Monday, August 1, 2011

The Mound Builders; Effigy Mounds Illustrated






In the State of Wisconsin are found some of the most interesting remains of the Mound Builders. They are so different from the ordinary remains found elsewhere that we must admit that the people who built them differed greatly from the tribes who built the great temple mounds of the South, or the earthworks of Ohio. The remains in Wisconsin are distinguished not by their great size or height, but by their singular forms. Here the mound building instincts of the people were expressed by heaping up the earth in the shape of animals. What strange fancy it was that led them to mould the figures on the bluffy banks of the rivers and the high lands about the lakes of their country, we shall perhaps never know. That they had some design in this matter is, of course, evident, and if we would try and learn their secret, we must address ourselves to a study of the remains.

Effigy Mounds.Effigy mounds are almost exclusively confined to the State of Wisconsin. We, indeed, find effigy mounds in other sections, but they are of rare occurrence.43 They, however, show that the same reasons, religious, or otherwise, exists in other localities, while in the area covered by the southern portion of the State of Wisconsin it found its greatest expression. This cut affords us a fair idea of effigy mounds. Here are seen two animals, one behind the other. On paper we can readily see the resemblance. Stretched out on the ground, and of gigantic proportions, the resemblance is not so marked, and some might fail to notice it at first sight. Either of those figures is over one hundred feet long, and about fifteen feet wide. With few exceptions, effigy mounds are inconsiderable in height, varying from one to four feet. These mounds have been carefully studied of late years, and there is no doubt that in many instances we can distinguish the animals represented.

We learn, then, that tribes formerly living in Wisconsin had the custom of heaping up the earth in the shape of the various animals peculiar to that section. But no effigies are found of animals that have since become extinct, or of animals that are to be found only in other lands.

Elephant Mound.Our next cut represents the famous elephant mound of Wisconsin, on the strength of which a number of fair theories have been given relating to the knowledge of the mastodon by the builders of the mound, and its consequent antiquity. It now bears some resemblance to an elephant, but we learn that the trunk was probably produced by the washing of the banks and, from the same cause, a projection above the head, supposed to represent horns, has disappeared. Taking these facts into consideration, it is quite as likely that it represented a buffalo.44 One writer even thinks he found a representation of a camel, but the fact is, the more these effigy mounds are studied, the more certain are we that they are representations of animals formerly common in that region.

Emblematic Mounds.

The manner in which they represented the various animals is full of interest to us. It has been discovered that they worked on a system. The last cut represents a group of three animals discovered a few miles from the Blue Mounds in Dane County. We notice at once a difference between the central animal, with a tail, and the other two. It will also be observed that the animals are represented in profile, with only two projections for legs. They are never separated so that we can distinguish the two front and the two hind feet. Animals so figured are the bear, fox, wolf, panther, and others. Grazing animals, such as the buffalo, elk, and deer, are represented with a projection for horns. In the last cut the other two animals are buffaloes. In various ways the particular kind of animal can nearly always be distinguished.45

Grazing Elks. Fox in the Distance.

The preceding cut represents two elks grazing, and a fox in the distance. The long embankments of earth at one side are considered by Mr. Peet as in the nature of game drives. But we call attention to the expressiveness with which these figures are delineated. What could be more natural than the quietly grazing elks, with the suspicious prowling fox in the distance. In the cut we also see two cross-shaped figures. This was their method of representing birds, a projection on each side of a central body denoting wings. These figures are often very expressive.

Eagle Mound.

In this cut we have no difficulty in recognizing an eagle. It is represented as soaring high in the air. On the bluffs above it is a wolf effigy, and several conical and long mounds. In the cut preceding this the eagle and the hawk are hovering over the feeding elks, while in this cut a flock of hawks are watching some buffaloes feeding in the distance. This group of effigies was found on the banks of the Kickapoo River.

Hawks and Buffaloes.

Goose and Duck.Our next cut represents a wild goose with a long neck and beak followed by a duck with a short neck, flying towards the lake.

Water-loving animals, such as salamanders and turtles, are represented in still another way, two projections on each side of a central figure. The next following cut represents a turtle. The tail was not always added. The salamander closely resembles the turtle, but notice the difference in the body, and still different is the cut of the musk-rat (see later). Fishes are figured as a straight embankment of earth tapering to a point.


The same system that was observed in the location of signal mounds is to be noticed in the arrangements of these groups of effigy mounds. They are not alone. One group answers to another on a distant hill, or is in plain view of another group in the valley below. Distant groups were so related, each commanding a wide extent of country, and thus group answers to group, and mound to mound, for miles away, making a complete system throughout the region.

