Aztalan State Park
Information Compiled and Submitted to Genealogy Trails by Sara Hemp
Aztalan is the site of an ancient Native American settlement that flourished during the 10th to 13th centuries.
Aztalan is a Wisconsin State Park located just south of the town of Aztalan, Wisconsin and established in 1952. It was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The park covers 172 acres along the Crawfish River.
Aztalan was first settled around 900 by a Native American culture known as the Middle Mississippian Tradition. The most famous example of a Middle Mississippian settlement is at Cahokia, Illinois. These settlements are characterized by the construction of mounds, stockades, and houses, by decorated pottery and agricultural practices. There are also elements of the Woodland culture found here.
The residents were involved in trade. Some of the items found include copper from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, shells from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and stone from other areas of the Midwest.
Sometime between the years 1200 and 1300, the Aztalan settlement was abandoned for reasons that remain unknown to this day.
Most of the residents dwelt in circular or rectangular houses between the river and the eastern secondary wall. The placement of the structures suggests that the layout was planned, but not in rows such as are found along streets. Posts for the house frames were either placed in individual holes, or in a trench dug slightly narrower than the posts. Walls were then completed with wattle and daub, a plaster mixture of grass and clay, and the roof covered with bark or thatch. The doorway usually faced south, to keep out the winter's north winds. Inside, a single family slept on pole frame beds, covered with tamarack boughs, deer skins, and furs. A fire was kept in the middle of the house, and a hole in the roof let out the smoke. Pits in the house stored foods like corn, nuts, and seeds in woven bags, while perishable foods like meat were probably stored outside prior to cooking.
The site was well chosen to provide a variety of food sources, and other resources. The staple of the diet was corn, and other plants were also gathered as food, such as acorns, hickory nuts, and berries. The main source of meat was deer, and they also caught and ate beaver, elk, fox, muskrats, and raccoons. They also hunted birds, turtles, and mussels, and caught fish in the Crawfish River directly next to the site, where they had set up rock barriers called fish weirs at key points, one of which is still visible when the river is low. Some of the fish found have been catfish, bass, suckers, buffalo fish, pike, drum fish, and gar.
Raw materials for tools and building were available in the area, or could be obtained through trade from remote places. Trees nearby provided wood for posts for house walls and stockades, bows and arrow shafts, bowls and spoons, and firewood. Smaller tree branches and grass were used for bedding and roofs. Shells from the river could be used for jewelry, beads, spoons, and digging tools, and clay was dug for pottery.
The most obvious features of Aztalan are its pyramid-shaped platform mounds and its stockade.
There are three platform mounds on the site. The largest is the one in the southwest corner of the stockade; one almost as large is located in the northwest corner. The smallest of the three is along the east side of the settlement, near the Crawfish River (labeled "West Branch of Rock River" on the plates). The hill in the southeast corner is a natural gravel knoll, not built by the inhabitants.
The largest mound was built in three stages, with a set of steps leading to the top, where a structure was built over the entire flat top. The mound was covered with a clay cap, probably to enhance its appearance. Corn was stored in pits inside the structure, but there are several theories about why this corn was kept here, and the reason for the structure itself. This may have been the storage facility for the entire village; storage for food just for the top village officials; it may have been used for ceremonies and rituals; or it could have been a house for the village officials. This structure was rebuilt each time a larger stage of the mound was built on top of the old.
The northwestern mound was also built in three stages. A special structure, approximately 4 m by 2 m (12 ft by 5 ft), with its long axis towards the northeast/southwest, was built on the west side of the mound, with a doorway in its southwest corner, and covered with a mixture of clay, willow branches, and grass. The floor was covered with a mat of what may have been cattails, on which ten people were placed side by side, with their heads towards the doorway, and the bones of another person were bundled together with cord. Once this construction was complete, and the bodies were inside, the building was burned.
The eastern mound had a large open-walled structure, about 40 by 90 ft, built on top of it, with firepits lined with white sand inside. The function of this mound and structure remain unclear.
Additionally, to the northwest of the stockaded area, a row of round mounds extends northward. When archaeologists dug in these mounds during the 1920s, they did not find the burial sites they had expected. Instead, each mound had a large post set in a pit in its center, surrounded by gravel and soil, with the pit capped with clay and gravel to hold the post steady. These mounds have been termed "marker mounds" because they may have been used to mark the site for travelers, but this is not certain; they may also have been used for announcements, message relays, or for calculations of astronomical phenomena.
The settlement was surrounded on the north, west, and south sides by a stockade, a wall of logs set into the ground vertically. These were made by digging narrow holes in the ground with digging sticks, then lifting the posts into position and setting them into the holes. The stockade was then finished by weaving flexible willow branches through the posts, and plastering the whole with a mixture of clay and grass to fill in the gaps, a technique similar to wattle and daub.
A smaller stockade was built within the outer one, around the housing areas, at some point. It is not clear whether both stockades existed simultaneously, for a layered defense, or one was built after the other fell into disuse.
