Effigy Mounds of Madison and the Four Lakes - Ep. 463 | Wisconsin Public Television

Effigy Mounds of Madison and the Four Lakes - Ep. 463

Effigy Mounds of Madison and the Four Lakes - Ep. 463

Record date: Aug 03, 2010

Robert Birmingham, Former State Archaeologist, Wisconsin Historical Society. Robert Birmingham explores the effigy mound landscape of Wisconsin, focusing specifically on the Madison area and the four lakes. He also dissects the cultural importance of Indian mounds and the myths that surround them.

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Episode Transcript

>> Good afternoon, and welcome,
everybody, to another edition of
History Sandwiched In at the
Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Today we're especially lucky,
and that's why we have such a
big crowd here, to have Bob
Birmingham come back to the
He's going to be talking about
some of the mounds and mound
culture of Wisconsin and it's
great because much of the
knowledge we have came from the
work he's done.
So without further delay, please
welcome Bob Birmingham.
>> (inaudible)

>> Your mic's off.

>> (inaudible)

I knew that this day was not
going to go well.

>> So we're going to show some
pictures to accompany this
presentation, I guess a little
bit later because of that
problem, but that's okay.
You can look at cows in the
The topic of today is
essentially the effigy mound
landscape of Wisconsin,
specifically focuses on this
area, Madison area and generally
the four lakes.
And while I'm talking, for those
of you that need visual
stimulation, I'll just pass
along the book and you can look
at pictures, okay?
And in fact, maybe you can get a
couple books and just pass them
Also, the Indian mounds book,
which has many, many pictures of
But for the time being, we'll
just pass around that
"Spirits of Earth."
I assume that most people are
generally familiar with the
concept or the identity of
Indian mounds, right?
For those of us who grew up in
Wisconsin, Indian mounds are
everywhere and they are,
generally speaking, recognized
as burial places, although
there's a lot of myths
associated with them.
And for the last couple of
decades, I've taken a particular
interest in the Indian mounds in
general for what they can tell
us about ancient Indian
One of the things to recognize
right off the bat is that Indian
people did not always make
"Indian mounds."
This is not a part of the
continuous Indian mound culture.
In fact, people have lived here
for 11,000 years and it wasn't
until about 2,000 that we see
people building rather large
earthen mounds that were burial
And then, and this is the topic
I'll be getting into here, about
1300 years ago, about 700 AD or
so, the whole concept of Indian
mounds changed radically and the
people here, especially in
southern Wisconsin, began to
make mounds that were also
burial places in many cases, but
making mounds in the shape of
animals and birds and other
And then about 1200 AD,
it stopped.
And when the first Europeans and
Americans came in to this land,
the Indian people here, many
tribes and so on, were not
making Indian mounds, basically,
as burial places.
This is a custom that had
already disappeared hundreds of
years before that.
So again, Indian mounds, only
during a limited time.
Over the years, I've become
completely fascinated and in
fact blown away by these effigy
These mounds, "effigy" means
"made in the shape of."
But made in the shape of
animals and birds and so on.
And through years of study and
reflection, hit upon some things
here that really are astounding.
One is that these effigy mounds,
which at one time had been found
just everywhere along these four
lakes areas.
Any high spot, practically,
you'd find clusters of these.
And at one time, from Lake
Mendota all the way down to Lake
Waubesa, every high spot had
clusters of mounds continuing in
that principle I put in the
A continuous landscape, not just
discrete clusters, but we're
talking about hundreds of square
A landscape of hundreds of
square miles consisted of these
effigy mounds.
So what occurred to me is that
first of all, these effigy
mounds are really not
mysterious, in a sense.
The landscape, why they did a
landscape like this is still
pretty, requires a great deal
more thought, but the types of
effigies are not mysterious.
These are the same spirit beings
that Native people, traditional
Native people, believe today.
They're huge thunderbirds.
A thunderbird, it flaps its
wings and causes thunder.
And lightning flashes from its
And the thunderbirds are very
beneficial to human beings and
we've had a lot of thunderbird
action this summer.
