Madison, Wisconsin arguably sits in the heart of the Effigy Mound region, which also includes bordering areas of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
UW-Madison archaeologist George Christiansen III states that “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.”
Conical Mounds are round domes of earth, and are considered the oldest and most numerous of the mounds. Dating estimates place them as dating back 2,500 years. They can range from 2 to 8 feet high and 10 to 20 feet in diameter. Similar mounds can be found throughout the eastern United States but especially in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. Ancient peoples in this region sometimes buried their dead in conical mounds. The oldest can have traces of red ocher (iron oxide) used in burials and ceremony.
Linear mounds, as the name suggests, are longer mounds, shaped somewhat like a cigar. Dating estimates put this type of mound as being built between 1,700 and 1,300 years ago. These mounds range largely in size, and can be between 50 to 300 feet long.
Compound mounds are conical mounds joined by linear mounds. They may mark a transition phase from conical to linear styles. Groups of these mounds usually will have three or four linked conical mounds. There is a large group at Effigy Mounds National Monument that has seven conicals and extends 480 feet. Linear and compound mounds are found only in the Effigy Mounds region.
Effigy mounds are the earthen mounds this region is known for. Construction of these types of mounds are said to have begun by at least 1,400 years ago. Many different animal shapes were created, including bear, birds, deer, turtles, waterspirits (also known as panthers), deer, and more.
Mound sites can be comprised of a number of different mound types, and often are a mix of conical, linear, and effigy forms. These sites 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. There often is a waterway or trail nearby, as the main routes of travel were by canoe or walking.
It is estimated that Wisconsin was home to 90% of the effigy mounds in the world, and that of those, probably less than 10% survive today. In 1986, a number of members of AES worked with others for the passage of the Wisconsin Burial Rights Protection Act. 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.
Descriptions of mound types is adapted from the National Park Service’s informational handout from the Effigy Mounds National Monument and Wikipedia‘s entry on effigy mounds. The Wisconsin Historical Society has more information on burial practices of the moundbuilders and much more on their website. The have also updated their publication on Madison area mounds, found by clicking here. Information also gathered from UW Madison’s Lakeshore Preserve website, which features an interactive map of the mounds on the UW Madison campus.