The Middleton, Wis. salvage archeology site. In background, U.S. Highway 12, whose expansion will run through this area.
You may know Wisconsin as America's Dairyland, or the home of the cheesehead. But it's also ground zero for a strange, evocative tradition of working the Earth into mounds with ceremonial or religious significance.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 mounds survived when the Europeans reached Wisconsin; most have since been destroyed by the plow or bulldozer. They were made roughly 1,000 years ago, most likely by ancestors of today's Native Americans, although the precise tribal identity is uncertain.
Bird effigy mound courtesy Wisconsin Stories
Many of the mounds were shaped like animals. These "effigy mounds" often contained human remains and were typically built on lakeshores, hills or bluffs.
Since white people began surveying them more than 150 years ago, the mounds have aroused mystery and myth. Now, they are getting intensified scrutiny with the techniques of modern archaeology -- and of salvage archaeologists.
the road again
Work at the 4-acre site in Middleton, Wis. is funded by the state Department of Transportation, in preparation for the hotly contested expansion of U.S. Highway 12. To find the dig, archeologists searched the corn rows for tools or pottery that would signify human inhabitation.
The diggers hired a backhoe to scrape off the topsoil, which had been disturbed by more than a century of farming, then marked "features" in the subsoil. Features are any discoloration or other indication of a hole, house or structure, explains archeologist Marlin Hawley, who supervises the site for the Museum Archaeology Program of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
The work is hot and slow, and demands considerable crouching and patience. The diggers are summer workers, often with degrees in geology or anthropology.
in a coal mine, going down down...
Marlin Hawley surveys a keyhole-shaped house that was built between 1,000
and 1,200 AD and excavated last year.
The largest occupation, during a period called the late woodland, from 500 to 1200 AD, included four houses, three of which had the peculiar keyhole shape seen in the photo.
spring, summer or fall, all you gotta do is call
Flakes left over from making stone tools, and a hunk of fire-cracked rock.
Why here? Today, the dig adjoins a cornfield and overlooks a highway. But 11,000 years ago, it bordered a lake that was gradually becoming a marsh. Both bodies of water presumably supplied the inhabitants with fish and shellfish.
Although the site may have been repeatedly inhabited and abandoned, Hawley says he has "no problem believing" that relatively long-lived oral traditions -- what he calls a "generational memory," caused people to return to the mini-village. But as he acknowledges, archeologists "get real squeamish" about that kind of unprovable assertion.
Don't get squeamish on us -- the late woodland period was the heyday of effigy-mound building.
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