They come with the storms, the
thunder and so on.
Powerful, powerful beings.
And they represent the powers of
the air and so on.
At the opposite end, many Native
peoples believed in a world that
was underlain by a watery
underworld and there are spirit
forces there, too.
And one of the principal spirit
forces, well, it's variously
Ho-Chunk call them
"water spirits."
Menominee call them
"underwater panthers."
Underwater panthers, great
underwater panthers.
That is, they're perceived to
have a panther shape, but they
live underwater and they have
And they represent the powers of
the beneath world, the
underworld, the watery
And many, many Indian people
have these traditions and all
these water spirits have similar
Some horn, they're generally
panther shaped, but they aren't
panthers because they are
underwater creatures.
In fact, just like the
thunderbirds, they're invisible.
These aren't animals you see
every day.
Thunderbirds you don't see
unless you're a very special
Water spirits you don't see
unless you're very special
So the identity and how they
look kind of varies from tribe
to tribe, but all have similar
And these, again, sort of the
yin and yang.
The beneficial water spirit and
then the underwater spirit
that's sort of menacing in a
way, but still has a great deal
of power.
In fact, here, in the early
days, Ho-Chunk people used to
advise people that worked for
the state historical society
that there are water spirits off
of Governor Island, if you know
where that is.
It's on the north shore of Lake
That's where the water spirits,
that's where their dens were.
They lived in dens of clay under
the water.
And if you don't throw tobacco
in the water, they're going to
come up and drown you.
They're going to take you down
to their dens.
So any of you boaters haven't
been putting tobacco in the
water are playing with some
danger here.
But you see that system, some
very powerful spirits.
In the middle, you have earth
spirits, very commonly among
many tribes, bears are
especially important as sort of
earth representations.
Among the Ho-Chunk, for example,
many people today who are given
a responsibility of dealing with
the earth in whatever matters,
even archaeology, are selected
from the bear clan, because
that's their area.
And there are other figures as
well, as I point out in the
One thing that's overlooked is
the role of snakes.
Snakes are also part of this
underworld and also, as it
turns out, to be very common
effigy mounds.
So we take a look at Native
American belief systems, both
generally speaking and even
specifically tribes here in
Wisconsin and we see a belief
system that incorporates many,
many spirits and very powerful
spirits that have specific roles
in the world.
And we also find that many of
these groups, all of them, in
fact, living in Wisconsin, these
powerful spirits are regarded as
the ancestors of humans.
If you're a bear clan member,
this is not just a symbol, you
are a bear.
You are descended from bears.
If you're a thunderbird clan,
you are a thunderbird.
You're descended from
One of my friends, a Potawatomi
friend, who is thunderbird clan,
said, "I feel sorry for you
white people.
I'm descended from thunderbirds.
You think you're descended from
So we have the spirits
that are very important in life
and so on,
but also there's an ancestry.
And so we take a look at both of
these into related concepts and
then we take a look at the
effigy mounds.
And what do we find?
We find birds, and especially in
the four lakes area, lots and
lots of long-tailed panther-like
animals that are undoubtedly
water spirits as perceived a
thousand years ago.
And many of them have the same
form as more modern Indian
people would draw them and so
So again, this is not a mystery
in what they mean.
These are the belief systems and
even the social systems of
people who lived here a thousand
years ago.
And there are many examples in
this area.
So I've become sort of
fascinated with that point, that
these are amazing,
extraordinary, but the meaning
is pretty clear, if you know
something about Native American.
And in archaeology, that's
really what you have to do.
You have to look, in order to
understand past civilizations,
you have to look at the world
through their eyes, through
their beliefs, and then you
Things clear up.
As soon as we sort of try to
understand it through our eyes,
then it's all mystery.
You hear that a lot.
"It's all mystery."
Well, it's all a mystery
because in our minds we can't
figure this out, but as soon as
you put religious beliefs,
everything clears up.
I often tell my classes, even
when talking about places like
