Seeing the Sites: Summer Travel Close to Home

As the July heat and humidity builds, my mind wanders to good wandering places, including natural historical sites close to home.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like a cross-country adventure, but if I drive 700 miles to a family gathering, and cannot converse on the state parks and historical attractions near my adopted home in southern Wisconsin, then what kind of a traveler—or Wisconsin resident for that matter—am I?

You know what I mean. You drive a full day to a family reunion, only to have someone there tell you how they loved a historical attraction minutes from your home, an attraction you’ve never seen—a conversation stopper to be sure.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, IA, US.
Effigy Mounds National Monument, IA, US.

Case in point: Wisconsin has one of the highest numbers of Native American Indian burial mounds in the US. In case it’s on your way to Wisconsin, our neighbor to the west, Iowa, is home of Effigy Mounds National Monument, part of the National Park Service!

Let’s start with ancient effigy mounds close to home; Here in Madison, Wisconsin, there are mounds on the University of Wisconsin campus, both on Observatory Drive and closer to the Picnic Point path. The web site for the Lakeshore Nature Preserve along Lake Mendota provides some fascinating detail and historical accounts of some of these ancient burial sites, attributed to the Woodland Indians.

A 1914 WI Alumni Magazine account of ancient effigy mounds along Lake Mendota, Madison, WI.
A 1914 WI Alumni Magazine account of ancient effigy mounds along Lake Mendota, Madison, WI.

In addition to information about Native American Indian effigy mounds that exist along Lake Mendota today, the Lakeshore Nature Preserve has some fascinating early 20th century information about these mounds, so that we can learn about the original mounds that sadly, were altered or lost before appreciation of them by historians such as Charles Brown, resulted in the protection that effigy mounds are afforded today.

There are many questions asked and answered in this Lakeshore Nature Preserve piece, so I’ll leave it to you to digest, except to quote one of the more interesting points about how beliefs about the meaning of and reason for the various animals shapes of these mounds, has changed:

“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.”

Previously experts thought that the animal shapes represented various clans of a Native Indian society. The HoChunk Indians for instance, are known to have clans, and each clan is represented by an animal.

Indian burial mounds on the campus of a world-class university; history goes far further back than the university, doesn’t it?

The HoChunk and other Wisconsin Indians are largely part of the Woodland Indian society, yet not far outside of Madison, near Lake Mills, WI, is remnants, including burial mounds, of a non-Woodland society, the Mississipians, at Aztalan State Park. It’s said that when settlers arrived in the early 1800s (by this time the society inhabitants were gone and the settlement ruined), reports on the size of the settlement and structures, though in ruins, were rebuffed by newspapers on the East coast as impossible, a hoax.

The Mississipians are known for a very large settlement, Cahokia, near what is now East St. Louis, IL. They built platformed structures that were reportedly quite impressive in height, used as housing for those higher status society members.

The Mississipians also built burial mounds, although these mounds were more geometric in shape, with rectangles and circular burial mounds. The image here is from the Wisconsin DNR website, a look at Aztalan today and some of the rectangular mounds.

Leftover from an ancient Mississipian culture, Aztalan as it appears today.
Leftover from an ancient Mississipian culture, Aztalan as it appears today.

It isn’t clear how or why, but small groups from this society moved north, with known settlements in northern Illinois and southern WI at Aztalan, where they lived in proximity to the Woodlands group from around 1,000AD to 1,300 AD. For reasons unknown, the society ended in ruins, it’s members scattered.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources magazine, Natural Resources, featured this 2009 article on Aztalan and it’s history and archaeology.

Effigy mounds not your thing? A mere hour or so drive north of Madison outside of Friendship, WI, is Roche-a-Cri State Park, the site of ancient Indian petroglyphs. It is also an extraordinary remainder of an island that was once surrounded by a glacial lake covering much of this part of Wisconsin.

A site of ancient Indian petroglyphs and amazing WI geology.
A site of ancient Indian petroglyphs and amazing WI geology.

Other ancient Native American sites can be found at the Wisconsin DNR website.

Get out and explore before you hit the family reunion circuit this summer. Then you’ll finally have something to talk to Great-uncle Ned or Aunt Nellie about…and they might just surprise you with things they found at the same ancient site, 50-60-some years ago.

We hope you will report back on your travels, where ever they lead!

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".

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