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Effigy mounds bear witness to region's ancient history

  • 7 min to read

The ancient site is easy to overlook — sitting, as it does, next to a busy state road — but its historical treasures quickly reveal themselves upon even a cursory visit.

What looks like a roadside park becomes, upon entering it, a thousand-year trip back in time, to a place that served the people of the region long before Europeans arrived. Across a self-contained landscape, giant, man-made earthworks of various shapes, including cones, ridges and stylized animals, fill the scene.

A nearby ridge is topped by several conical mounds that command a 360-degree view, the Wisconsin River flowing by in the distance. Two giant, elongated earthen bears stand guard in single file just below the ridgeline.

Back toward the highway, a mound in the shape of a panther with an extremely long tail stands watch over a seemingly random arrangement of additional conical mounds and ridges. On the far side of the highway, on a small spit of land overlooking nearby farms, a giant thunderbird lies flat and still like an airplane preparing to taxi onto the runway for takeoff.

Panther mound in mauston

Effigy mounds, such as this panther mound in Mauston, were built by the area’s native tribes thousands of years ago.

From Wisconsin Dells to Prairie du Sac and from Portage to Mauston, prehistoric sites like this one, located southeast of Wisconsin Dells in Newport on State Road 16, subtly populate the landscape, quiet yet evocative reminders of an ancient world that well-preceded European settlers.

The mounds represent a historical legacy left behind by south-central Wisconsin’s earliest inhabitants, most likely ancestors of the original inhabitants who still live here — the Ho-Chunk Nation, who own and preserve the aforementioned historic site in Newport, known as the Kingsley Bend Mound Group.

That legacy includes a distinctive mound style — found at Kingsley Bend and in numerous other locations throughout the region — that occurred nowhere else in the ancient world.

Known as the “effigy mounds” because of the distinctive animal and human shapes in which they were built, the mounds date from a period between 800 and 1200 A.D. known as the “Late Woodland” period.

During that time frame, the nomadic hunter-gatherers who populated the region in and around the southern third of Wisconsin began to learn to grow corn and to use the bow and arrow for hunting.

Kay Macesey and mound

Kay C. Mackesey, Clerk-Treasurer-Coordinator of the Village of Lake Delton, stands next to the panther effigy mound at Newport Park there. The village erected a fence around the mound in order to protect and preserve it.

The south-central region — with its many waterways and lakes and plentiful food sources — was a favored locale for the effigy mound-builders, especially Sauk County but also parts of Adams, Columbia, Juneau and Marquette counties, near rivers, lakes and the pathways they traveled.

Across Wisconsin and adjoining states, between 2,000 and 3,000 effigy mounds were constructed during the Late Woodland period, and approximately 250 effigy mounds were counted in the area that became Sauk County by some of the first Europeans to chronicle the mounds, according to Rob Nurre, preservation of sites chairman of the Wisconsin Archeological Society.

The effigy mounds and the conical and linear mounds that preceded them during the Early and Middle Woodland periods began to disappear as Europeans arrived and settled the land, yielding in the days before historic preservation to the building of roads, farms, homes, towns and cities.

But as early as a century ago, some of the Europeans whose increasing numbers had a hand in decimating the mounds began to see the wisdom in preserving at least some of them. Today, all of the mounds and mound sites that remain in Wisconsin are protected by state law and still considered sacred by the Ho-Chunk.

At sites like the one in Newport and at numerous locations around the region — on past and present farmland, along roadsides and in numerous state and municipal parks — effigy mounds are a permanent part of the landscape.

Shadows over the mound

The late afternoon shadows hang over this effigy mound located on private property in the town of Merrimac with four extremities reaching out from its center, believed to be in the shape of a bird.

Foremost among them, along with the Kingsley Bend site, is the Man Mound in Greenfield near Baraboo — the only remaining effigy mound on Earth created in the likeness of a human — and the numerous effigy mounds in and around Devil’s Lake State Park.

The foresight a century ago of local and state preservationists — including the Sauk County Historical Society and the Wisconsin Archeological Society — ensured that the Man Mound and Devil’s Lake sites would be around for generations to come, and this year both sites are receiving increased positive attention thanks in large part to continuing preservation efforts on the local and state levels.

The Man Mound and the Sauk County park it occupies await designation as a National Historic Landmark, which could come as soon as this fall. Meanwhile, the Sauk County Historical Society and Wisconsin Archeological Society in September will mark 100 years of preservation of the giant “Bird Mound” on the south shore of Devil’s Lake.

The Man Mound also is serving as this year’s symbol of archeological and historical preservation, with its likeness appearing on the poster celebrating May as “Historic Preservation and Archaeology Month” in Wisconsin.

While non-native preservationists can proudly look back on the foresight that led to protection of the effigy mounds and the efforts since then to preserve all mounds — including the state law established in 1986 to protect such sites — the Ho-Chunk Nation’s relationship to the mounds goes back much further, probably all the way to ancestors who built the mounds.

The Ho-Chunk’s strong belief that the sites are sacred most likely reflects the effigy mounds’ original purpose as combination burial, ceremonial and ritual sites that reflected and informed the mound builders’ growing awareness of their relationships to each other, the Earth and the cosmos.

