Sunday, July 3, 2016

Effigy Mounds National Monument

I realized the other day that I never got around to posting anything about our visit two months ago to Effigy Mounds National Monument. Effigy Mounds was the main reason we spent a couple days in southwest Wisconsin on our way home in May.
Sign reminding park visitors to be respectful and to not indulge in looting.
The park is actually located in Iowa just north of the town of Marquette, but is directly across the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. It's an interesting place. Native American peoples inhabited the river valley for thousands of years. Over the centuries, they constructed multiple mounds on the top of the bluffs that overlook the river.
Looking downriver toward Marquette, Iowa.

It really had me wondering what the area between the Iowa and Wisconsin sides was like before the Corps of Engineers began messing with the river. Thanks to the string of locks and dams that have channelized the Mississippi, in the area near Prairie du Chien there isn't much land between the water and the high ground. That wouldn't have been true when the mound building cultures were at their peak. How much archeological evidence was lost when the dams went in, how many village sites wound up under water? We'll never know.
The trail has multiple switchbacks similar to this one. It takes awhile to get to the top.

The Wisconsin side is lower than the Iowa side, so a person does wonder just what motivated the mound builders to locate their burial mounds where they did: at the top of the bluffs. There had to have been a religious reason; it couldn't have just been that they didn't want to waste the river bottoms, the level ground good for growing corn and squash, on cemetery space. For sure they put some thought into it because the hike up from the river level isn't fast or easy. The bluffs are steep; in places it's a sheer drop-off.
The S.O. ignoring a sign reminding people they're at danger of falling a long, long way if they're not careful.
You do a lot of walking, switch-backing up the side of a pretty steep hill for quite a ways, before you get to the top and the level where the most impressive mounds are located.
People can't read. There were social trails made by people who had decided they didn't have the patience for switchbacks either on the way up or, more likely, the way down.

It is, of course, really hard to photograph mounds when you're standing next to them. You can tell it's a mound when you're right there staring at it, but you don't get much of a sense of what it's like when you look at a ground-level photo later.
The mound to the left of the trail is roughly circular in shape. It's one of a line of circular mounds.
Effigy Mounds gets its name from the fact that not only does it have a lot of mounds, quite a few of them are in distinct shapes, primarily bears. Or at least quadrupeds that look an awful lot like bears. There are a lot of small bear mounds, one medium size bear mound, and one humongous bear mound. Are they actually representations of bears? Good question, but they look more like bears than anything else so it seems like an appropriate label.
It really does look like a bear when you're standing next to it.
The park's visitor center has a small museum and provides quite a bit of information about the history of the site and what's known about it. The mounds did experience the usual looting that most of the highly visible (and mounds are pretty noticeable) sites have been subjected to, some of which was actually fairly recent. There was a bizarre scandal in 2015 when a former park superintendent who had been retired for almost 20 years decided to return a box containing human remains. He'd had it stashed in his garage. I'd love to know how he got the bones in the first place (stole them from the park's collections rather than comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act when it was passed a couple decades ago?), but who knows? Definitely an odd story, but not relevant to current park management or the typical visitor experience.
One of the overlooks along the trail.

In any case, I thought the exhibits were nicely done considering it's not a very large space. I suffered my usual plexiglass envy -- every time I visit a museum that enjoys a better budget or has benefited from professional design services I find myself fantasizing about ways to keep visitors from being able to touch the stuff in the Baraga County Historical Museum -- as well as admiring the curation. I'm always blown away by the way museum professionals can take a minimal amount of material, set it up in a pretty small display area, and make it interesting.

I can see making a return trip to Effigy Mounds if we're ever in the area. We only walked one trail so did not see everything -- and even if we had, it's a nice peaceful place to pause for a few hours or even a full day. If you do the longest loop, you end up walking about 7 miles. The trails are wide and well maintained. If it wasn't for the hill climb, I'd describe them as easy, almost accessible, but the steepness of the grade might push them into the moderate category.

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