Late Woodland Landscapes of Wisconsin: Ridged Fields, Effigy Mounds and Territoriality

By Gartner, William Gustav | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Late Woodland Landscapes of Wisconsin: Ridged Fields, Effigy Mounds and Territoriality


Gartner, William Gustav, Antiquity


Sauer (1925) saw the terrestrial scene as more than a natural arena for human action. He recognized the repeated human impact on a living earth which created an ever-changing stage of landscape. Geographical conceptions of landscape have changed in the intervening 75 years. Today, geographers acknowledge the historically contingent qualities of nature and society and their inter-relationships (Zimmerer 1994). Many also recognize the critical roles of architecture and material culture for experiencing landscapes, both monumental and mundane (Tuan 1977; Wheatley 1971). Moreover, people create and comprehend landscapes by constantly manipulating symbols and reinterpreting architectural spaces that are embedded in a larger social world (Baker 1992). Individuals often have disparate experiences within the same landscape (Bender 1993).

The cast of characters

The later half of the Late Woodland Period in Wisconsin witnessed three landscape innovations: effigy mounds, palisades and ridged fields. Raised fields are 'any prepared land involving the transfer and elevation of soil above the natural surface of the earth in order to improve cultivating conditions' (Denevan & Turner 1974: 24). The two basic forms in North America are small, individually set conical hillocks (corn hills) and long linear/curvilinear features (ridged fields). Corn hills are common in eastern North America (Doolittle in press), but Wisconsin has the most ridged fields (FIGURE 1).

By 1000 AD, effigy mounds had long been conspicuous in the Wisconsin landscape. These mounds are dated by radiocarbon to AD 700 - 1050 and are associated with Madison Ware ceramics - grit-tempered, cord-impressed, sometimes elaborately decorated pottery. By 1000 AD, the makers of Madison Ware ceramics lived varied lifestyles (Stevenson et al. 1997: 170-79). In Eastern Wisconsin, some built effigy mounds, lived in oval semi-subterranean houses and were hunter-gatherers (Horicon phase, c. AD 700-1050). Others also made collared pottery, lived in keyhole-shaped houses and farmed maize, beans and squash in fields (Kekoskee phase, c. AD 900-1150). In unglaciated southwestern Wisconsin, some built effigy mounds, hunted, gathered and planted maize, sunflowers and presumably older domesticates such as squash and sumpweed in gardens (Eastman phase, AD 750-1050).

An emerging Oneota tradition was well established by 1000 AD in the Lake Koshkonong area and perhaps elsewhere in the state (Overstreet 1997: 255-66; but see Stoltman 1986). Oneota peoples eventually became the main practioners of ridged-field agriculture and their rise to prominence after 1150 AD correlates with the cessation of mound construction in Wisconsin. Various types of culture contact between Middle Mississippian and Late Woodland peoples were also extant by 1000 AD and intensified over the next century (Stoltman 1986; FIGURE 2). [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

A landscape narrative centred on territoriality

Effigy mounds, palisades and ridged fields represent long-term social strategies of territoriality as defined by Sack (1986). They embody concepts of classified area, boundary, enforced control and conflict at local and regional scales. Moreover, they conveyed such messages within and across generations. Pre-capitalist societies often reify myth, ritual and symbol to create specialized spaces that encode such enduring cultural messages (Sack 1986: 38; Tuan 1977: 85-135; Wheatley 1971: 416).

The link between territoriality and the origins of ridged-field agriculture is essentially one of social circumscription. In short, some Late Woodland groups could no longer follow their traditional subsistence round due to the rigid control of particular geographical areas by other Late Woodlanders. Unfettered access to dispersed geographic areas are critical for a mixed subsistence economy based on gathering, hunting, fishing and cultivation (Theler 1987; Arzigian 1987; Steventon et al 1997). …

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