Archaeological Sites on the UW-Madison Campus

A cyclist passes by an ancient goose-shaped Indian effigy mound built by Woodland culture Indians about 1,000 years ago, one of a group of four mounds between the Natatorium and the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path. The four remaining sets of mounds on campus, including those near Willow Creek, were likely built by ancestors of the present-day Ho-Chunk tribe who inhabited the region for 10,000 years. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067
Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.

For more than 12,000 years, people have lived on the lands that we know today as the UW-Madison campus. Past generations that dwelled here have left clues that tell us something about their lives—how they hunted or farmed, where they built their homes, how they stored their food, and so on.

These clues from the past—artifacts from earlier cultures—enable us to piece together stories about how people once lived here, and how they reshaped the landscape as they did so. Sometimes the clues are relatively easy to understand and interpret, and sometimes we can’t be at all sure what to make of the evidence.

Archaeologists-researchers who find and study cultural artifacts left by people in the past-help us to piece these stories together. Beginning in the late 1800s, archaeologists have been exploring the UW-Madison campus—gathering artifacts, drawing maps, and offering their interpretations of the evidence they have discovered. Archaeological surveys continue to be performed on campus—and there is still much here that we do not fully understand.

The ASI index

All of the known archaeological sites on the UW-Madison campus and in the Arboretum are listed in the Archaeological Site Inventory (ASI) — an index of all reported archaeological finds in Wisconsin.

The ASI is maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society, and catalogs over 10,000 locations of archaeological significance, including villages, burial grounds, shipwrecks, and farmsteads all across the state. Some of these date from the ancient past, while others are much more recent.

All entries in the ASI are listed with a unique identifier: for example, in the photo at right is DA121 (DA stands for “Dane County” and site 121 on Picnic Point). Some also have associated vernacular names: for example, “Observatory Hill Village” or “Picnic Grove Mounds.”

ASI site boundaries are frequently based on field survey data. However, some rely on historical records, observations, or artifacts collected from a particular area. The ASI boundary reflects the best available information for a given locale.

The degree of certainty about the extent of a particular site varies depending on the evidence used in establishing its boundaries. Some boundaries are based on recent field investigations, while others rely on incomplete data collected more than a hundred years ago. As additional information is gathered, site boundaries are refined and updated.

Stewardship and protection

To protect possible archaeological resources at a site, the Wisconsin Historical Society must be consulted prior to any ground-disturbing activities.

Please remember that it is illegal to collect archaeological artifacts from public property.

For additional information on the archaeological past of UW-Madison:

Visit the Native Americans and the Preserve page which includes a list of recent archaeological reports detailing UW-Madison sites.