Effigy mound

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Great Serpent Mound, Ohio, constructed ca. 1070

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 (350-1300 CE).

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.[citation needed]

Native North American effigy mounds have been compared to the large-scale geoglyphs such as the Nazca Lines of Peru.


Early European observations[edit]

Effigy mounds are limited to the Northern and Eastern United States, and most likely the French were the first Europeans to see them in their expeditions southward from Canada after 1673.

Early surveyors and settlers noticed and mapped many effigy mounds, but farming and other development erased 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.

Origin theories[edit]

Eagle Mound, an effigy mound with a wingspan of 624 feet, Wisconsin

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[edit]

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."[1]


The Effigy Mound Builders seem to have followed certain common practices, however, very few bodies were interred in each effigy mound; one or two burials per mound seems to have been the norm, and many contained no remains. Although smaller in size, many of the conical mounds contain more burials, both absolutely and relative to their cubic size, than do the effigy-shaped tumuli. Another custom was the paucity of burial goods. The effigy mound builders did not include with their dead the wealth of material the Ohio Hopewellians did. This almost complete lack of artifacts accompanying the dead clearly indicates a culture distinct from the Hopewellian, even though mounds with Hopewell— type grave goods have been excavated in the same area, and apparently were constructed at roughly the same time as the effigy mounds.

Current condition[edit]


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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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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