In a field near the park, a corn-picking machine gobbled up the last of the summer’s crop; cars and trucks hummed past on Highway 144. But near the park’s 28 effigy mounds, only the wind was stirring.
The silence seemed appropriate for a burial site. But as we walked the mile-long interpretive trail, we learned that many of the mounds don’t contain bodies. Archaeologists surmise that effigy mounds may have served as communal worship sites, or a way of delineating hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds for the mysterious Mound Builders, who built them 800 to 1,600 years ago.
There were once an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 effigy mounds in Wisconsin; fewer than 4,000 remain. Early European settlers and their descendants plowed over mounds or destroyed them in building homes, roads, and businesses. Fortunately, in recent years people have come to appreciate the uniqueness of the state’s effigy mounds. National legislation and a Wisconsin law passed in 1985 now protect Native American artifacts and burial sites.
A gigantic lizard effigy with four legs and a long tail gives this park its name. Experts believe this figure and panther effigies may have been built to show water spirits. Two other mounds represent a pair of birds. Elongated linear mounds resemble large meatloaves, while conical mounds look like huge gumdrops.
Historically, the biggest concentration of effigy mounds was along the shores of Madison’s four lakes, where the Mound Builders built some 1,500 earthworks. Today, 23 mound sites remain on public land in Dane County. Some of the most spectacular are on the grounds of Mendota Mental Health Institute on the northern shore of Lake Mendota. One of three large bird effigies there has a wingspan of 624 feet. Other effigies include a deer, two bears, and two panthers.
A second concentration is in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin, near Prairie du Chien. One of my favorite spots is Indian Trail, on the bluffs high above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers at Wyalusing State Park. Of the 100-plus mounds once in this area, more than 60 are still intact.
Wisconsin’s best-known archeological site, Aztalan State Park, on the Crawfish River near Lake Mills, includes modern reconstructions of ancient ceremonial mounds and an accompanying wooden stockade. But the people who built these structures about 1,000 years ago were most likely not the Mound Builders. In fact, researchers believe the stockade and archeological evidence of violence here may indicate conflict between the agricultural village and the hunting and gathering Mound Builders or their descendants.
Climbing a reconstructed flat-topped pyramid mound at Aztalan gives you a great view of the river on which the village depended. Today it’s a quiet place, but a thousand years ago it may have been one of the busiest spots in the state. And the high stockade gives you the impression that the ancient people of this village may have been far more concerned about defending themselves than enjoying the peaceful view of rolling prairies, woodlands, and waterways that modern visitors see at this park.
Want to see more of the creations of Wisconsin's earliest residents? Here's where to find more effigy mounds in Wisconsin!