Salamander and Musk-rat.

We notice this as to the location of the mounds. When we examine the mounds themselves we observe no little skill in the way they represent the animals. They often impressed on them something more than mere animal resemblances. "There are groups where the attitudes are expressive of a varied action. Certain animals, like the weasel or mink, being seen with a bird so near that, apparently, it might be caught by a single spring; and still others, like the wolf or wild-cat, are arranged head to head, as if prepared for combat; and still others, like the squirrel or coon, are in the more playful attitudes, sometimes apparently chasing one another over hill or valley; and again situated alone, as if they had just leaped from some tree, or drawn themselves out of some den or hole."46

Nor is the effigy of the human form wanting. It is found in several localities throughout the State. This cut shows us one such effigy. This was the beginning of a long train of animal mounds, presumably representing bears, found near the Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.47 We can not observe that any more importance was ascribed to the effigy of a human being than to that of an animal.

In casting about for suitable explanation for the erection of these animal mounds, we find ourselves lost in conjecture as to the motive which induced these people to prepare these earthen effigies. We may be sure that it was for some other reason than for amusement, or to give exercise to an artistic feeling. Only in very few instances do we detect any arrangements which would imply that they were in the nature of defenses. In some cases the effigies are so arranged as to form a sort of inclosure, some portion of the figure being prolonged to an unusual extent and thus inclosing a space that may have been utilized for a village site. This group on the Wisconsin River illustrates this point. Here the area thus partially inclosed, is about an acre. It is a singular fact that these inclosures are almost always triangular in shape.48 But it is manifest that a simple earth wall would serve for defense much better than these forms. They probably were not burial mounds, as few contain human remains, and it is not yet certain that these remains were not intrusive burials.49 It seems, therefore that they must have been in some manner connected with the religious life of the people.

Emblematic Mound Inclosure.

If we examine the various groups scattered throughout the State, this belief is strengthened. It is found, for instance, in nearly every group, that some one effigy is the principal one, and is placed in a commanding position, about which the other forms are arranged. It is also thought that the same effigy is the principal or ruling effigy over a wide district. In illustration of this, it can be stated that in the south-eastern part of the State the turtle is always the ruling effigy. In any group of effigies it is the principal one. It seems to watch over and protect the others. In subordination to it are such forms as the lizard, hawk, and pigeon. Passing to the North, the turtle is no longer the important figure. It is replaced by the wolf, or wild-cat. This is now the principal form, and if the turtle is sometimes present, it is of less importance.

So marked is the fact we have just stated that Mr. Peet says, "that sometimes this division assumes almost the character of a river system, and thus we might trace what seems to be the beginning in this country of that which prevailed on classic soil and in Oriental regions—namely, river gods and tutelar divinities of certain regions, each tribal divinity having its own province, over which it ruled and on which it left its own form or figure as the seal of its power and the emblem of its worship."50

Looking for some explanation of this, we may find a key in the known customs of various Indian tribes, and the lower races of men. It is known that a tribe of Indians is divided into smaller bands, which are called gens or clans. A gens may consist of several hundred persons, but it is the unit of organization. It takes the place of a family among civilized people. These various bands are generally named after some animal. In the beginning these names may have been of no special significance, but in course of time each band would come to regard themselves as descendants of the animal whose name they bore. Hence the animal itself would be considered sacred in their eyes, and its life would seldom be taken by members of that gens.

The animal thus honored by the gens was, in the Indian dialect, the totem of the clan. This organization and custom we find running all through the Indian tribes. In many tribes the Indians were wont to carve a figure of their totem on a piece of slate, or even to carve a stone in the shape of the totem, which carved or sculptured stone they wore as an ornament, or carried as a charm to ward off evil and bring them good luck.51 We need only suppose that this system was very fully developed among the Mound Builders of Wisconsin, to see what important bearing it has on these effigy mounds.

A tribe located on one of the fertile river valleys of Wisconsin was composed of various gens or clans. On some common point in proximity to their villages, or some spot which commanded a wide view of the surrounding country, each gens would rear an effigy of its totem, the animal sacred to them. In every tribe some gens would be the most powerful, or for some cause the most respected, and its totem would be given in the largest effigy, and would be placed in the most commanding position. In a different locality some other tribe would be located, and some other totem would be regarded as of the most importance.