Egypt and Peru and other places
with monuments of early
civilizations, and effigy
mounds, in order to understand
what they built, that is, people
in the past, you have to
understand what they believed.
And then a lot of the mystery
goes away.
So that was an important
understanding here, is that
these represent basically the
religious and social beliefs,
the cosmology, as I put it, of
Indian people, as it existed a
thousand years ago, spread
visibly on the landscape.
A second important aspect that
has struck me through the years
is, these huge landscapes occur
no place else in the world.
This is unique.
Southern Wisconsin and so on,
this is a world wonder.
This is like the pyramids.
This is like the Nazca Lines
down in Peru.
This is like other world
It occurs, there are effigy
mounds elsewhere in North
America, a few here and there.
Out in Ohio, for example,
there's a big snake mound.
But no place else did they build
all of these forms in these vast
So we here are literally
surrounded by a world wonder and
something which I beat the drum
loudly in my book, saying,
"This is a world wonder."
We're surrounded by something
that's equivalent to anything
archaeological in the world.
And so we should start
recognizing that.
Unfortunately, it's human nature
to think that something's in
your backyard, it can't be that
important, right?
In my neighborhood, for example,
despite my whining, we have some
effigy mounds and the city, they
look like overgrown weed lots.
The city refuses to mow them,
because it's too painful, and I
keep thinking to myself, this is
a world wonder!
This is not just a significant
site, these are incredibly over
the top.
To the extent now that we get a
lot of tours, foreign people and
people from other states, and I
can't take them to Madison sites
because there's nothing to see,
because they're all weed lots.
So petition the city to start
taking care of these world
But these, again, are no place
else in the world.
And because of that, it does
have some interesting things to
tell us about the people that
lived here, obviously, but also
about humans in general.
For example, why would they do
this and only for a short length
of time?
And why would they stop?
Well, to start answering those
questions, we go to other
Why did the Egyptians build
pyramids for a short period of
time and then stop?
Down in Peru are huge lines of
Nazca Lines, you're familiar
with those, built for a short
time and they stopped.
The thing I point out in my
book, and this is where I
received an epiphany of sorts, I
was visiting Ireland, going to a
lot of archaeological sites and
so on, and just having fun,
drinking Guinness and all the
other things that you do in
Visiting pubs
in archaeological sites.
And saw a lot of these
megaliths, like Stonehenge and
so on, which were built, again,
for a short time.
And all over the place, and it
really hit me, this is sort of
like the effigy mounds.
These people are participating
in a ritual that's marking
visibly something and then so it
really started to cause me to
see what the similarity was.
What's going on in their
Well, in Ireland and England
when they're building megaliths
and these tombs of big rocks,
putting a lot of time and
attention, they were in the
process of becoming
The society was beginning to
evolve from one of sort of
roaming hunters and gatherers,
and they started to settle down
a little more.
Domesticated crops like wheat
and barley and so on became
And comparing to here, the
effigy mound people, same thing.
Corn agriculture had started to
come into the Midwest and we
find the effigy mound people in
the midst of becoming
So there's a similarity there.
Both are making monuments to
draw people together in new
complex societies required by
corn agriculture.
So that's one thing that the
study of the mounds can tell us
in comparison with other
archaeological things.
And we're lucky, and this brings
me to a third major point, to
have so much information,
therefore, about these effigy
What struck me is that despite
the fact that 80% of our mounds
have been destroyed, mostly by
farming, interestingly, but have
been destroyed, quite a number
of effigy mounds and effigy
mound landscapes exist today
that allow for the study of the
formation of these particular
And this is why for my book I
selected Madison and the four
Because of all the areas in
southern Wisconsin where these
mounds were built, we have the
best information and they are
best preserved in Madison and
the four lakes area.
This is due to a number of
It all has to do with history,
but early on, already in the mid
19th century, the mounds here,
and really we're talking about
