- Powerful symbols of living traditions
- Indian burial mounds at UW-Madison
- Frequently asked Questions about Indian Mounds
- Who built the mounds?
- When were the mounds built; and what forms do mounds take?
- What is inside the mounds?
- How were the mounds built?
- Where are mounds found?
- Why did Indians stop making mounds?
- The shape of mounds – what does it mean?
- How were mound locations selected?
- Why were mounds destroyed or changed?
- Are mounds currently protected from disturbance?
- Mound groups as they appear today-site surveys
- Learn More – campus archeological survey reports
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?
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.
This 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.
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.
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 being located in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Much has been written about these places—yet much remains unclear.
There are four “extant” (still visible) 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 label associated with each location includes a number used in the state Archaeological Site Inventory (ASI) maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The site surveys establish a 25-foot preservation buffer around the mounds.
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. View full-size map.
Observatory Hill Mound Group (DA571)
This mound group originally consisted of at least six mounds, but only two are currently visible: a bird and a unique two-tailed water spirit. These two extant mounds are easily viewed from the sidewalk just to the north of Agricultural Hall. It is reported that at least two conicals were destroyed during construction of Agricultural Hall. In addition, the surface features of a water spirit and a linear mound on the lower slope of Observatory Hill are no longer visible. View full-size map.
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. View full-size map.
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. View full-size map.
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). View full-size map.
In this brief summary, George Christiansen III answers some of the most often heard questions. George, a professional archaeologist and doctoral student at UW-Madison, is an expert on the archaeological sites of the UW-Madison campus. As an anthropology instructor and frequent public speaker, George has fielded hundreds of questions about Wisconsin’s Indian mounds.
There are two answers to this question depending on what exactly is being asked.
In a general sense, Indian oral tradition and archaeological research has confirmed that the ancient mounds found throughout Wisconsin were built by Indian peoples. Although this may seem like common sense, it was not long ago that some people believed that the mounds found throughout Wisconsin were made by a vanished race of “Mound Builders” who were thought to be any one of a number of non-Indian people including the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel,” Vikings, Britons, Hindus and many others. We now know this to be false and sometimes the product of racist views. After more than 165 years of archaeological research there has not been any evidence to suggest that anyone other than Indian peoples built the mounds.
In a specific sense, many people desire to know what historically known tribes built the mounds. The answer to this question is far more difficult to answer because the mounds were built over a period of approximately 2500 years, and mounds ceased to be constructed almost 200 years before any Euro-Americans started asking who might have built them. Inquiries to Indian people of Wisconsin by anthropologists in the early part of the 20th century were answered by partial and conflicting answers, however, only the Ho-Chunk and the Iowa were able to provide any information at all. Subsequent research by anthropologists, linguists, historians, and archaeologists seems to indicate that the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk, Iowas, Dakotas, Otoes, and Missouris built the mounds in Wisconsin and surrounding areas. This, of course, is a tentative answer pending continued research.
During the period 350 to 2800 years ago, Indian peoples of the Midwest built at least 15,000 earthen mounds in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most commonly found shapes are hemispherical (sometimes called conical), ovate (shaped like an egg or an oval), and linear embankments. Some of the more spectacular mounds are called “effigy mounds” and were built between 1000 to 1300 years ago. They are called effigy mounds because they take the form of recognizable animals such as birds, bears, water spirits, deer, turtles, beaver, buffalo, canines, and other animals. There are also a few rare examples of mounds being built in the human form.
The mounds probably served a number of purposes, but the most obvious use was as a place of burial. Most mounds contain a single burial, although some contain many burials, usually placed in a shallow pit. There are usually structures within the mound that appear to have served purposes related to burial of the dead, although what those precise purposes were are unknown. Structures can include stone lined pits, layers of charcoal, burnt soil, ash, and sometimes different colored soils from a variety of locations near the mound.
Artifacts are rare in the mounds of Wisconsin. Usually items found in mounds consist of everyday items such as projectile points and pottery.
Remember that mounds are legally protected burial sites. Please respect these sacred sites.
