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Spirits of Earth

The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes

Robert A. Birmingham

Publication Year: 2010

Between A.D. 700 and 1100 Native Americans built more effigy mounds in Wisconsin than anywhere else in North America, with an estimated 1,300 mounds—including the world’s largest known bird effigy—at the center of effigy-building culture in and around Madison, Wisconsin. These huge earthworks, sculpted in the shape of birds, mammals, and other figures, have aroused curiosity for generations and together comprise a vast effigy mound ceremonial landscape. Farming and industrialization destroyed most of these mounds, leaving the mysteries of who built them and why they were made. The remaining mounds are protected today and many can be visited.   explores the cultural, historical, and ceremonial meanings of the mounds in an informative, abundantly illustrated book and guide.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-xi

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Preface: Of Megaliths and Mounds, Recognizing a World Wonder

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pp. xiii-xxii

In 1998 I fulfilled a lifelong dream by visiting Ireland, birthplace of some of my ancestors. My surname comes from a once-tiny Saxon village the Normans took during the conquest of England. Some Norman nobles adopted the place name as their family name, bringing it to Ireland in the twelfth century where, through the great upheavals of Anglo-Irish history, the family eventually became absorbed into the impoverished...

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pp. xxiii-xxiv

I am grateful for the comments on various versions of this manuscript by Robert Boszhardt (formerly of Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center), Robert Hall (professor emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago), Jay Toth (Seneca, archaeologist for the Ho-Chunk Nation), Janice Rice (Ho-Chunk, University of Wisconsin–Madison), and an anonymous reviewer. I like to thank the excellent and long-suffering University of Wisconsin...

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1. Spirits of Earth: An Introduction to Effigy Mound Landscapes

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pp. 3-41

When white settlers flooded into what is now southern Wisconsin in the 1830s, many were amazed and perplexed at what they found. Among the hills, parklands, lakes, and rivers it appeared that ancient people had sculpted the terrain into sometimes huge arrangements of birds, mammals, humans, long embankments, and other earthen forms comprising a “multitude of extraordinary figures raised like embossed...

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2. The Ancient Mound Builders

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pp. 42-91

Native Americans first came to the Four Lakes thirteen thousand years ago. Like the lakes themselves, populations subsequently ebbed and flowed, leaving behind many traces of their existence. Archaeologists have outlined this human history based on more than a century of research, and studies by a variety of other specialists have reconstructed...

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3. The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes

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pp. 92-114

The mounds of the Four Lakes are among the best documented in the effigy mound region. This is a result of more than 150 years of attention stimulated by the unusually dense concentration of spectacular mounds as well as the early establishment of Madison as a political center and one of learning and history. The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) was established in 1846, two years before statehood and the...

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4. Yahara Inlet and Mendota

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pp. 115-146

The Yahara River has its headwaters several miles north of Lake Mendota. It flows through the Cherokee Marsh and widens into Lake Mendota at a point near where Late Woodland people built some of largest and most spectacular mounds in the Four Lakes. Late Woodland people used the marshy headwater areas for small seasonal hamlets or other special purposes, constructing keyhole-shaped pit houses (see...

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5. Wingra: Lake of Sacred Springs

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pp. 147-160

The fifth lake in the Four Lakes district is today barely more than a large, shallow pond, yet surrounding its shores there are among the densest and most impressive effigy mound groupings found anywhere (figure 5.1). The Ho-Chunk called it Ki-chunk-och-hep-er-rah (“where the turtle rises up”) and maintained a village on the west side along...

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6. Lake Monona: Let the Great Spirit Soar

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pp. 161-175

From Lake Mendota, the Yahara River flows through a formerly swampy isthmus to Lake Monona, called Third Lake by early settlers and Great Teepee Lake or Tchee-ho-bo-kee-xa kay-te-la by the Ho-Chunk who maintained camps here through the early twentieth century.1 The Wisconsin Historical Society documents that at least 234...

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7. Waubesa: Lake of Reeds and Snakes

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pp. 176-187

The Ho-Chunk called Waubesa Sa-hoo cha-te-la or “lake of reeds” because of its extensive marshlands. Much of what is known of Lake Waubesa mounds comes from the early works of T. H. Lewis, Charles Brown, and especially Dr. W. G. McLachlan of McFarland, all of whom mapped mounds when much of the shoreline was undeveloped. At least 183 mounds in thirty locations existed here, arranged along...

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8. Kegonsa and the Mouth of the Yahara: End to Beginning

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pp. 188-200

The Yahara River winds its way from the outlet of Lake Waubesa through the Lower Mud Lake wetlands and on to the shores of Lake Kegonsa (figure 8.1). Along the way, remnants of a stone fish dam can still be viewed in a narrow part of the river, used by Indian people into the twentieth century to trap great quantities of fish. It is situated right below the Skare site, a place used...

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9. Landscapes of the Past, Questions and Issues for the Future

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pp. 201-205

Eight hundred years ago, pre-Columbian Indian people abandoned the region of Madison and the Four Lakes after thousands of years of continuous occupation. They left behind a visible legacy in the form of an incredible landscape sculpted from earth into ancestral spirit beings that continued to share their world and define human...

Appendix: Selected Mound Sites Open to the Public

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pp. 207-213


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pp. 215-228


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pp. 229-239

Illustration Credits

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pp. 241-246


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pp. 247-255

E-ISBN-13: 9780299232634
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299232641

Page Count: 255
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Madison Region (Wis.) -- Antiquities.
  • Mounds -- Wisconsin -- Madison Region.
  • Indians of North America -- Wisconsin -- Madison Region -- Antiquities.
  • Earthworks (Archaeology) -- Wisconsin -- Madison Region.
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