“These Late Woodland people by 800 A.D. have been introduced to corn,” said Kurt Sampson, president of the Wisconsin Archeological Society and an effigy mound enthusiast for most of his life. “Even though we consider them to be semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers going across the landscape, doing seasonal rounds for different types of subsistence procurements, once corn is introduced, they are definitely taking note of the seasonal time changes for planting.”

Bird Mound and woman

Sue Johansen, naturalist for Devil’s Lake State Park, points to her location kneeling next to the park’s massive “Bird Mound” on the plaque that commemorates the mound.

Many of the mounds were most likely placed in direct relationship to the stars and the planets that helped the builders measure those time changes, Sampson said.

The mound builders “had a very detailed knowledge of these celestial events, and many sites were aligned to demonstrate on the horizon the equinox and solstice alignments,” he said.

“We don’ t fully understand all the reasons they built the mounds,” Sampson said. “We can speculate and say they’re for burials, marking territory, possibly clan symbolism and re-creating their cosmology on the landscape — using (the mounds) as sky markers.”

Whatever their purpose, the mounds signified meaning and helped their builders better understand and relate to the world they inhabited -- and that is no different from the monuments and places of worship built by modern humans, said George Christiansen, a senior lecturer in anthropology and sociology at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County and director of the Center for Wisconsin Archaeology based there.

“The thing about monuments of any kind -- whether it’s Stonehenge or the Cathedral of Notre Dame -- all of these places were integrating concepts of how people viewed the world,” Christiansen said. “Whether you are talking about returning a loved one’s body to the womb of the Earth, the connectedness of the people who buried that person with the natural world around them, the geography of how people conceived the world they lived in and the symbolic world they existed in, it keeps getting bigger and bigger and it recasts itself on a regular basis.”

Aerial of mound near lake

An aerial view of the massive “Bird Mound” on the south shore of Devil’s Lake.

Christiansen hopes to add clarity to that “recasting” in a talk on April 9 at Devil’s Lake State Park. The talk, entitled “Facts and Fictions: Effigy Mound Builders and their Cemeteries in Wisconsin,” apparently is intended to shed light on a topic that came to the fore this past winter, when a bill that would have softened the existing preservation law for mounds located in Wisconsin was introduced in the Legislature.

Other efforts to get the word out about the region’s effigy mounds, their possible original functions and their role in the region going forward include those by Nurre, who easily could be called the “Man Mound Man” because of his unofficial but ongoing role in taking care of the Man Mound site during the past few years and his ongoing proximity to the site -- his home in Greenfield is less than a half-mile away from the mound, on Man Mound Road.

Nurre will be part of a gathering at the Man Mound site in mid-May that will celebrate the mound’s current status as the symbol for Archaeology Month.  

Meanwhile, the Ho-Chunk Nation and its people continue to view the effigy mounds as sacred sites and consider themselves the descendants of the mound builders who populated the region centuries ago. The Ho-Chunk's stewardship of the Kingsley Bend mound site — which was formerly a Wisconsin Department of Transportation wayside — is a strong indication of their view that the mounds are sacred places that must be protected.

The Ho-Chunk communicated that position earlier this year when the bill in the state assembly threatened to weaken protection of the mounds by requiring proof via excavation that human remains were contained therein in order for the mounds to be fully protected.

“These mounds, to our people, represent so many things. They are a huge part of our culture and what would essentially happen is they’d be destroyed,” Ho-Chunk Spokesman Collin Price told Capital Newspapers earlier this year before the bill was tabled. “To excavate their remains is grotesque to even consider.”

The south-central region has numerous effigy mound advocates who agree — Christiansen, Nurre and Sampson foremost among them.

Man Mound man onsite

Rob Nurre kneels near the head of the Man Mound at the park that bears the effigy mound’s name in Greenfield near Baraboo.

Man Mound man with flag

Rob Nurre, effigy mound enthusiast and Man Mound volunteer caretaker, shows off the bandana he produced to commemorate the site.

Nurre is among those who see the Man Mound as an “ambassador” for the effigy mound landscape in general — an entry point in informing the public about the ancient and historic earthworks that are “a really neat part of our landscape, our cultural landscape.”

“Part of why (the Man Mound) gets people’s attention is because we see ourselves in this mound — other mounds are in the shapes of bears, water spirits and birds, but this is a human, and we see ourselves in it, and as such it really is kind of iconic as effigy mounds go,” Nurre said recently, as he stood next to the mound on a sunny, late-winter afternoon. “What I hope is that people will come to this because it is so easily accessible, and it will encourage them to go see other effigy mounds in the area and see this neat effigy mounds landscape that we are in the midst of.”

Nurre counts himself as an effigy mound enthusiast, and his home and even his automobile’s license plate — which bears the letters “EFGY MND” — and his intense interest in the region’s unique mounds sums up perhaps what makes the mounds so mysterious and evocative for anyone who takes the time to explore them — treading the same ground that those ancient people trod, beholding the same, giant earthworks they beheld.

“The people who created this mound, we don’t know what ceremonies they may have had after they created it, but they stood right here where we are right now,” he said. “Between the north edge of the Baraboo Hills and the ridge behind us, it’s right here, this very same place, that’s what I get inspiration from — that similarity.”



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