Exploring effigy mounds

This exhibit was created in collaboration with Emily Nelson, an undergraduate History major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


More than a thousand years ago, indigenous people in southern Wisconsin sculpted the landscape into the shapes of the creatures they saw around them. These mounds in the earth continue to watch over the people of the state. A bear looked over 19th century miners digging for lead; a bird rests just feet from where students study on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Observatory Hill today. These marvels have been well studied, recorded and visited, but much about them remains clouded in mystery.

Map showing the distribution of Indian mounds in Wisconsin, 1916. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Charles E. Brown, Map showing the distribution of Indian mounds in Wisconsin, 1916. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Effigy mounds are primary source evidence for reconstructing the lives of their creators. Radiocarbon dating has placed the people who built the mounds to have lived roughly between 650 – 1200 C.E. Archaeologists believe that effigy mounds came after Hopewellian-period conical and linear mounds, which were also built for burial and ceremonial purposes but are found mainly in the northern half of the state. Materials used to build the mounds and artifacts unearthed inside them give clues to the resources and culture of their creators. Most fascinating of all is how mound layouts demonstrate the social sophistication of the Late Woodland period in Wisconsin.

Rabbit Mound, part of the McConnell Mound Group on the western shore of Lake Waubesa, Dane County. Photograph by George R. Fox, 1919. Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College.

Rabbit Mound, part of the McConnell Mound Group on the western shore of Lake Waubesa, Dane County, photographed by George R. Fox, 1919. Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College.

Early theories on the origins of the mounds were plagued with misinformation and prejudice against Native peoples. European and American observers did not believe that ‘savage’ persons could be capable of such intricate works of earthen art. The most popular theory of 19th and early 20th century researchers was that a ‘Lost Race’ created the mounds.

A page of handwritten notes and sketches from a lecture by Increase Lapham in 1851. Wisconsin Archaeological Society Records, Wisconsin Historical Society.

A page of handwritten notes and sketches from a lecture by Increase Lapham, 1851. Wisconsin Archaeological Society Records, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Increase Lapham, regarded as “Wisconsin’s First Great Scientist,” put the idea of the ‘lost race’ to rest by revealing that material evidence found within and around the mounds corresponded with surrounding Woodland tribal culture. Lapham focused on the mounds throughout his career, describing them in detail in his 1855 publication The Antiquities of Wisconsin.

Many of the mounds Lapham recorded and sketched have since been destroyed. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as much as 80% of Wisconsin’s mounds were destroyed by urban development.

Anthropologist Charlotte Bakken works to uncover skeletons in a trench during the excavation of the Frost Woods Mounds in Monona. Photograph by Hal Roach, 1948. University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.

Anthropologist Charlotte Bakken works to uncover skeletons in a trench during the excavation of the Frost Woods Mounds in Monona. Photograph by Hal Roach, 1948. University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.

Some mounds contain human remains and pottery pieces that indicate burial ceremonies. By examining the pottery, archaeologists have placed Middle Mississippian tribes as the mound artists. The pottery in the mounds demonstrates that a high level of trade and movement was occurring in the region: the clay was tempered with crushed shells traced to the center of Mississippian lifestyle, Cahokia, located in present-day southwest Illinois. Around 1000 C.E., it is believed that emigrants from Cahokia traveled along the Mississippi River to settle in the southern half of Wisconsin. This corresponds with the location of effigy mounds. Around two-thirds of all effigy mounds are found in the southern half of the state. The Ho Chunk believe that it was their ancestors who built the effigy mounds and evidence of Woodland and Mississippian communication supports their claim.

A field party led by Charles E. Brown prepares to excavate the Heim effigy mound, in the shape of a fox or a wolf, Middleton, 1938. Wisconsin Historical Society.

A field party led by Charles E. Brown prepares to excavate the Heim effigy mound, in the shape of a fox or a wolf, Middleton, 1938. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Because they are constructed in the shape of animals, effigy mounds are thought to have been used in religious ceremonies. Native American symbols of the Spirit World are associated with animals. Oneota groups of the Upper Midwest (900 – 1650 C.E.) were separated into and symbolized by three clan systems: the sky clans (birds), the water clans (water panther, serpents), and the earth clans (man shapes, land animals).

Two-tailed water spirit (once thought to be a turtle) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College.

Two-tailed water spirit (once thought to be a turtle) on Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, photographed by George R. Fox, 1919. Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College.

Effigy mounds are often found in groups and were typically built in places that overlook rivers. Water too had spiritual significance for Native peoples of Wisconsin. In Ho-Chunk oral tradition, the effigy panther tails point to underground springs, entrances to the underworld. However, some archeologists have challenged modern tribal connections since the designs of effigy animals do not match modern iconography.

The layers of a mound contain special soils and ashes which suggest ritual ceremony in their construction. In the Kratz Creek site in Marquette County, golden sands and brick red clay have been collected from local deposits and layered with fire-blackened charcoal and ashes. The layers suggest that repeated rituals would have taken place over time.

Some Ho-Chunk tribes believe that effigy mounds were territorial markers and locations of place-specific rituals. Animals representing the different Ho-Chunk clans (such as the bird, bear, and panther) were segregated to separate parts of the state. Around 80% of all bear effigies are located in southwest Wisconsin. More than 90% of all panther effigies are found in the southeast.

The only surviving example of an intaglio (indented) mound in the shape of a panther, located outside Fort Atkinson. Photographed by George R. Fox, 1919. Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College.

The only surviving example of an intaglio (indented) mound in the shape of a panther, located outside Fort Atkinson. Photograph by George R. Fox, 1919. Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College.

Mounds may have been used for seasonal gathering places of mobile bands. Wisconsin’s diverse climate necessitated movement across the seasons: using upland resources in the cooler months and aquatic ones in the warmer months. Ceremonies at a special location would have reaffirmed social relationships and alerted other tribes to territorial ownership. Mounds were not usually placed at village sites.

Today, approximately 4,000 mounds survive in Wisconsin, from the estimated 20,000 once present in the 1600s. It is our responsibility to protect them; the Wisconsin Burial Sites Preservation Law prohibits mound destruction and disturbance without special permission. Thousands visit and study these monuments to uncover the lives of the people who built them. Theories of their function have varied, but what remains a constant conclusion is the architectural genius and historical significance of these impressive structures.

This plaque marks an effigy mound on the Edgewood College campus, Madison, Wisconsin. Edgewood College Library.

This plaque marks an effigy mound on the Edgewood College campus, Madison, Wisconsin. Edgewood College Library.


Sources

The images in this online exhibit come from the following digital collections:

References and further reading

  • Robert A. Birmingham and Leslie E. Eisenberg, Indian Mounds of Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000)
    • Jon Kasparek, Bobby Malone, and Erica Schock, Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004)
    • Patty Loew, Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013)
    • Nancy Oestreich Lurie, Wisconsin Indians (Wisconsin Historical Society Press)
    • “Effigy Mounds Culture,” Wisconsin Historical Society
    • Andrew Khitsun, “Wisconsin Mounds,” http://www.wisconsinmounds.com
    • “Burial Mounds,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
    • “Native Americans and the Preserve,” Lakeshore Nature Preserve, University of Wisconsin

    1 Comment

    1. Olivia:

      I think that effigy mounds are really cool and I wonder how are they still there from more than a 100 years ago and how many have been destroyed

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