High road to salvage archaeology

1.Salvage archaeology

2.Amazing Indian mounds

3.Effigy mound culture

4.Three Gorgeous Gorges1. Powell's african journey3. Dusty skies don't rain2. Cancer compound4. Tales of the linguist5. One grand myth



Workin' on a mound gang
A pox on your pyramids. A slur on your Stonehenge. The Midwestern effigy mounds are some of the more fantastic earthworks from ancient times, and Wisconsin, we are proud to say, was at the center of the construction project. At least 800 groups of mounds -- mainly shaped like animals -- once graced the southern portion of Wisconsin.

a rotund buffalo with head down, apparently grazing.
A bird with wings swept-back like a jet fighter
Effigy mound shapes from Antiquities of Wisconsin
Courtesy Wisconsin Stories

About 4,000 of roughly 20,000 individual mounds have survived agriculture and construction in Wisconsin.

What did the mounds mean? Why were they built? These questions have stymied generations of archaeologists -- amateur and professional alike. Without written evidence, we can only guess why ancient people spent so much effort -- presumably using wooden or stone tools -- and how they used the mounds in ceremonial or religious rites.

Few village sites have been found from effigy-mound times, and although no mounds are known to exist near the Middleton excavation, it still offers welcome clues to the builders, says Birmingham.

Change is gonna come
What is known is that the mound-building coincided with a period of rapid change in the Midwest, probably caused by the arrival of agriculture, says Robert Birmingham, Wisconsin state archaeologist. "I don't think it's coincidental that people are becoming farmers" at the same time, he says.

Mound has an overall pyramidal shape, with straight, sloping sides and a flat step in the sides.
The big mound at Aztalan State Park, near Lake Mills, Wis., was once attributed to the Aztecs. Courtesy Visual Materials Archive, State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Negative No. WHi (x3) 1974

Birmingham wrote the book on what he calls "fantastic effigy mounds" -- see "Indian Mounds of Wisconsin" in the bibliography.

Another clue, he says, was the development of Cahokia, east of St. Louis. Birmingham describes the site as "the most complex civilization in pre-contact North America," and feels it reflects a similar social and political upheaval.

Cahokia was a northern outpost of the Mississippian culture that thrived further down the Mississippi. Cahokia, in turn, had a satellite at Aztalan, about 30 miles east of the Middleton site.

Aztalan, now a state park but once a village surrounded by a high wood palisade, also evinces the ongoing upheaval. As the name reflects, the pyramidal mound at Aztalan was once thought to represent Aztec architecture. Now Aztalan is considered an offshoot of the powerful Mississippian civilization at Cahokia.

But why build mounds? What, as Birmingham terms it, "Compels people to put their belief systems on the landscape?"

He suspects the construction may reflect a need to express eternal truths at a time of rapid change. And the agent of change, he says, was the introduction of agriculture. In Africa, for example, farming caused an upheaval in society, economics and language.

Birmingham says it's not clear whether agriculture reached the Midwest by displacement or diffusion. "Some archaeologists have argued that people were literally moving into southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois and displacing people. Some colleagues believe that the people who built the effigy mounds could have been swept aside. Others think we are looking at people going through cultural evolution," adapting to innovations brought by trade networks and other means.

Digs at Cahokia show trenches running away from camera, soil is orange-golden in color. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is in Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo. Cahokia was an outpost of Mississippian civilization further down the big river. Courtesy National Park Service- US/ICOMOS

The outbreak of mound-building, Birmingham proposes, may reflect a need to restore harmony to a world turned upside down by technological innovation. "A constant theme in native American belief systems is restoring balance and harmony. By modeling the world and the universe in harmony, the mounds may represent an effort to symbolically restore that harmony.

And the agent of upheaval, he reiterates, was agriculture.

How you gonna keep them down on the farm?
Farmers have something to protect, and they often use force to do so. "We have observed that when people pick up the hoe in one hand, they pick up sword in other," Birmingham says. "There's good reason to say that agriculture is accompanied by conflict."

Hunters and gatherers have the option, and often the tradition, of moving on when fortune turns sour. But that's "not an option for farmers," Birmingham says. "Agriculture is a commitment to the land that different than a hunting-gathering population. Farmers ... become territorial, the population grows, they become expansionist, that creates further pressure."

Looking at 12,000 years of Wisconsin's history, Birmingham says the Middleton digs represent the most interesting period. "I'd say the time from 800 to 1200 AD is the most exciting to study, because so much is going on, there's so much change. ... People have studied the emergence of agriculture in the Near East, and have made certain generalizations. Here we have a whole different perspective."

Now submerging Chinese archaeological sites: the dam at Three Gorges.




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