Header Rock Art

MN Hist



THE ANCIENT  PEOPLES                         
The Upper Midwest—for our purposes all of Minnesota, eastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, and all of Wisconsin—has seen human habitation for over 12,000 years, arriving in the region not long after the glaciers retreated.  Modern scholars term this ear as Paleo-Indian, tying the period to the dates of 10,000 to 6,500 B.C, a time of the mastodons and the woolly mammoths.  Though we have little evidence of these peoples, we know they made tools, gathered vegetation for food and for healing, and lived in large extended families that traded widely with other groups.

In the Early, Middle and Late-Archaic eras the hunting districts of these groups became more settled and efforts to raise crops are known to have begun some time around 3,000 B.C.  Over the ensuing era we know that ceremony and ritual began to surround the most basic of human functions, including the gathering and raising of food, and the event of birth and of death.  Burial mound building is evidence of this change.

Fish Farm Mounds, Iowa It is known that small round and conical burial mounds first appeared in Wisconsin during the Early Woodland phase, dated from 800 B.C. to as late as 100 A.D.  This group was the first to use pottery for cooking and the storing of grains, to collect wild grasses and nuts, cultivated some crops, and to establish semi-permanent territorial camps in season for hunting and fishing. 

The Middle Woodland era saw an increase in mound-building and those that lived in this time of 100 B.C. to about 500 A.D. began to build much larger mounds and to set them in groups, employing rock, ash, clays and special soils that would have provided protection for the rebirth of the soul.  Sometimes only one body was buried in the depth of the mounds, sometimes many were interred.

The period of time from 650 A.D. to about 1,200 A.D., called the Late Woodland time, saw a tremendous increase in mound building, influenced to some extent by more complex societies, the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures, in the south along the Mississippi River who traded with the Woodland people.  Mounds were now often raised near village sites where permanent crop fields were established.  It was during this era, also, that the Oneota, an agricultural group, flourished after 1,000 A.D. primarily in what is now present-day Wisconsin.   Grand Mound, Int'l Falls MN

A spectacular outcome of the Late Woodland culture was effigy mound building, using earthen piles to create animal and geometric forms, often in mixed groups, and placed on high levels above water.  Several schools of thought exist about the meaning of the mounds, the most common now being the representation of clans tied to elements: Earth, Water, Air.  The animal forms especially can be tied to ancient legends of spirit beings, and many of the mound groups are now considered to be celestial markers as well.  The effigy mounds do at times contain burials, but not always.

These effigies, generally built in the time between 650 and 1,200 A.D., reflect recurrent themes that can be seen in the many archaeological parks that today shelter the few remaining effigy mounds that escaped destruction by plow or development since European settlement in the Upper Midwest: Panther (Water Spirit), Thunderbird, Turtle (or Lizard), Bear, Deer, Snake, Human, Linear, Oval, and Conical.

The many rock art (petroglyph and pictograph) sites known throughout the Upper Midwest, which span many of the above-mentioned eras, also carry many of these same symbols, plus the classic celestial Jeffers Petroglpys c1890 symbols of sun, moon, and stars.  Other common rock art motifs are spears (atlatls), hands, bird's feet (turkey tracks), shields, and The Underworld.

The first European settlers arrived just five hundred years after the end of the effigy mound era, a mere heartbeat in time, and the interest in these 'antiquities' which we know to be the last vestiges of a living culture began in earnest.  By the early 1800s surveyors were making notes and sketches of the mounds and the rock carvings, and formal commissioned surveys began in the 1850s.  We are, in our time, indebted to the efforts of these skilled engineers—in particular T.H. Lewis, Increase Lapham and Jacob Brower—for highly detailed drawings and maps of mound and rock art sites that have long been lost to modern development.

Today's Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Dakota (Sioux), Ojibwe, and Iowa tribal nations have long cultural memories of the meaning and sacredness of these sites and may truly be considered the modern inheritors of these ancient peoples.  It is with their support and their generosity that we can know so much about the meaning and place of the effigies and carvings of another people long departed and, combined with the considerable skills and the new sensibilities of our archaeologists, sociologists and ethnographers, we find ourselves the collective inheritors of a great culture past.

As It Once Was

The old world of archaeological research into the visible vestiges of ancient cultures—particularly the old methods of excavation and collecting of human remains and artifacts—is now thankfully past. 

Mounds are no longer opened, out of respect for the dead and for the cultural rights and sensibilities of today's tribal nations.  We would no more open the grave of those dead 1,000 years ago than we would permit strangers to open the graves of our own families.  Desecration ("pot-hunting") in burial and effigyHo Chunk Encampment, Delavan WI

There are new technologies and sensibilities also involved in the study of the beautiful carvings and paintings found on rock surfaces throughout the Upper Midwest.  Where rock art was once virtually ignored except by ethnologists, now these stunning symbols of ceremony and seasons are being sheltered where possible and thoughtfully interpreted to better understand ancient cultures.  And the methods by which we study them have also changed drastically: not only are the old techniques of chalking or glazing to bring out the carved relief wholly unacceptable by today's standards, now the rock surface goes virtually untouched as new dating and lighting methods are used to examine the rock face.  Carroll College Mounds, Waukesha WI

Opening mounds is punishable under federal law, and rightly so, and those human remains and sacred objects held for more than a century by local, regional and national museums are being returned to the tribal nations through a system devised under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Please also see:

Resources for Upper Midwest Archaeology
Recommended Readings

Upper Midwest Archaeology Resources
| Recommended Reading

| Regional Research Associates | Bluff Country Amish  |
Upper Midwest History

Copyright Regional Research Associates 2003
Website consultant: F.A. Design