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Making The Nature Scene: Mounds about town

Madison is so replete with mounds that many just walk by them—or over them.

Madison is so replete with mounds that many just walk by them—or over them.

Image: Diagram of lizard-shaped mound at Hudson Park courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society; frame illustrated by Maggie Denman.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.

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In the fall of 2020, a bright, warm heavenly dreamland, I was rounding out a jog along Lake Monona. As I approached where the lake meets the Yahara River, I side-stepped to miss some mud. When my first foot fell, my brain registered a formerly unbeknownst circular mound. It wasn’t marked, but there were native prairie plants growing on it, so it hadn’t been mowed. After running along the path on a regular basis for 10 years and calling Yahara Place my home park for at least five, I’d never recognized this as a mound. Many Madisonians overlook these ancient monuments—the abundance that remain around the area, and the destruction of many more in the course of our city’s development.

“Madison is probably the most mound-rich urban center in the United States,” says Wisconsin State Archaeologist Amy Rosebrough. The state has more remaining effigy mounds than any other. They’re also found in parts of Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa that border Wisconsin. Effigy mounds are one type of mounds built in this region. They’re predated by conical mounds, which are found across most of the Eastern United States. The first conical mounds were constructed around 700 BCE, Rosebrough says. Around 500 CE, the area’s Indigenous people began to build linear and oval mounds, connecting the conical mounds at times. Then, approximately 250 years later, ceremonial effigy mounds—typically in the shape of animals—began cropping up among the other mound types. Mound builders, also known as the Woodland culture, built mounds until around 1300 CE—or even as late as after being in contact with the Europeans and their descendants.

All of the mounds are burial sites, though conical mounds hold multiple burials, Rosebrough says. Effigy mound burials, usually of one person, are located in the head or the heart on the animal or spirit sculpture. Bones exhumed from effigy mounds show fewer signs of malnutrition and broken bones than their conical mound counterparts, indicating a higher social status. All of Wisconsin’s mounds are protected as burial sites. Generally, the owner of the land where mounds are located are caretakers for the mounds, be it city, county, state or private property. A comprehensive inventory of mounds isn’t publicly available, with the intention of protecting the mounds and property owners. At times, business interests and state legislators have tried to erode protections for the mounds—one failed effort in 2016 would have made it easier for landowners to “investigate” the mounds in the name of commerce.

Sacred sites

For City of Madison District 11 Alder Arvina Martin, who is Ho-Chunk and Stockbridge-Munsee, a band of Mohican Indians, connection to the mounds runs deep. 

“As a Ho-Chunk person, I was always taught that these earthworks were built by our ancestors and they are sacred to us, so they’re worthy of protection. We don’t walk over them like we don’t walk over graves. These are really important and sacred to us and connections to our ancestors who are closer than folks who are not native may consider their family. These are our grandparents, so we have to protect [the mounds] for them,” Martin says.

Though effigy mounds only exist in the northern Midwest, Indigenous people all over the world have used large, often animal-shaped creations to represent their cosmologies. The Incan city of Machu Picchu, for example, was built in the shape of a condor, and the empire’s capital, Cusco, in the shape of a puma. Wisconsin effigy mounds of Wisconsin represent the three realms. Flying native birds, like eagles and geese—as seen from the ground—correlate with the sky realm. Bears and panthers represent the earth realm. Water spirits, thought to travel to the underworld, correlate with the water realm. These effigy shapes are among the clans of the Ho-Chunk Tribe, who claim descendancy from the Mound Builders. 

Mounds were probably constructed during warm months, when earth was easier to move, and likely completed in intervals. A few mounds aren’t burial sites, though the ones that are suggest that many times, the body decomposed elsewhere and was brought to the mound site cleaned for a second burial—oftentimes just the skull and long bones. After all, it’s hard to dig a grave during Wisconsin winter. Former Wisconsin State Archaeologist Robert A. Birmingham’s book Spirits Of Earth (UW Press, 2009), which Rosebrough says is the book on Wisconsin mounds, says effigy mound burials may have occurred when someone by chance died during the construction of a mound that corresponded with their clan. Few articles, like a pipe for smoking, were buried with the deceased. 

Historical preservation 

I continuously marvel at what is commonplace in Madison. Well-known mounds are in Vilas Park, the Arboretum, Observatory Hill and Hudson Park, to name a few. For a more thorough look at area mounds, check out wisconsinmounds.com, which lists so very many Wisconsin mounds and a ton of photos. 