Some mounds were built by piling and packing dirt on the ground surface into the desired shape. Other mounds were built on a prepared ground surface. Care was taken to strip away the sod in the area where the mound would be constructed. Yet other mounds were dug in the shape of an effigy and then piled with dirt so that half of the mound is below the ground and the other half is above.
Mounds were built in a variety of shapes and sizes. The largest known hemispherical mound was built in Richland County, Wisconsin and was approximately 200 feet in diameter. Near to that mound was the largest recorded bird effigy mound with a wingspan of nearly a quarter mile. Unfortunately, both the bird and the hemispherical mound have been destroyed. The largest extant bird effigy mound is located on the grounds of the Mendota State Hospital on the north side of Lake Mendota in Madison, with a wingspan of 624 feet. The longest recorded linear embankments were located along Lake Monona and measured 700 feet long.
In a general sense, Indian mounds were built throughout what is now the United States. However, the highest concentration of effigy mounds can be found in the Upper Midwest. While some effigies can be found in southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and northern Illinois, the majority of effigy mounds were built in southern Wisconsin. Archaeological research indicates that mounds are not spread over the landscape in a uniform distribution, but rather there are clusters of mounds and mound groups. Clusters, sometimes referred to as “Super Clusters,” are found in the Madison area, the Muscoda area, and the Prairie du Chien area.
Mounds are typically found situated on bluffs, ridges, bottom lands, and shorelines near resource-rich areas that were able to support temporary gatherings of large groups of people. Some mounds are found near important natural features such as islands, marshes, springs, and caves.
Sometime between 900 and 1000 years ago, the people who built effigy mounds ceased to do so. The reasons for this are uncertain, but may have been related to changes in the way people perceived their place in society.
Mounds in general, however, continued to be made and used regularly until the mid 1600s, when Indian societies were severely disrupted by the impacts of the fur trade and the migrations of displaced Indian peoples from the east. In a return to traditional ways, there are some modern examples of mound building among Indian people of the Upper Midwest as a symbol of continuity between the past and the present.
The shape of mounds – What does it mean?
Since the first time that effigy mounds were brought to the attention of the public in 1838, there has been controversy over what the shapes of mounds mean. Despite the fact that linear embankments and hemispherical mounds do not appear to be effigies in the general sense of the word, they also have been brought into the debate as well. Richard Taylor was the first to publish an account of effigy mounds in Wisconsin. He concluded that the animal-shaped mounds were representative of the clan emblems that some Indian peoples used to identify themselves.
A clan is a social group that claims a single common ancestor. Tribal societies in Wisconsin used the clan system to structure their society. For example, clan affiliation determines who can marry whom; what group of people is responsible for enforcing tribal law; how people receive names; and who conducts certain ceremonies. In other words, it provides order and direction in many social and political settings. Among the Ho-Chunk, clans have animal names, hence the assumption that earthen animal effigies may represent membership of the deceased in a particular clan.
More recently, archaeologists have noted that the creatures depicted in effigy form can be grouped into three categories; animals that fly, those that walk the earth, and those that are associated with water. This is significant because the belief system of many Indian peoples focus on a division of their world into Upper and Lower Worlds. Birds and flying creatures, such as Thunderbirds, are representative of the Upper World.
The Lower World is subdivided into earth and water, with the earth being represented by bears, and the water by water spirits. Water spirits are represented by long-tailed creatures that sometimes resemble panthers or lizards or possess a combination of traits making them “composite” creatures. Could it be then that the bird mounds are symbolic of the Upper World and that the bear and panther mounds are symbolic of the Lower World?
We will never know for sure, but recent studies focusing on the distribution of the different mound types shows that bird mounds are more prevalent in western Wisconsin than in eastern Wisconsin. Furthermore, panther or water spirit mounds are more common in eastern Wisconsin. If we consider the geography of the western part of Wisconsin, it is dominated by tall bluffs separated by deep valleys. In a certain sense, the bluff and hill tops provide access to high ground that one might be able to associate with the Upper World.
