Thursday, March 1, 2001

Aztalan: Where time hangs still

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Wisconsin Trails
March-April 2001

At the dawn of the last millennium, Wisconsin’s first agricultural community was born. It happened on a special spot, a place where the woods opened onto a narrow oak savanna that ran along the west bank of a plentiful river. A shoulder of high ground protected this fertile expanse from winter’s fierce west winds. Here, a group of Native Americans planted a cornfield, and built a town beside it. They raised massive earthworks: platform-topped mounds for performing the ceremonies to make the corn grow, for storing the corn, and for burning and burying some of the most honored of the dead. The town they surrounded with stockade walls, tall and sturdy—though some of their neighbors were friends, they fought with others. For besides being farmer-warriors, they were pioneers on the north frontier of their world. No one else lived like this up here, and no one else ever would.

Today, the site is a park deep in the Jefferson County countryside, midway between Milwaukee and Madison. A mile off the easy-biking Glacial Drumlin Trail, Aztalan State Park offers tranquil fishing and picnicking on the west bank of the Crawfish River, a few miles north of its confluence with the Rock. Amenities are few: some tables and grills, pit toilets. Hand pumps deliver water, cold with the taste of iron, to anyone energetic enough to swing a long, heavy lever long enough to start the flow. There’s no visitors center or park office. You wouldn’t guess this is the home of the state’s most spectacular archeological treasure.

Just north of the picnic tables a narrow green field stretches parallel to the river. At three of the field’s four corners, grassy mounds swoop up, each some 15 feet high. One of these is a natural gravel knoll, where archeologists think the ancients may have held ceremonies. The other two are earthworks carefully reconstructed by archeologists in the 1950s: a stepped pyramid and a flat-topped dome. For the untrained eye looking out at these 21 peaceful acres, it’s hard to imagine the bustle of activity that once filled this space—farming, cooking, playing, ritual, battle.

A steep stairway leads up the pyramid in the southwest corner. Pits within it stored corn. The top level, a 53 square foot platform, was originally capped with smooth clay. Archeologists think it was used for rituals commemorating the harvest, and as a spot where Aztalan’s elite could look out over the town. Lengths of stockade wall (also rebuilt in the 1950s) rim this part of the park. From here looking east to the knoll some 700 feet away, and northwards nearly one quarter mile to the mound at Aztalan’s northwest corner, both appear quite near. But walking north, the grass slips by beneath your feet, your footsteps taking you so slowly to that mound, always just ahead, never seeming to get closer. By the time you climb the north mound, where hundreds of years ago a structure was built, ten bodies and a bundle of bones were lined up inside, and the whole thing was burned and then buried, you might feel that time hangs still in the air, and that all the people who dwelled here before are not so far away after all.

The walled village of Aztalan thrived from about A.D. 1000 to 1200, with about 350 residents at its peak. Not until the nineteenth century would Wisconsin again be home to such a concentrated population. Aztalan wasn’t the only town of its kind, but there was nothing else like it so far north. It was a frontier town, the northernmost major outpost of the Middle Mississippian culture, which was a vast society headquartered in what’s now Illinois, across the Mississippi from present-day St. Louis.

The Middle Mississippian culture owed its start to corn agriculture. Corn, first cultivated in Mesoamerica, sparked a cultural revolution when it arrived in the Illinois region around A.D. 800. Unlike wild grains, domesticated corn was relatively easy to plant, harvest, and eat, and it produced lots of big, nutritious seed. In the fertile Mississippi floodplain, harvests were abundant. With plenty to eat, mortality declined and the population soared. Change came fast: tending fields and storing the harvest meant settling down and giving up nomadic ways. The society began to split into strict castes. Rulers controlled the resources that others grew, crafted, and traded for. Arts and religion flourished, as did large-scale, elaborate human sacrifice rituals. At the center of this new society was Cahokia, a metropolis over five miles square, complete with its own constellation of suburbs. At its zenith, around A.D. 1150, Cahokia was one of the largest cities in the world. With 10,000 residents, it was more populous than London at that time. The new Middle Mississippian culture spread through much of what’s now the United States. Some scholars describe Cahokia (its original name is unknown to us; it was renamed in the 19th century for a Native American tribe living near its ruins), with its enormous influence, as the seat of a Native American empire.

