Mecca of the Mississippi: Daniel Acker Visits Cahokia Mounds for the Washington Post
Doesn’t look like much, does it? Objectively speaking, this is a pile of dirt outside St. Louis.
Dig deeper, though, and you’ll learn that this was once the center of “the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico.”
Monk’s Mound, the name of this earthen structure, is the largest human-made mound in North America, and the only one on the continent visitors can climb. Chicago-based Daniel Acker was asked to photograph this 100-foot tall, 14-acre wide creation and its immediate surroundings it for a Washington Post series titled “Science Trip.”
The work was done for Nick Kirkpatrick, a photo editor on the special assignments desk. His pitch was pretty straightforward and gave me quite a bit of leeway to approach the assignment as I saw fit. It was a rare opportunity to "do your thing," which I was happy to accept.
The WaPo feature combines the work of 12 photographers, each of whom went to a separate location in America with a scientific backstory. Daniel’s charge was the Illinois-grounded Cahokia Mounds, one of just two dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites located in the United States. You’d be forgiven for wondering at first blush why this place is so notable and so worth preserving. Shoot, Daniel himself didn’t know about Cahokia until he got tasked with this assignment — and he lives right down the road!
I honestly had never heard of Cahokia Mounds before starting to read about them ahead of my visit. It’s one of those things that is relatively close to home that I’d never encountered previously. It's difficult to wrap my head around the age of the place, and the human effort that went into manually building these mounds is astonishing. The Cahokia caretakers have done a great job not only researching the site but providing rich and detailed information for visitors to explore.
How’s about we focus on that “rich and detailed information" because, my goodness, it will knock your socks off. Let’s start here: at its peak circa 1250 CE, Cahokia was basically the Mecca of the Mississippi. The city was a hub for politics, religion, and commerce, and it served as the center of a vast trade network stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions.
People would spend weeks, if not months, trekking to Cahokia from such far afield places as present-day South Carolina, Oklahoma, and the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the individuals who came to Cahokia never left: the city’s population grew from roughly 2,000 people in 1100 CE to around 15,000 inhabitants within a century. By 1250, Cahokia was home to about 20,000 people — the same population as London at the time (in 1/100th the area, no less).
So, how does one go about capturing this vast expanse of land that leaves everything to the imagination? As Daniel tells it, by utilizing a perspective unavailable to Cahokia’s residents.
Given the age of the site, I thought it was interesting to look at it from the air due to the obvious disconnect between what was possible from a technological standpoint during that period and what is possible today.
The ability to look down at the site was something its inhabitants likely would never have considered. In most cases, I would assume the majority of the population spent their lives looking up at Monk’s Mound. I enjoyed exploring the site with this premise in mind.
Upon getting the needed clearance, Daniel shot most of the imagery with his drone, flying it for about two total hours across two days. While he got ground-level photos as well, Daniel's most captivating work, in terms of both stills and video, came from above. His footage was so good, in fact, that the Washington Post used some of it for the story's banner video.
I did three roughly 20-minute flights on each of my two visits. I actually launched the drone from the top of the mound at the end of a side trail, which allowed me to safely take-off and land without interfering with the handful of guests who were also visiting at the time.
With all aerial endeavors, it can be easy to focus on your pre-conceived ideas and forget what an amazing exploration tool the drone can be. I had a few images I knew I wanted to capture, but I also gave myself time to look for the unexpected. A handful of images I hadn't recognized from the ground quickly presented themselves.
A veteran aerial photographer, Daniel believes that getting quality shots is not just about launching a drone and letting it do its thing. When I asked him what advice he’d give to up-and-comers in the field, Daniel downplayed the importance of the equipment itself.
I see many folks in their early aerial efforts rely too much on the fact that the images were shot with a drone, and the actual content of the images becomes secondary. I've long held that the equipment used to create images is largely irrelevant. There are obvious technical considerations and minimum resolutions needed for most printing/display methods, but simply putting a camera in the air doesn't automatically make for interesting photographs.
What does make for an enthralling final product is learning about Cahokia’s history in conjunction with viewing Daniel’s work. In the accompanying writeup, Tony Rehagen paints a picture of a bustling metropolis, a sort of petri dish of culture in which a vibrant civilization thrived for generations. Monk’s Mound is among the last remaining remnants from an era that predates European contact. Before departing the site, Daniel made sure to put himself in the shoes of the people who called Cahokia home nearly a millennium ago.
I did take a minute while on the mound during my second visit to take a deep breath and enjoy the experience. The scale of the site is really remarkable, and it’s difficult to fully appreciate the years of human labor that went into constructing the earthen mounds.
My goal from any project like this is not to only "take" from the experience in terms of the photographs I need, but also to set everything down for a few minutes and clear my head, sit in the place, and reflect on its historical importance. I encourage everyone to take a look at the project online. You never know, you might discover a cool place in your backyard you were previously unaware of, like I did!
Photo Editor: Nick Kirkpatrick
Cahokia Mounds Reporter: Tony Rehagen
Text Editor: Susan Levine
Check out more of Daniel's work at danielacker.com.
Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!