“People overlook the resources that are right next door, in some cases. I often laugh at people who spend thousands of dollars to go to Europe to go to museums to see things that are thousands of years old, when they really could just walk to the nearest park in Madison and see something spectacular,” Rosebrough says.  

Most of Wisconsin’s 15,000 to 20,000 mounds have been destroyed for farmland and other development, yet Madison remains rich with mounds, due in part to preservation efforts spearheaded by archaeologist Charles E. Brown. Active from about 1900 to 1940, Brown had an unusual yet effective preservation tactic—he presented to women’s groups, like garden clubs and Daughters of the American Revolution. 

“He would choose venues where the wives of the city planners hung out, and he would get them on board. Then they would go home to their husbands and say, ‘Dear, this would make a great park over here.’ A great many mounds were saved because of his efforts,” Rosebrough says. She notes that Milwaukee once had an abundance of mounds, but they were destroyed for development. 

Man Mound

The mound that intrigues me the most is the Man Mound near Baraboo. Man Mound is the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound that’s known to exist on the planet. It looks like a human walking, with projections coming from its head that have been interpreted as horns—a native counterpart to a halo—or a head dress that could indicate shamanic status, Rosebrough says. The Man Mound may also be an Algonquin symbol, in which case the protrusions might be rabbit or lynx ears. The turnoff to the Man Mound on Highway 33 is a simple brown sign, just outside of Baraboo. The mound is bisected by a quiet country road.

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“Back when they built the road that went through it, they cut off its legs. So he doesn’t have legs anymore and they painted [the outline of the mound on the road.],” Martin says. “That’s so tragic, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Man Mound is about an hour’s drive from Madison and 15 minutes from Spirit Lake, which is officially called Devil’s Lake, a misinterpretation of its Ho-Chunk name. You’ve probably been there. The vibe is definitely sacred. Let’s popularize its original name! 

The land of my birth is a stone’s throw from Cahokia Mounds, thought to be the largest Native American settlement north of Mexico. On the banks of the Mississippi near Collinsville, Illinois, about 20 minutes from St. Louis, this five-acre site was home to between 10,000 and 15,000 people at its height. Transplants from Cahokia traveled up the Mississippi River and inhabited what is now known as Aztalan State Park near Lake Mills. The differences in the Mississippians’ tall, platform-style mound structures are noticeable. Cahokia’s largest, Monk’s Mound, is nearly 100 feet high, 955 feet long and 775 feet wide. Cahokia Mounds is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a fascinating interpretive center. A friendly tip: don’t visit in the heat of July or August without ample hydration, sunscreen and perhaps a parasol. You will melt.

Respecting the mounds

For much of COVID summer 2020, I made Burrows Park my de facto living room, and my sofa was a spot under a tree, near the armpit of a thunderbird mound with a 128-foot wingspan. In that time, I noticed a lot of park goers not noticing the mound. So I developed a knack for informing folks that they were walking over an effigy mound. Some people were grateful, some were shocked by the intrusion, and others ignored me. Get your small child off of the mound, Karen! Your little dog, too! I might have been a touch punchy due to the whole plague situation. Once, I spent some time meditatively chilling during one equinox or another near a short linear mound close to Pahnuck Park on the south side of Lake Monona. Later, I excitedly brought the mound up to a neighbor. They suggested that the rise in the ground was raised by a sewer line below it. Who knows?

For posterity: if you see a mound, please walk around it and keep your pet from desecrating it. If you see people traipsing over a mound like it’s no big deal, you might say, “Excuse me, did you know that’s a Native American effigy mound? It’s a protected burial site and it’s respectful not to walk on it and wear it down.” We’re occupying land that was stolen from the people who lived here before white people laid claim to it. It’s our responsibility as humans—many of whom have benefited from colonization and white supremacy—to care for these cemeteries and religious sites. 

“They’ve survived for thousands of years and we want them to stay for thousands more,” Martin says. “The general public shouldn’t be approaching and climbing over or trying to walk on or people playing Ultimate Frisbee or bocce—don’t do that there.” She notes that in the last 20 years or so, people seem to be understanding that these sacred sites should be respected. Martin notes that roping off more mounds would better protect them, though that would need to be done in a way that still allows Native Americans access to the mounds for ceremonies and the like.

“[Mounds are] the heritage not only of the people whose lands we’re living on—to protect them is to respect those people, to respect others and the descendants that live here today. You wouldn’t go to Rome and start knocking heads off statues, so why destroy sculptures here that are just as old?” Rosebrough says.  

Here’s a hot list of local and day-trip-range mound sites, and links to more information. May your outdoorsing be abundant and respectful as spring returns. 

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