In this light effigy-mounds are not mere representatives of animal forms. They are picture-writings on a gigantic scale, and are the source of much true history. They tell us of different tribes, the clans which composed them, the religious beliefs, and the ruling gens of the tribe. Contemplating them, we seem to live again in the far-off past. The white man disappears; waving forests claim their ancient domain, and the rivers, with a more powerful current, roll in their olden channels. The animals whose forms are imaged here, go trooping through the forest or over the fertile bottom lands. The busy scenes of civilization give place to the placid quiet of primeval times, and we seem to see peaceful tribes of Mound Builders paying a rude veneration to their effigy-gods, where now are churches of a more soul-satisfying religion.

But there is still another point to be learned from an examination of these ancient mounds. Not only are they totems of the tribes, but they were looked on in some sense as being guardian divinities, with power to protect the homes of the tribe. This is learned by studying the location in which they are placed. They occupy all points of observation. In other parts of the Mound Builders' country, wherever we find signal-mounds we find corresponding positions in Wisconsin occupied by groups of effigy-mounds, or if one only is present, it is always the one which, from the considerations we have stated, was regarded as the ruling effigy of that section. It is as if their builders placed them as sentinels to guard the approaches to their homes, to give warning of the arrival of hostile bands. This is further borne out by finding that mounds placed in such positions frequently show evidence of the action of intense fire, and so we conclude they were used as signal stations also. So we need not doubt but that the region thus watched over by these effigy-mounds, group answering to group along the river banks, or in the valleys below, was at times lit up by the signal fires at night; or the warning column of smoke by day betokening the presence of dancer.52

Bird Mound, surrounded by a Stone Circle.

Before leaving the subject of effigy-mounds, we must refer to some instances of their presence in other localities. This cut is an eagle effigy discovered in Georgia. Only one other instance, also occurring in Georgia, is known of effigy-mounds in the South. Measured from tip to tip of the wings, the bird, in this case, is one hundred and thirty-two feet. This structure is composed of stones, and a singular feature is the surrounding circle of stone.53

Big Serpent Mound.

Several examples of effigy-mounds are found in Ohio. The most notable one is that known as the Great Serpent Mound, in Adanis County. We give an illustration of it. The entire surrounding country is hilly. The effigy itself is situated on a tongue of land formed by the junction of a ravine with the main branch of Brush Creek, and rising to a height of about one hundred feet above the creek. Its form is irregular on its surface, being crescent-shaped, with the point resting to the north-west. We give in a note some of the dimensions. The figure we give of this important effigy is different from any heretofore presented. We are indebted for the plan from which the drawing was made to Rev. J. P. MacLean, of Hamilton, Ohio. Mr. MacLean is a well-known writer on these topics. During the Summer of 1884, while in the employ of the Bureau of Ethnology, he visited the place, taking with him a thoroughly competent surveyor, and made a very careful plan of the work for the Bureau. All the other figures published represent the oval as the end of the works. Prof. Putnam, who visited the locality in 1883, noticed, between the oval figure and the edge of the ledge, a slightly raised, circular ridge of earth, from either side of which a curved ridge extended towards the sides of the oval figure. Mr. MacLean's researches and measurements have shown that the ridges last spoken of are but part of what is either a distinct figure or a very important portion of the original figure. As figured, it certainly bears a very close resemblance to a frog, and such Mr. MacLean concludes it to be.

There is both a similarity and a difference between this work and those of Wisconsin. The fact that it occurs isolated, the other effigies in Ohio being many miles away, shows that some special purpose must have been subserved by it. There the great numbers gave us a hint as to their purpose. In this case, however, nearly all observers conclude that it was a religious work. Mr. MacLean, after describing these three figures, propounds this query: "Does the frog represent the creative, the egg the passive, and the serpent the destructive power of nature?" Not a few writers, though not acquainted with the presence of the frog-shaped figure, have been struck with the combination of the egg and the serpent, that plays such an important part in the mythology of the Old World. We are told that the serpent, separate or in combination with the circle, egg, or globe, has been a predominant symbol among many primitive nations. "It prevailed in Egypt, Greece, and Assyria, and entered widely into the superstitions of the Celts, the Hindoos, and the Chinese." "Wherever native religions have had their scope, this symbol is sure to appear."54

Even the Indians have made use of this symbol. On Big Medicine Butte, in Dakota Territory, near Pierre, is a train of stones arranged in the form of a serpent, which is probably the work of the Sioux Indians. Around about on the hill is the burying-ground of their chiefs. This was to them sacred ground, and no whites were allowed near. The stones are about the size of a man's head, and are laid in two rows, from one to six feet apart. The length in all is three hundred and fifty feet, and at the tail, stones, to represent rattles, are rudely carved. The eyes are formed by two big red bowlders. No grass was allowed to grow between the two rows of stone.55