The geography of the eastern part of the state is known for its many lakes, marshes, and streams, which could be interpreted as being associated with the Lower World. Because the Upper World and Lower World are merely divisions of the same world in the Indian world view, they exist in harmony and balance. This may explain why mound groups like the Observatory Hill Mound group include representatives of both the Lower World (the water-spirit-shaped mound) and the Upper World (the bird-shaped mound).
It is possible that the mounds are both representations of clan membership and are also symbolic of the world view of those that built them. It is also possible that the mounds represent visual reminders of group territory. Some have proposed that mounds represent markers on the landscape of certain environmental resources. To complicate that matter, it may be possible that the meanings of the shapes changed over the 300-to-400-year period that effigy mounds were being built. As for the linear and hemispherical mounds, it has been argued that they represent effigies of a type that cannot be discerned today.
Finally, some people may argue that we will never know what the shape of the mounds means–but perhaps that is not important. The builders of these mounds took pains to create forms that are recognizable and if we can never be sure of what the shapes mean, we can at least agree that mound groups represent very special places on a culturally created landscape that has been changed and shaped by its human inhabitants for 12,000 years.
Some people might argue that the answer to that question could only be provided by the builders of the mounds. This is true in one sense, but we can still ask the question and hope to answer it by looking at where mounds are placed and what similarities those locations share with each other.
A total of 11 mound groups are, or were, present on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus (including the Arboretum). When we look at where the mounds are located, we find that 8 of the 11 groups are on ridge tops overlooking Lake Mendota or Lake Wingra. The remaining 3 are located immediately adjacent to lake or marsh margins. From this brief examination, it seems apparent that mound locations were chosen for their proximity to water sources first, as all of the mounds are found near water; and second, in elevated locations.
The elevated locations would have provided panoramic vistas of the surrounding region. While we cannot judge what those vistas meant to the builders of the mounds, we can say that modern peoples often experience a sense of awe and wonder while enjoying a view that is aesthetically pleasing. For instance, the mounds located in the Eagle Heights Woods are on the highest natural spot in the entire Four Lakes area. While low-growing shrubs and closely spaced trees currently impede the view towards the lake, our best guess is that at the time the mounds were constructed the view would have been unobstructed.
We cannot with certainty answer the question of why mounds were built where they are, but we can say that humans share a certain sense of what is aesthetically pleasing and that high places with unrestricted views are commonly set aside for special activities, whether for burying the dead, practicing one’s spirituality, or taking a moment to enjoy the world around us.
Unfortunately, most of the mounds that were still visible on the landscape at the time of European-American settlement have been destroyed or altered from their original forms. Many mounds were plowed under or destroyed during the construction of buildings and roads. Oddly, some mounds were damaged or altered in the course of early archaeological investigations.
The mounds that you see today at the Willow Drive Mounds are a good example of how the original contours of a mound can take new forms. As can be seen in this 1885 site sketch (below) prepared by T.H. Lewis, an archaeologist and early mound surveyor, there are four mounds present.
The westernmost mound is in the shape of bird that likely represents a goose with bent wings. Number 2 is a round or hemispherical mound. Numbers 3 and 4 have been described as being “problematical” shapes, but clearly they are effigies of some kind. View full size map.
Charles E. Brown, an archaeologist and former director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, made a map of this same mound group on June 25, 1909, along with modern features associated with the mounds.
As Brown’s map indicates, sometime between 1885 and 1909, a turnaround for a pleasure drive was constructed around the goose effigy. This drive destroyed the westernmost extension of the goose (i.e. the “head and neck”) as well as the southernmost “wing.” The tail of the goose was also altered, and Mound 2 appears to have been almost entirely removed.
In 1935, Brown excavated the goose mound and in 1937 led a Depression era Works Progress Administration (WPA) crew in the excavation of the two so-called “problematical effigy mounds” to the east. The goose mound contained a single burial. No artifacts were found associated with the burial. In Mound 3 Brown and his crew unearthed the remains of five individuals. Two burials were uncovered in Mound 4.