huge landscapes.
The settlers were coming in, and
that's the first thing they
They see beautiful lakes and so
on, but all of these mounds all
over the place.
This is something that really
struck them.
At the time, the settlers did
not believe that the Indians
made these mounds.
These spoke of, in the early
settlers' eyes, of a complex
And of course, the people coming
in had learned that the Indians
were stupid and primitive, and
that's why we're taking the land
from them.
So it took a lot of years for
white people to figure out that
these are in fact Indian mounds,
but before that people were
looking elsewhere for the origin
of the mounds.
Europeans or other folks, a lost
Until the 20th century, until
about 1900, most white people
believed that these ancient
monuments built around North
America were built by some "lost
A race of sophisticated,
complex people, probably white,
who had been killed off by the
brutish Indians, you know.
And that really did not come to
a rest until, interestingly, the
Smithsonian Institution
published a big study that
proved beyond doubt that these
were of Indian origin.
And when that study came out,
everybody kind of yawned and
said, "That's nice."
Because why?
It was no longer a moral issue.
We had taken all the land and
put all the Indians on
reservations, so now we could
give them a complex society.
But until that point, it was a
moral issue.
If these were Indian made, that
makes them civilized, and so
that created a little problem
So we have a great idea of
complexity, but more to the
point is that because of these
debates and because of the
numbers of mounds here in the
four lakes area, a lot of folks
were coming in and mapping them
and reporting them.
Folks you might have heard of,
Increase Lapham, Wisconsin's
first scientist.
He was a land surveyor from
Ohio, came in to Wisconsin to
work, was laying out the streets
of a new city, Milwaukee, and
came across long-tailed water
And this just, he was hooked,
and he spent the rest of his
life studying these and
published the first book on
Wisconsin archaeology, I think
they sell it here, called
"Antiquities of Wisconsin," in
which he shows all these mound
groups for the first time.
And including areas around the
four lakes here, many which are
now gone, unfortunately.
He mapped one, he got a map from
one of the early settlers of
Madison and it was a small mound
group located right in front of
the Monona Terrace.
That street leading right down
there had been a long-tailed
water panther oriented right
down to the lake.
But he mapped other places.
In the 1870s, a guy name TH
Lewis came through.
TH Lewis was working with a
businessman in Minneapolis, and
they were struck with how many
mounds there were in this area.
And TH Lewis's benefactor was
very interested in this lost
race debate.
And so he wanted to get more
information about this and TH
Lewis was a land surveyor, so he
hired this guy, basically, to
spend years just traveling
around mapping the mounds.
He came to Madison and in the
1870s made lots and lots of
Again, of mounds that have since
disappeared, including the ones,
and they're still here, but he
mapped the Observatory Hill
mounds, if you've been up there,
and other prominent mounds.
Again, many which have
disappeared, but between
Increase Lapham and especially
TH Lewis, we have these
wonderful maps.
And then in the early 20th
century, a guy came to the
Wisconsin Historical Society
named Charles E Brown.
My personal hero.
Charles E Brown was a hugely
energetic and enthusiastic guy
who came to Madison and he, like
everybody else, was just stunned
by all of these mounds, some of
them huge.
Some of the mounds that he
mapped were, like, 600, 700 feet
And one bird effigy he mapped on
Lake Mendota, or helped record,
is still there, probably a
thunderbird or an eagle of some
It has a wingspan of 634 feet,
the largest bird effigy left
right now in the effigy mound
area, and therefore the world.
And that's right on the north
But he was stunned by this, but
also was faced with the issue
that Madison was developing very
fast and so he basically
developed Wisconsin's first
historic preservation program.
And it wasn't about old houses.
It was about mounds.
And he helped form the Wisconsin
Archaeological Society and one
of their goals was to preserve
these mounds, not just here, but
elsewhere in the state.
Charlie Brown went down.
He came to Madison in 1908 and
then in 1910, 1912 was fortunate
enough to be in a progressive
political environment.
Anybody know who was governor at
the time?
La Follette,
the La Follette era.
So Charlie Brown went down from