It seems reasonable to suppose that the few isolated effigy mounds we have outside of Wisconsin were built to subserve a different purpose than those in that State. Mr. Peet has made some remarks on their probable use that seem to us to cover the ground, and to do away with any necessity of supposing on the part of its builders an acquaintance with Old World mythologies. Nature worship is one of the earliest forms of worship. The prominent features of a landscape would be regarded as objects of worship. Thus, for example, the island of Mackinac resembles in its outline the shape of a turtle; so the island was regarded as sacred to the turtle, and offerings were made to it. A bluff on the same island at a distance resembles a rabbit; accordingly, it was called by that name, and offerings were made to it. It is quite natural that the effigy-mound builders should seek to perpetuate by effigy some of these early traditions.

In the case of the Big Serpent mound this point is worth considering. The ridge on which it stands is not only in the midst of a wild, rough region, but is so situated that it commands a wide extent of country. In shape this tongue of land is also peculiar. It is a narrow, projecting headland, and would easily suggest the idea of a serpent or a lizard. "This, with the inaccessibility of the spot, would produce a peculiar feeling of awe, as if it were a great Manitou which resided there; and so a sentiment of wonder and worship would gather around the locality. This would naturally give rise to a tradition, or would lead the people to revive some familiar tradition and localize it."56 The final step would be to make an effigy.

It seems to us very hazardous to draw any conclusions as to the religious beliefs of the Mound Builders from this effigy, or combinations of effigies. It also seems to us reasonable to suppose that but one figure was intended to be represented. A very slight prolongation of the serpent's jaws and the limbs of the frog would connect them, in which case we would have some amphibious creature with an unduly extended tail, or perhaps a lizard. We must remember that the whole figure has been plowed over once or twice, so that we are not sure of the original outlines. We can not tell why they should represent a portion of the body as hollow, but neither can we tell why the head of the supposed serpent should be represented as hollow. We do not find any important earth-works near here. The hill on which it is placed commands a very extensive view of the surrounding country. Within the oval a pile of stones showed evidence of a long-continued fire, which would indicate that this was also a signal-mound. Prof. Putnam thinks it probable that there was a burial place between it and the large conical mound not far away.57

In the vicinity of Newark, Ohio, are two examples of effigy mounds. This cut represents what is called the alligator mound, but it is probably the effigy of a lizard. The position which this mound occupies is significant. It is on the very brow of a hill about two hundred feet high, which projects out into a beautiful valley. The valley is not very wide. Directly across was a fortified camp, in the valley below it was a circular work, and a short distance below on another projecting headland was a strongly fortified hill. The great works at Newark were six miles down the valley, but were probably in plain view. That it was perhaps a signal station, is shown by the presence of traces of fire.

Alligator Mound.

The length of this effigy is two hundred and five feet, the breadth of the body at its widest part, twenty feet, average height about four feet.58 The effigy mounds of Wisconsin, and the other few examples mentioned, are among the most interesting objects of aboriginal work. Except in a few favored instances, they are rapidly disappearing. To the leveling influence of time is added the assistance of man, and our knowledge of them will soon be confined to existing descriptions, unless something is at once done to preserve them from destruction. Interesting mementos of a vanished race, we turn from their contemplation with a sigh of regret that, in spite of our efforts, they are still so enwrapped in doubt.

Mounds and effigies by no means complete the description of Mound Builders' remains. One of the most interesting and mysterious class of works is now to be described. Early travelers in Ohio came here and there upon embankments, which were found to inclose tracts of land of various sizes. It was noticed that the embankments were often of the form of perfect circles, or squares, or sometimes octagons, and very often combinations of these figures. It was further evident that the builders sought level, fertile lands, along the various river courses. They very seldom built them on undulating or broken ground. Often have the very places where civilized man has laid the foundation of his towns proved to be the sites of these ancient works of the Mound Builders, and thus it has happened that many of the most interesting works of antiquity have been ruthlessly removed to make way for the crowded streets and busy marts of our own times.

The larger number of inclosures are circular, often of a small size. Where they occur separately they either have no gateway, or but one. Sometimes the circles are of very large size, surrounding many acres. Sometimes, though not very often, a ditch was also dug inside the embankment. This last circumstance is by many regarded as a strong proof that the primary object of these circles was not for defense.59 But an inclosure of this kind, even with the ditch on the inside, if surmounted by a row of pickets or palisades, would prove a strong position against Indian foes armed with bow and arrow. The Mandans constructed defenses of this kind around their villages.60 As to the original height of the walls, in the majority of cases it was not very great, generally from three to seven feet.