Brown and the WPA crew partially reconstructed the goose and the two other effigies as they appear today. However, it is clear that the reconstruction was not based on Lewis’ notes, and the original outlines of the mounds are lost to us forever.
The alteration of the Willow Drive Mounds provides us with an important lesson as we try to interpret the meaning of mound shapes and alignments: What we see on the landscape today may not be anything like what the original mound builders constructed.
Are mounds currently protected from disturbance?
Mounds are considered to be human burial sites and are protected on all non-federal lands in the state by Wisconsin’s Burial Sites Preservation law (Wis. Stats 157.70) and Wisconsin’s Field Archaeology Act (Wis. Stats 44.47). On Federal or Tribal lands, burials sites are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Professional ethics in the archaeological community continue to evolve. Most archaeologists now assert that mound sites that are not directly threatened should be left intact for future generations. This allows for the application of yet-to-be developed technologies that may allow for better recovery of data and in the end, better interpretations of the past.
Archaeological research on public lands requires a special permit from the Wisconsin Historical Society. Collecting artifacts on public property without a permit is not allowed.
To learn more about Wisconsin Archaeology, visit the Wisconsin Historical Society Archaeology Programs and Services webpage.
To 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.
Read these archaeology reports for a more detailed discussion of the UW-Madison’s ancient past:
George Christiansen III, “Archaeological Investigation on the UW-Madison Campus” June 2005, Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center: Project 04.005. This is the most comprehensive review of the UW-Madison archaeological record ever completed. Field research performed for this project in 2004 located 13 new archaeological sites across the Preserve. This report includes a detailed overview of the presence of Native Americans in Wisconsin dating back to the post-glacial period.
George Christiansen III, “Eagle Heights Woods, UW-Madison Campus, Dane County Wisconsin: Results of a Phase 1 Archaeological Survey” Nov. 2001, Archaeological Research Inc. Reports of Investigations No. 78. This report describes the results of archaeological testing in the vicinity of the mound group atop Eagle Heights. A detailed discussion of the publicly accessible pleasure drives, built by George Raymer in the late 1880s to reach the Eagle Heights Mound Group, is also included.
George Christiansen III, “Picnic Point, UW-Madison Campus, Dane County Wisconsin: Results of a Phase 1 Archaeological Survey” July 2001, Archaeological Research Inc. Reports of Investigations No. 64. There are six distinct archaeological sites on the Picnic Point peninsula—including six extant burial mounds—making this area one of the richest archaeological sectors on the UW-Madison campus. This report details the results of extensive shovel test surveys performed in 2001, which significantly enhanced our understanding of habitation activities at Picnic Point.
Amy Rosebrough, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form-Observatory Hill Mound Group” 2003. The national significance of the two extant effigy mounds on the slope of Observatory Hill DA 571 is documented in this official application to the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service added the site to the register in 2004. (7 Mb)
Amy L. Rosebrough, “A Phase I Archaeological Survey of Muir Knoll, University of Wisconsin-Madison , Dane County, Wisconsin,” 2003. Madison WI: Office of the State Archaeologist, Wisconsin Historical Society. This report documents the presence of a Native American archaeological site on Muir Knoll, DA1208.
Kenneth Karstens and Lynn Rusch, “Results of the Archaeological Reconnaissance Survey for the University of Wisconsin Crew House, Madison Wisconsin” Midwest Archaeological Consulting, Research Report No. 28. As part of preliminary planning for siting a new crew house facility, a reconnaissance archaeological survey (Phase I) was conducted at Willow Creek Woods in 1995. The research revealed extensive intact archaeological features. Additional survey work (Phase II) at this site in 2004 confirmed the significance of this site, and determined that the site may be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Charles E. Brown, “Prehistoric Indian Monuments on the University Grounds.” The Wisconsin Alumni Magazine. 15.9 (June, 1914): 383-389. Charles E. Brown, a tireless advocate for the preservation and study of Indian mounds, provides an overview of these features on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. (2 Mb)