, and works of art to display their culture and welcome spirits into the sacred space. Murals were important as the indigenous people painted specific spirits, stories from their ancestors, or the tribe’s creation story, painting the most important moments which conveyed important teaching or were believed to bring good fortune. Kachina dolls were also popularly found in kivas, wooden carvings of spirits primarily used in the Pueblo and Hopi tribes. Pottery, sculptures, and costumes round out some of the most common items in a kiva.

  • Kiva and room block from the Puzzle House site in Montezuma County.

Archaeologists have discovered that kivas evolved more than initially realized. Three more types of kivas have been unearthed apart from the original kiva. Two include a small kiva, found after AD 900 in Puebloan sites within each small room block, and a great kiva, a structure for ceremonies that could accommodate great numbers of people (Larkin 2020). Tower kivas were a third adaptation of kivas, a circular structure with two or more stories.

In sum, kivas were an essential part of the culture and history of native people. It allowed for ceremonies, feasts, and most importantly, for these traditions to be passed down generation through generation.

Graham, Don. “KIVA.” Art History Glossary, Accessed 22 September 2023. 

Larkin, Karin.  “Kivas,” Colorado Encyclopedia, last modified September 09 2020, Accessed 19 September 2023

Lekson, Stephen H. “The Idea of the Kiva in Anasazi Archaeology.” Kiva 53, no. 3 (1988): 213–34.

Puzzle House Aerial, 1993 | Images | Colorado Encyclopedia, Accessed 20 September 2023. 

Further Research: