LOWER WISCONSIN RIVER - An ‘Effigy Mounds Sampler Tour’ on Saturday, April 9, drew a larger-than-expected crowd of 60. The tour was sponsored by the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW), along with Cultural Landscape Legacies (CLL), the Three Eagles Foundation, and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board (LWSRB).
The tour, which started at the LWSRB office in Muscoda took in two of the many effigy mound sites in the area. Those were the ‘Twin Lizards’ site, and ‘Frank’s Hill.’
“Wisconsin used to have about 20,000 effigy mound sites, and now we’re down to about 4,000,” CLL vice president Don Greenwood explained. “The loss was primarily due to development and agriculture.”Greenwood explained that the mounds were built by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the late Woodland Culture. He said that when effigy mound enthusiasts from Iowa had visited the Twin Lizards site, they were astounded at the size of some of the mounds. Effigy mounds in Iowa are typically smaller.
Twin LizardsThe ‘Twin Lizards’ effigy mound site is situated along the banks of the Wisconsin River, just to the north of Muscoda. The site is designated a State Natural Area, and maintained by Wisconsin DNR (WDNR). FLOW is listed on signage at the site as an official volunteer maintenance partner.
The group of 17 effigy mounds includes nine smaller conical or linear mounds, and eight larger mounds in the shapes of various animals.“The conical and linear mounds were built earlier, and the mounds built in animal and bird shapes came later,” Greenwood explained. “The animals represent the cosmology of the Woodland Culture, with water animals representing the underworld, animals like bears and bison representing the earth world, and birds representing the upper world.”
Greenwood said the site was originally mapped by T.H. Lewis in 1886, and was later referred to as the ‘Bloyer Mound Group’ for the family that owned the land. He explained that the mounds were in very good condition, due to the care of the Bloyer family. The family had their cabin right in the middle of the area, but treated the mounds with respect as they would a cemetery.
“Back in the 1800s the mounds were amateurly excavated,” Greenwood explained. “This activity caused a lot of damage.”
Greenwood said that artifacts had only been found twice at the site. Interestingly, he said a conch shell had been found on top of one of the mounds, indicating that the mound builders had traded with other cultures from the Gulf of Mexico. The other artifact found was a pottery sherd, which he said was likely a ‘burial good.’
“Back when the mound builders occupied the area, this would have been an open, oak savanna area, managed with fire to keep the understory clear,” Greenwood said. “Now that fire has disappeared from the landscape, the area is carefully maintained with brush clearing and some tree removal to address the worst situations.”
Greenwood said that when glacial Lake Wisconsin had burst, it sent a large amount of water, ice chunks and debris down the river course. This had resulted in an ice berg, carrying rocks and sediment being deposited at the site. When it melted, the rock and sediment was left behind, and resulted in development of a mussel and clam bed. This is the reason that the location was designated a State Natural Area.FLOW president Timm Zumm explained that FLOW works with WDNR on work days at the site. He said that WDNR performs any tree cutting, and FLOW volunteers use a ‘cut and treat’ method to clear the understory area of the site.
Mark Cupp, LWSRB Executive Director, and president of the Three Eagles Foundation, led the tour and talk at the Frank’s Hill site, located just to the south of Muscoda off of Highway 193.
“This site is located uphill from the McClary Mound Group, which is a large group of mounds located on Ho-Chunk property along the river,” Cupp said. “Of that group, only 16 of the original 64 mounds remain.”
Cupp said the period in which the mounds had been constructed, using reed baskets and bison scapula rakes, was between 700-1200 A.D. The mounds were built by people of the late Woodland Culture, which was the era when bows and arrows came into use. He said that the linear and conical mounds were built earlier, and are more likely to have been used for burial of prominent members of the community. He said that some of the effigy mound in animal shapes were used for burial, but that this was less typical.
“In the era of mound building in this area, there were villages scattered all around,” Cupp said. “In the winter they would disperse into smaller family groups and seek shelter in the uplands in rock caves and other more protected areas.”
Cupp said in the area right around Frank’s Hill, there used to be 1,000s of mounds. That number, he said, has now been reduced to about 100 in the last 300-400 years.
“Today, 80-90 percent of the mounds that existed at the time of settlement are gone,” Cupp said. “It is crucial to protect those that remain as we would protect a cemetery.”
Cupp said that the mound building era ceases aroud 1100 A.D. Among the theories of why this was include hostilities, disease (small pox), and resource depletion due to drought. He said the Woodland Culture had been replaced in the area by the Oneota civilization.
“The zenith of the Cahokia or Middle Mississippian people was 1050 to 1150 A.D., where the population is estimated to have been near 20,000,” Cupp explained. “During the time of the Effigy Mound Builders of the Late Woodland Tradition, there likely was contact between the people of Cahokia and the mound builders of this area but we aren’t sure how that interaction took place. The Cahokian people did establish outposts at Aztalan and Trempeleau. Estimates are that Aztalan was built between 1050-1100 A.D. The platform mounds at Trempeleau are suspected to have been built around the same time period.”
Cupp said that the ‘hostilies theory’ is borne out by some of the characteristics of the Aztalan site. At that location it appeared that the fortifications of the site were added later, indicating that the people there may have needed to protect themselves from hostilities.
Cupp said that the area in Richland County, near Frank’s Hill, is home to the largest concentration of bird effigy mounds on the planet.
“The mounds at Frank’s Hill are built strategically to help mark the seasons of the year,” Cupp said. “They are evidence of a very sophisticated culture, capable of engineering the construction of the mounds and calculating the calendar alignments for equinox and solstice events.”
Frank’s HillThe Frank’s Hill site is named after landowner Frank Shadewald. He bequeathed the property known as ‘Frank’s Hill’ to the Three Eagles Foundation upon his untimely death in 2013. The property includes an effigy mound group on the ridge east of 193, and a group of small conical mounds, believed to be calendar mounds, on the ridge west of 193.
He explained that the calendar mounds track the sun in a very specific period of time, beginning around May 1 and extending to the summer solstice, and then back to August 1.
“From May through August, the sun moves across the sky and lines up with different conical mounds on the west hill site,” Cupp said. “The location of those mounds is calibrated to mark solar events, and is evidence of a very sophisticated culture.”
Cupp said that on the east hill area is where the effigy mounds, built in animal shapes were located.
“This is sacred ground, and this site was used for ceremonial purposes,” Cupp said. “Parts of the movie ‘Decoding the Driftless’ were actually filmed here.”
On the east hill, there is a series of effigies located in a line atop the hill, from east to west. The effigies include an animal of canid origins – either a fox or coyote, a bison, a bird or ‘pregnant bird woman,’ a beaver, and a coiled snake. At the far-east end of the hill is an indented
“The easternmost effigy on the east hill is definitely a canid animal, and there is some debate about whether it represents a fox or a coyote,” Cupp said. “If you look closely, it appears to have a brushy tail, which would be more like a fox, but the coyote or ‘trickster’ is an important theme in the culture as well.”
Cupp reports that Frank Shadewald always referred to the first mound as the coyote, and so this is how it is typically named.
The bison mound was the next and largest effigy on the hill. If you stand just to the south of the mound, you find yourself in a curved area between the bison’s legs. The mound also has a very large head, corresponding to the shape of the bison.
The next mound in the group, moving west, is a subject of lively conjecture. The mound is known by multiple names, including ‘bird mound,’ while others refer to it as the ‘pregnant bird mound’ and ‘the corn lady.’
“Ralph Red Fox, 92 at the time of his visit, a Cheyenne elder visited the site, and told us that he believes ‘the corn lady’shape relates to a story his people tell about how an old woman introduced them to corn and the bison,” Cupp explained. “The story says that at the end of the last ice age, an old woman appeared to the people in a rock shelter. She had two pots of food cooking – one containing corn soup, and the other stewed bison. She told those that found her to go get the rest of their people and share the gifts of corn and bison with them. The next day, the old woman had disappeared, and a herd of bison had appeared.”
Cupp said that Red Fox believed that the arms or wings of the ‘the corn lady’ are actually the leaves of the corn stalks.
Cupp said that the name ‘pregnant bird lady’ interpretation relates to the fact that at dawn on the spring equinox, if you stand just to the west of the mound near the ‘head,’ it appears that the mound is giving birth to the rising sun.
The next two mounds, moving west, are considered to be a beaver and coiled snake mound. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the site lies at the far west end of the hill, in the line of mounds. This is an indented area, located just down off the spine of the hill, facing west. The indented area has a grand vista of the valley, and is believed to be surrounded by 12 rocks.
“Ralph Red Fox says the construction and location of the indented area correspond to a vision quest tradition among his people,” Cupp told the group. “He said that these locations are always located at the westernmost end of a hill.”
Sites and information
Cupp said that he and others from CLL and the Three Eagles Foundation are always available to talk with people about the effigy mounds in the area. He said that both groups maintain websites where further information is available. He said that there is also a brochure available at the LWSRB office in Muscoda, ‘Effigy Mounds Grand Tour,’ which gives information about effigy mounds throughout the State of Wisconsin.
In the Muscoda area, in addition to the two sites included in the tour, there is also the Dingman Mound Group, located about five miles west of the Muscoda bridge across the Wisconsin River. To access that location, take Highway 60 west from the bridge to the Eagle Cave sign, and turn south (left) on the gravel road. Parking is available in an area near the gate. From there, follow the path to a nice group of mounds.
Another easy access point is located at the Avoca Lakeside Park. That site contains several conical and linear mounds in the park overlooking the lake. Another easy access site is the WDNR bird mound, visible from Highway 60, just west of Mill Creek. To find the site, take Highway 60 west from the Muscoda bridge, and turn south (left) on Effigy Mounds Lane (just before Iron Key Car Restoration). Park, and follow the path to a lovely bird mound.
Somewhat more secluded is the Troller mound group, located on Indian Creek. There is a parking area across from the Indian Creek Cemetery. The site can be found by taking Highway 60 east from the Muscoda bridge, and once you cross Indian Creek, turn right into the parking area. Enter the woods moving toward the creek and the mounds can be found overlooking the stream.Cupp said that for those interested in more information, he recommends a book entitled ‘Indian Mounds of Wisconsin,’ written by Robert Birmingham and Amy Rosebrough.