one end of State Street to the
other end of State Street in
1911 and asked the legislature
for money to map the mounds and
to preserve the mounds.
I mean, this is unheard of to
ask money for cultural things in
And the legislature said, fine.
And they gave Charlie Brown and
the Wisconsin Archaeological
Society money for years in order
to map the mounds, do something
about preserving them.
He made the case about, these
are disappearing, and so on, but
again had there been another
governor and another kind of
era, this would have been
considered nonsense.
I mean, we're talking about
within memory of Little Bighorn.
So that sort of Indian
stereotype still is - but here
in Madison, it's, well,
Madison's Madison, right?
Everybody said, "Great idea!"
And he set up
preservation programs,
I could go on and on about that.
He got a lot of people involved,
but without him, we would not
have the parks with the Indian
mounds that we have today.
And in the four lakes area and
in the Madison area we have
something like 22 parks with
effigy mounds and mounds.
22 parks.
Not just 22 mounds, but parks.
Now, Charlie Brown was taken by
the Wisconsin Historical Society
from the Milwaukee Public
He had distinguished himself
there as a curator and so
Wisconsin Archaeological Society
was interested in more public
outreach and so on.
So they nabbed him and brought
him up to Madison.
And then he set all these
programs in motion.
To Milwaukee's detriment,
Milwaukee also had lots of
effigy mounds.
Huge landscapes.
And now in the city of
Milwaukee, now, as I said, we
have 22 parks.
In the city of Milwaukee, which
also had a large cluster of
effigy mounds, there is exactly
one mound left.
One mound.
Now that shows you the
difference that one person made
in terms of that issue.
Sort of the ending of these
points here is that because of
all this mapping, because of the
preservation and the fact the
mounds, we can go out there
today, this is the area in which
the effigy mound landscape is
best preserved, either in the
records or physically.
And so the effigy mound
landscape can be reconstructed,
and that's what I do in the
book, is to show where all the
mounds were and then also to
study the distribution of the
What kinds of mounds were there
here in the Madison area?
What did they reflect?
What kinds of local environments
And through this study, we find
that the mounds were built in
ways that exquisitely describe
the relationship between the
spirits, the local landscape,
and the people.
We find bird mounds in high
Water spirit mounds, where do
you think?
Right next to water.
Sometimes literally oriented
toward the water.
Oftentimes associated with
springs, which, we again find
out from Native American
beliefs, are the entrance ways
to water spirits and to the
Through the study we also find
that one of the greatest
concentrations of mounds had
been and is still pretty
apparent is the tiniest lake in
the so-called four lakes.
It's actually five lakes.
But the tiniest lake in this
area is Lake Wingra.
Everybody knows where that is?
Lake Wingra?
And Charlie Brown wrote a long
time ago, and I looked at the
data again and he was right.
He pointed out that Lake Wingra,
around Lake Wingra had the
highest density of mounds per
acre anywhere in the effigy
mound area and therefore the
So something was going on with
Lake Wingra, this tiny little
lake, it's like a pond.
It became a very sacred place.
In the book I give a possible
explanation for that and that
is, Lake Wingra, as some of you
may well know, is not a part of
the Yahara River.
All the rest of the lakes are
widenings in the river, you
Lake Wingra is actually a
headwater area.
It's spring fed.
It's spring fed.
And in fact, the outlet, there's
a small outlet that leads to the
Yahara River, but early settlers
sometimes didn't notice the
outlet and they thought it was a
dead lake.
They just called it a dead lake.
And the Native Americans
apparently saw it quite the
The springs are the life itself.
This was a source of life and
there they put around all of
these fantastic effigy mounds.
And there are many, many other
stories and differences that I
point out in the book.
One, another example is the huge
eagle mounds up at Mendota State
If you haven't been there, you
should visit these.
These are fantastic.
They are unbelievable.
You have to tell them that
you're coming, because it is a
But they don't have any problems
with people visiting.
And there's a big cluster of
birds that surround a blank
area, sort of, and
archaeologists some years ago
actually identified a village.
The mounds semi-circle a
village, and they're all eagle
They're all eagle or thunderbird