Aztalan was typically Middle Mississippian in many ways, with its stockade walls, ceremonial platform mounds, ruling elite, elegantly decorated shell-tempered pottery, sturdy huts of varied shapes and styles, many types of complex burials, and its evidently brutal warfare. And, as at Cahokia, Aztalan life depended on intensive cultivation of corn. But around 1200, both Cahokia and Aztalan began to wither. In fact, the Middle Mississippian culture vanished entirely from the Midwest, and archeologists still aren’t sure why. In the American Southeast, Middle Mississippian lifeways continued for centuries—though never on Cahokia’s scale—right up into the 16th century and European contact. In the region that became Wisconsin, a new culture developed: that of the Oneota, ancestors of many modern tribes including the Ho-Chunk. The Oneota farmed and lived in permanent settlements, but on a smaller, less concentrated scale than Aztalan. Whether they descended from the people of Aztalan is unknown, but Aztalan culture certainly influenced them.

Meanwhile, by the banks of the Crawfish River, the town languished, abandoned, for six hundred years. Occasional prairie fires blackened the stockade walls. Wide piles of rubble gradually formed along the walls, as the tough plaster slowly crumbled and sloughed away.

In 1835, settler Timothy Johnson came upon the ruins of a mysterious civilization three days’ rugged travel from Milwaukee, in the newly formed Wisconsin Territory Newspapers across the country publicized the find. Adventurers sought out the storied city in the wilderness. They wrote of a “Citadel”—a weathered fortress four to five feet tall, surrounding the remains of a town. Within the walls they saw great platform mounds and dozens of house foundations dug into the ground, the hearth pits still visible. Outside the enclosure was the ancient cornfield and dozens of smaller mounds. Wrote Nathaniel Hyer, a Milwaukee judge who put an early claim on the land, “We found the a much more perfect state than I had anticipated.”

Like most of his fellow settlers, Hyer thought Wisconsin Indians were much too primitive to be related to the town’s builders. He concluded these must be the ruins of “Aztalan,” the legendary northern source of the Aztec people (which today’s scientists think is about as far north as New Mexico). Hyer reasoned that the Aztecs were “far more advanced in civilization and the arts, than the Indian race ever appear to have been.” The name stuck, though some of Hyer’s contemporaries believed the town was actually built by the Lost Tribes of Israel, ancient Phoenicians, or refugees from Atlantis. At any rate, the “Citadel” was taken as proof that the Indians must be dispatched. The barbarians of the Wisconsin Territory weren’t natives, but usurpers who’d murdered a civilized “Lost Race.” The settlers were acting justly: reclaiming the land for civilization.

In those days before modern archeological methods, exploration was, to say the least, destructive. Curiosity-seekers tore apart the walls and mounds freely, and helped themselves to what they found. One 1838 visitor wrote that he “cut through the wall in several places” and opened several mounds with spade and pick, making a gift to a friend of something he considered a particularly tantalizing find: one of about 52 bundles of forearm bones, charred and bound with fibrous cord. Soon, despite Aztalan’s fame, the site was parceled off as farmland. Edward Everett, a well-known orator of the time, entreated President Van Buren to protect the site. His request went unanswered, and the ancient village—mounds, house foundations, and all—went under the plow. As years went by, countless bones and artifacts were tossed to the sides of the fields like pesky stones, or were taken by souvenir hunters. And the stockade walls, so marvelously intact? Wagonloads of this “Aztalan brick” went to fill potholes in the local roads.

Aztalan’s fortunes improved around 1920 when Samuel Barrett, one of America’s first professional archeologists, began conducting scientific excavations there. In support of his work, the townspeople of modern Aztalan rallied to save what remained of the ancient site. They raised money to buy the land and lobbied for years to make it a national or state park. Finally, in 1948, Aztalan became a state park. It was designated a National Landmark in 1964.

Among archeologists today, interest in Aztalan is keener than ever before, thanks in part to the many intriguing finds made over years of fieldwork. For every question raised, different researchers suggest different answers. Who were the Aztalanians? Some archeologists believe they were exiles or political refugees from Cahokia. Others think they were traders who eventually settled in—Cahokians who came to Wisconsin to trade for deer meat and hide. A more grisly suggestion: they were trading for human fodder to supply Cahokia’s large-scale sacrifices. Some scholars believe that Middle Mississippians chose this particular spot because the locale reminded them of the waterways of their home in what’s now Illinois. Others think that most, if not all, of the Aztalan residents were natives to the Wisconsin region. Much Wisconsin-style pottery has been found at the site, and there’s even evidence of some corn agriculture starting around A.D. 800. After learning of Cahokia through trade and travel, by this theory, these local farmers built themselves a mini-Cahokia.

