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human occupation along the shores of the four lakesNative Americans and the Preserve

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Shoreline of Raymer's Cove at sunset    

Native Americans in the Four Lakes region

The story of human occupation along the southern shores of Lake Mendota begins more than 12,000 years ago—to around the time the last glaciers retreated from this area. Early people migrated to this area, we assume, because of the advantages of living near lakes and waterways that provided easy transportation routes as well as bountiful hunting and fishing. Perhaps they were also attracted to the beauty of the landscape.

Our understanding of this long span of human history is still developing and challenged. Old theories are constantly being replaced by fresh ideas informed by new discoveries. What we thought we knew about the people who lived here and how they interacted with their environment will continue to evolve as we explore the evidence they left behind.

Many different cultural traditions are represented in the archaeological record of this area. By analyzing the artifacts that these early people left behind—for example, spearpoints, ceramics, and stone tools—we are able to piece together their story. We can begin to answer questions such as: How did they hunt? How did they store their food? And what might their spiritual practices have been?

Powerful symbols of living traditions

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is especially fortunate to have many sites right on campus where the archaeological record can still be explored and studied. The entire campus landscape can serve as a classroom for learning about the peoples and creatures who have lived here in the past.

DA119 Willow Creek goose moundThis assertion will come as a surprise to many people. We don't often pause to consider the possibility that all around us is evidence of past cultures. But if we know where to look and how to read the landscape, then perhaps we can begin to see some of the inscriptions left on the landscape by the past inhabitants of this place.

Have you ever passed by this goose mound, adjacent to the Lakeshore Path and just north of the Natatorium, and not even noticed it? (For this photograph the mound has been lightly outlined with temporary chalk to highlight its shape.)


Unfortunately, over the past 150 years, many archaeological sites on campus have been destroyed by agricultural practices and building construction. Our hope is that through education, outreach, and site identification we can preserve the remaining archaeological sites on campus.

And of course, the Native American experience in this area belongs not just to the ancient past. Indian peoples continued to inhabit the Madison area all through the period of European-American settlement. Today, Madison is home to many Native Americans of many tribal affiliations for whom the mounds and other archaeological features of the campus are powerful symbols of living traditions. These places continue to be sacred places that deserve to be accorded respect and reverence.

The study of the ancient past in this area is a complex topic. We encourage you to review the archaeological reports listed at the conclusion of this article for a more thorough treatment of Native American archaeology in the Four Lakes Region. In particular, the 2004 report prepared by the staff of the Great Lakes Archaeological Center offers an excellent overview of the many different traditions that once flourished in this region.

survey site in Willow Creek Woods projectile point
Archaeologists excavate a square one-meter test unit during the 2004 survey at Willow Creek Woods. (Source: D. Einstein, 2004)

A projectile point discovered during the 2004 survey at Willow Creek Woods. (Source: D. Einstein, 2004)


Indian Burial Mounds at UW-Madison

Undoubtedly the best known and most visible legacies of past native peoples at UW-Madison are the earthen burial mounds that are widely scattered across the campus, with several of the most prominent interactive map section showing moundsbeing located in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Much has been written about these places—yet much remains unclear.

To view the locations, go to the Preserve Interactive Map, click the HUMAN LANDSCAPES menu and open the "Indian Mounds" layer. You can view the approximate locations of all the known Native American burial mound sites on the main campus. These include mounds that are still visible (we refer to these as "extant"), and mounds thought to be destroyed, or at least no longer visible above ground. The label associated with these locations on the map includes a number used in the state Archaeological Site Inventory (ASI) maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

See more about ASI numbering

There are four extant mound groups you can visit on the main campus, all but one of them located within the boundaries of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Recently these mound groups were surveyed and entered in a special burial sites catalog maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The site surveys establish a 25-foot preservation buffer around the mounds.


Mound groups on the main campus as they appear today


Willow Drive Mounds (DA119)

Just east of Willow Creek, near the bridge, are four mounds. The group includes three effigy forms (a goose, water spirit, and an un-named type) and a small conical form. The goose mound is readily visible from the Lakeshore Path.

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Willow Creek Mounds group


Observatory Hill Mound Group (DA571)

This mound group originally consisted of four mounds: two extant effigy forms (a bird and a unique two-tailed water spirit) are located just north of Agriculture Hall; and two additional mounds, whose surface features are no longer visible, are located lower on the Observatory Hill slope, below Observatory Drive.

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DA571 Observatory Hill mounds group


Eagle Heights Mound Group (DA130)

Atop the bluff at Eagle Heights Woods, are three mounds: one hemispherical and two linear in form. You can view the mounds from the trail that circles the group. This trail was originally constructed by George Raymer and incorporated into the carriage drive network established by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association.

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DA130 Eagle Heights mound group


Picnic Point Mound Group (DA121)

This group includes six extant mounds—one additional mound was destroyed by relic hunters many years ago. A cluster of five mounds can be seen midway along the main trail out to the tip of Picnic Point. If you look carefully, the raised conical and linear forms are visible immediately north of the trail.

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DA121 Picnic Point mounds 1-5


Picnic Point Mound Group (DA121)

The sixth extant mound (labeled mound #7 on the site map at right) is a large hemispherical form visible on your right just before you reach The Narrows (where the main trail dips near the beach).

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DA121 Picnic Point mound 7

text or html formatted fileTo learn more about Wisconsin Archaeology, visit the website hosted by the Wisconsin Historical Society: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/archaeology/

text or html formatted fileTo learn more about burial mounds of Wisconsin look for this book: Robert E. Birmingham and Leslie E. Eisenberg, Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

text or html formatted fileMany excellent studies have been published about Wisconsin archaeology, but the most recent major archaeological interpretation of the state's Indian mounds was published in 2000 by Robert A. Birmingham, the former State Archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and Leslie E. Eisenberg, the Society's coordinator of the Burial Sites Preservation Program at the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is unquestionably the best place to start for anyone wishing to learn more about this subject.


Text and photo credits, page 1:

    1. Text by Daniel Einstein, October 28, 2006.
    2. Introduction photo. Raymer's Cove beach and shoreline at sunset. William Cronon, 2006.
    3. Mound group survey drawings (5 each): Jenkins Survey and Design, Inc. 2004 Proj #04C1648.

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