Today, among the Ho-Chunk, the
traditional leaders always come
from the thunderbird clan, so we
have to speculate at this point,
is this the main village of the
Four Lakes people?
Is this the leader, the
thunderbird village?
And if so, it gives us a great
deal of insight.
And of course, we can go on and
I guess our pictures didn't come
up, but I hope at least you can
mentally visualize some of these
things, and in fact, had I shown
some more slides we probably
wouldn't have gotten as far as
we have so far, but I notice
we're starting to end up.
Two of the big riddles is that,
why did they do this?
Again, I mentioned that this is
actually pretty common, not the
effigy mounds, but the building
of monuments is pretty common
with societies that are becoming
Now, why they took this form is
still a puzzle.
But there's some suggestions
I should point out that with the
megaliths, of course, same
pattern, building these
monuments and burial places and
other sorts of things, people
getting together.
The megaliths, of course, you go
there, and you look at the
megaliths and you see big
What does that tell you?
What do big stones mean?
No idea.
The descendents are still
around, but no one
remembers what the stones mean.
Come here to the effigy mounds,
and as I said, you can look at
an effigy mound, what does it
Oh, that's a thunderbird.
You know, we have insight.
We are lucky in that we have an
insight into the meaning of
these monuments, whereas in
Europe, all of that information
has been lost.
Probably because culture has
People forgot.
Whereas, in our society, we
partitioned cultures.
We pushed the Indians in a
corner and they kept their
Had they been assimilated very
early, that might have been
gone, too, just like the
memories of Stonehenge.
The descendants are still
around, but no one remembers
that because there's so much
cultural change.
Why did they stop?
is a real interesting question,
because it involves a very
complex story that's beginning
about 1000 AD and ending in 1200
AD, that involves two big things
that affected the effigy mound
One is the entrance of a very
new, different society we call
And we have an example of a
Mississippian site at Aztolan.
These people were from southern
They came into the area and
changed life through hostility,
assimilation and trade, changed
the character of the indigenous
That's a whole story in itself,
but that's one major thing
that's happening is, it was
equivalent in impact, except for
the disease, to the Europeans
coming and changing the culture.
A second thing, and this is real
new, and I talk about it in the
book, highlight it, in fact, is
that recent evidence indicates
that between 1100 and 1200 AD,
throughout much of North
America, not all, southwest for
example, Arizona and so on,
Midwest, including the areas
where the Mississippians lived,
were visited by a very long
And that drought hit Madison,
First sort of evidence we have
of global warming and its
After the drought, no one is
living in Madison.
No one.
And people don't return for 400
So this drought is the same
drought, by the way, that
brought down the cliff dwellers
in the southwest, the Anasazi,
if people are familiar with
Same drought, same drought.
So now we have firm evidence of
its impact and it killed the
Mississippian civilization up
At the same time, people stopped
building Indian mounds and a
third culture appears on the
landscape in only certain parts
of Wisconsin, but that's a
different lecture for a
different time.
So the beginnings, we have some
sort of idea.
And the endings, but a lot more
work and a lot more research
needs to be done, but
fortunately again, Madison and
the four lakes has some of the
best information to help us
really solve that riddle and
hopefully people will keep
working on this.
But in the meanwhile, just
remember when you go out and
visit these, these are
These are not found everywhere.
In fact, very few places.
And this area has probably the
best preserved examples.
People at Effigy Mound National
Monument want to argue with me
about that, but that's also a
beautiful area.
That's on the western tip of
But we are honored here to live
among treasures and when you go
to these mound groups, again,
remember that these are only
small bits of what had been a
giant landscape that certainly
was of great meaning to the
builders and hopefully will
continue to have meaning for us
So with that, I'm going to have
to close up here.
And if you have any questions, I
realize that many people have to
go back to work, please don't
feel like you're being rude by


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