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An effigy mound is a raised pile of earth built in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol, religious figure, human, or other figure. Effigy mounds were primarily built during the Late Woodland Period (AD 350-1300).
Effigy mounds were constructed in many Native American cultures. Scholars believe they were primarily for religious purposes, although some also fulfilled a burial mound function. The builders of the effigy mounds are usually referred to as the Mound Builders. Native American societies in Wisconsin built more effigy mounds than did those in any other region of North America—between 15,000 and 20,000 mounds, at least 4,000 of which remain today.
Early European observations
Early surveyors and settlers noticed and mapped many effigy mounds, but farming and other development flattened or destroyed numerous sites despite efforts to preserve them.
After the discovery of effigy mounds, and other mounds all over the country, wild theories began to be developed as to how and by whom they were built. The first theories were the most accurate; people in the late 17th century assumed that the mounds had been built by the Native American people who still lived in the vicinity. These logical assumptions lost popularity as more fantastic theories were developed. The most popular of these theories in the 19th century was that an extinct race of Mound Builder people had built the mounds and then vanished. This theory was laid to rest by archaeologists at the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s.
The Winnebago suggest that effigy mounds were used as places of refuge, not of burial. Some archaeologists today believe that the mounds were built by particular clans or groups to honor their representative animal. Others believe that the mounds were burial sites for important figures, while still others believe that the mounds held some other religious significance. The mounds may also indicate hunting and gathering territories of different groups. Other evidence suggests that effigy mounds were used for all manner of rites and ceremonies, from birth ceremonies to funeral rites and everything in between. Research on the purpose of effigy mounds is still inconclusive.
Common shapes for effigy mounds include birds, bear, deer, bison, lynx, panther, turtles, and water spirits. These animals were most likely chosen for their particular religious or spiritual significance to the people who built each mound. Certain areas of effigy mound activity have types that are most likely to be found there.
According to the National Park Service, the area in which effigy mounds are found “extends from Dubuque, Iowa, north into southeast Minnesota, across southern Wisconsin from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan, and along the Wisconsin-Illinois boundary.”
Effigy mounds have been found to contain grave goods and funerary items along with human remains. It is important to note, however, the absence of trade goods from other Indian groups. Some items found in effigy mounds include pottery, weapons, tools, and other valuable items, in addition to skeletal remains. These items would have been placed with the dead to make their journey and new life in the afterlife more familiar and comfortable.
Hundreds of effigy mounds have been lost due to plowing, farming, and other development. Many of the remaining effigy mound sites are parts of national, state, county, or municipal parks. All effigy mounds are currently protected under state laws that prohibit disturbance to burial sites or, if on federal or tribal land, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
- Adena culture
- Hopewell culture
- Effigy Mounds National Monument
- Indian Mounds Park
- Serpent Mound
- Rock Eagle
- Rock Hawk Effigy Mound
- Lizard Mound County Park
- National Park Service. “Effigy Moundbuilders,” August 1, 2006. Accessed October 22, 2009.
- Birmingham, Robert, and Eisenberg, Leslie, "Indian Mounds of Wisconsin". Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
- Kavasch, E. Barrie. The Mound Builders of Ancient North America. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2004.
- McKern, W.C. “Regarding the Origin of Wisconsin Effigy Mounds.” American Anthropologist 31.3 (1929), 562-564.
- Silverberg, Robert. The Mound Builders of Ancient America. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1968.
- Peet, Stephen Denison. "Emblematic Mounds and Animal Effigies," Antiquarian Library, "Prehistoric America," Vol. II, American Antiquarian Office, Chicago, Ill., 1890
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