Spirits of Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes

By Schermer, Shirley J. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Spirits of Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes


Schermer, Shirley J., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


Spirits of Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes Robert A. Birmingham. 274 pages, 126 figures, 2 tables, 1 appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. $24.95, paper. ISBN 978-0-299-23264-1.

The ideas of cultural and sacred landscapes are not new. As a follow-up to Indian Mounds of Wisconsin (co-authored with Leslie Eisenberg), Robert Birmingham uses a holistic framework to examine the cultural and sacred meaning of effigy mound landscapes. Earthen mounds in the shape of animal effigies built by Late Woodland peoples occurred from A.D. 700- 1100 in a relatively restricted area of the Upper Mississippi region of the Midwest - southern Wisconsin and adjacent areas of southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois - a resource rich area with highly-dissected topography and numerous water sources. Birmingham uses his landscape approach to examine the "why" - why effigy-shaped mounds and why only in a relatively small restricted area.

He uses the effigy mounds found in the Madison, Wisconsin, Four Lakes geographical area as his research sample and also provides a visitors' guide to those effigy mounds located on public lands. The Four Lakes area includes the Yahara River from its headwaters (including spring-fed Lake Wingra) through Madison and on to its juncture with the Rock River. Along the way, four primary "lakes" or widenings of the Yahara River - Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa - are key locations of effigy mounds.

In the Preface and Chapter 1, Birmingham presents an ideological landscape approach (using a framework of the worldview and beliefs of the ancient people involved) to interpret the effigy mound building phenomena, drawing upon ideas earlier proposed by Clark Mallam and Robert Hall. Birmingham sees effigy mounds as "monumental, symbolic constructions" (p. xv) built to maintain balance and harmony of the natural world. Therefore, one needs to look at the entire landscape in which these mounds were built - the "place" being what landforms were used and the distribution of the mounds on those landforms and the "space" being the mound types and the arrangement of the various mounds and mound types within groups. The mound shapes and their patterning within the effigy mound landscape is meant to reflect the natural dualism between the opposing yet complementary upper (sky) and lower (earth, water) divisions, also commonly expressed in social dualisms such as moieties. The most common forms of effigy mounds are birds, bears, and long-tailed "water spirits" - forms recognizable as reflecting the sky, earth, and water divisions.

Birmingham feels that specific areas were chosen for effigy mound construction because of "certain spiritual or supernatural characteristics attributed to natural territory" and that the arrangement of the mounds within groups reflects "the structure of the builder's religious and related social world and have the potential to tell us much about the ideological realm" (p.xx). The resulting "ideological landscape" or pattern reflects the builders' beliefs and worldview, intertwining the ideological, ritual, and social aspects of a culture.

Although he admits the archaeological limitations to understanding ideological aspects of past cultures, Birmingham feels that the use of ethnography, ethnohistory, and general belief structures of historic native peoples expressed in iconography, stories, myths, and oral history can provide insights to understanding ancient native ideology and symbolism. He looks at the worldviews, beliefs, and social systems of possible descendant Indian tribes (especially the Ho-Chunk), and what he sees as continuity between the past and the present, in his attempt to decode the patterning and symbolism of the effigy mound landscape.

Chapter 2 is a general discussion of 13,000 years of Native American history in the area providing the temporal and cultural context for the time period when effigy mounds were built.

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