So why was the town abandoned? Weather and warfare seem the most likely reasons. Both Aztalan and Cahokia declined after about A.D. 1200, during a worldwide cold spell. Aztalan and Cahokia may have depended on a type of corn that did better in warmer conditions—and indeed, the Middle Mississippian culture continued in the warmer American Southeast for centuries. Alternately, warfare may have been the main factor in Aztalan’s demise. Maybe neighboring Oneota warriors crushed Aztalan. Or, as some researchers speculate, maybe the villagers tired of their restrictive, caste-driven life and evolved into what became Oneota.

Another puzzle: the apparently cannibalized bones found charred and broken in the town dump. Did the Aztalanians rely on human flesh as food, as some scientists believe? Or, as others say, was their cannibalism was strictly ritualistic, a form of ancestor veneration? Was it a way to gain the strength of vanquished enemies? Or, by still another hypothesis, were the trashed bones were simply body parts deemed unworthy of proper burial?

The answers will never be known for sure. But because of the many people who’ve worked to preserve the relics of this vanished world, we can explore these mysteries together at Aztalan, Wisconsin’s first farm town.

The rich history of Wisconsin continues to fascinate freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach, an East Coast transplant since 1992.

Visiting Aztalan
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Aztalan State Park is located on Highway Q outside Lake Mills. From I-94, take Highway 89 south into Lake Mills. Turn east onto County B. After 2.5 miles, turn right on County Q. Or, if you’re biking the Glacial Drumlin Trail, leave the trail at Q. The park is about a mile north of the trail. This scenic bike path, which runs almost the entire distance from Madison to Milwaukee, features easy riding and many entry points along its 52 miles of converted rail bed. Call the Lake Mills trail office at (920) 648-8774 for a trail map and bike rentals, or visit The Sandhill Station State Campground is a mile south of the Lake Mills trail office.

The park itself is sparsely signed, but a self-guiding tour brochure introduces Aztalan culture and history, points out where some of the most interesting burials and artifacts were found, and shows the whereabouts of the ancient town’s main features. The tour takes about an hour. The day-use park offers picnic tables and grills, fishing, hiking along the river, and cross-country skiing. Dogs must be leashed and kept in designated areas, out of the village grounds. Visitors can freely explore the grass-covered site and climb the rebuilt temple mounds. But before you pack the kids and car, note that no trails lead through the town site—meaning no access for strollers or wheelchairs. Call Dana White-Quam, the DNR’s park and recreation expert for the South Central Region, at (608) 275-3302 to find out about scheduled hikes and other programming. This summer, you might even get to witness a live archeological dig.

Right now, Aztalan’s interpretive facilities are slim, but that’s soon to change. A new master plan for the park calls for a visitor center featuring an auditorium, audio-visual presentations, displays, classrooms, and space for archeologists to conduct ongoing research. Pending funding and other logistics, the center will be built within the next three to 15 years. Call White-Quam for more information.

Aztalan Historical Museum, just outside the park on Q, celebrates the history of both the pioneer town and its prehistoric predecessor. The museum features artifacts from ancient Aztalan, as well as several 19th century buildings: a one-room schoolhouse, a church, period-furnished pioneer homes and a two-story barn. Though the museum grounds aren’t part of the state park, some Aztalan mounds are located here. One of these, a conical mound originally 50 feet across and six feet high, held an elaborate burial unique in Wisconsin: a young woman wrapped about the shoulders, waist, and knees with three shrouds woven with nearly two thousand shell beads. Robert Birmingham, state archeologist with the State Historical Society, thinks this woman may have been the most important chieftain in Aztalan’s history. At the time of European contact, says Birmingham, female chieftains ruled in parts of the Middle Mississippian culture’s last stronghold, the American Southeast. A statue offering an alternate interpretation of the woman as a priestess is slated for unveiling on the museum grounds this spring. Museum hours are Thursday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., May 17 - September 30. Call (920) 648-4632 for group tours.

After your expedition, head for the homey eateries of nearby Lake Mills. Downtown at 131 N. Main Street, look for a pyramid-shaped roof: that’s the Cafe on the Park (formerly the Pyramid Cafe), styled in tribute to the earthworks of Aztalan. Slake your thirst at the outdoor beer garden at Tyranena Brewing Company on 1025 Owen Street. Tyranena is named after the supposed “stone teepees” (they’re actually natural rock deposits) submerged in Rock Lake across town. Call (920) 648-8699 for beer garden hours; brewery tours given Saturdays at 3:30.