The outer stockade was described by Lapham (v.i.) as being "631 feet long at the north end, 1,149 feet long on the west side and 700 feet on the south side; making a total length of wall of 2,750 feet. The ridge or wall is about 22 feet wide, and from one foot to five in height." It had at least 33 square watchtowers at regular intervals along its length, remarkably similar in form and placement to European fortifications, in addition to some more along the secondary walls. Rather than having a gate to protect the entrance, though, the builders constructed the entrance in such a way that it was camouflaged when one looked at it from the outside, blending in with the wall around it.
During the time Aztalan was inhabited, two sets of outer stockades were built. The posts of the first one eventually rotted, and the second one burned and was never rebuilt. It is not clear whether the purpose of the stockade was to keep out invaders, or if it was built for another reason.
In 1835, a young man named Timothy Johnson discovered the ruins of the ancient settlement, and in December of that year and January of 1836, N. F. Hyer committed the first rough survey of the site, publishing the discovery in the Milwaukie Advertiser of January 1837. According to Lapham:
"The name Aztalan was given to this place by Mr. Hyer, because, according to Humboldt, the Aztecs, or ancient inhabitants of Mexico, had a tradition that their ancestors came from a country at the north, which they called Aztalan; and the possibility that these may have been remains of their occupancy, suggested the idea of restoring the name. It is made up of two Mexican words, atl, water, and an, near; and the country was probably so named from its proximity to large bodies of water. Hence the natural inference that the country about these great lakes was the ancient residence of the Aztecs."
Hyer wrote that "We are determined to preserve these ruins from being ruined." However, in 1838, President Martin Van Buren refused a request by Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett to withdraw the site from public sale, and the site was sold for $22. In the following years, the surface was plowed, the mounds were leveled for easier farming, pottery shards and "Aztalan brick" were hauled away by the wagonload to fill in potholes in township roads, and souvenir hunters took numerous artifacts. In 1850, Increase A. Lapham, an author, scientist, and naturalist, surveyed the site, and urged its preservation. At the time, the stockade was still standing, though not in the condition it had once been.
Maps of Aztalan
by Increase A. Lapham in 1850
In 1919, archaeological excavations began at Aztalan, under the direction of Dr. S. A. Barrett. In 1920, the Landmarks Committee of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin under Publius V. Lawson started a new effort to save what remained of Aztalan, supported by the Friends of Our Native Landscape and the Wisconsin Archeological Society. They made their first purchase of some of the land in 1921, three acres west of the stockade with eight conical mounds, and presented it to the Wisconsin Archeological Society.
Work for preservation continued. In 1936, the state's archeological and historical societies petitioned the federal government for funds to reconstruct the stockade without success. In 1941, the newly-founded Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society began an energetic campaign to preserve the stockade area.
In 1945, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill directing the State Planning Board to study the possibility of establishing a state park at Aztalan. In 1947, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a resolution requesting the State Conservation Commission to purchase Aztalan. 120 acres were purchased to this end in 1948, and the Wisconsin Archeological Society and the Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society donated their holdings. Aztalan opened to the public as Aztalan State Park in 1952.
Aztalan was designated a registered National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
In 1968, portions of the stockade wall were reconstructed by placing new posts in the original holes. A section of this was also covered with the wattle and daub, but this has since worn away or been removed.
WI DNR Aztalan State Park site
The Antiquities of Wisconsin, Increase A. Lapham, 1855 - University of Wisconsin Library
Chapter 3 - Ancient Works in the Basin of the Rock River; Section 2 - Ancient Works at and in the Vicinity of Aztalan
Plate 34 - Ancient Works at Aztalan
Plate 35 - Map Showing the Ancient Works at and near Aztalan
The archeological site Aztalan is located south-southeast of the town of the same name in what is now Jefferson County, Wisconsin. It is a prehistoric Native American site of the Middle Mississippian era, radio-carbon dated at 900 to 700 BP. The site was discovered in 1836 and superficially surveyed in 1837 by N. F. Hyer. In 1850 a more complete survey was done by Dr. I. A. Lapham, but he excavated very little. The most important excavation was begun in 1919 by Dr. Samuel A. Barrett, who published his findings in the book Ancient Aztalan in 1933. The site became a state park in Wisconsin in 1948, and there has been a lot of work to restore parts of the site because much of the top layer had been destroyed by cultivation.
According to Dr. Barrett, Aztalan is most closely affiliated with the findings at the Cahokia site (Barrett, 1970, p. 370). Robert E. Ritzenthaler theorizes that the inhabitants of Aztalan migrated directly from Cahokia to this site (Barrett, 1970, p. V). From Barrett's evidence, he concluded that "cannibalism was practiced extensively" (Barrett, 1970, p. 363).
Aztalan was a village. It was enclosed by an earthworks ridge. Barrett states that the site was not used as a ceremonial center, but as a town surrounded by a stockade. This stockade was made of wooden posts and seems to have been interrupted at intervals by gates and watchtowers. Inside the stockade was the main village of circular and rectangular houses. Easily defended, there must have been some fear of attack. There are large amounts of lithics and ceramics, as well as large numbers of burial mounds and refuse heaps in the area. Trading networks must have been widespread, because many items were native to faraway areas.
Lithics: There were hundreds of stone projectile points, notched and unnotched, mostly unserrated. These had been fashioned from either quartzite, chert, or quartz. Included in the specimens are knives, drills, chisels, spades, axes, celts (ungrooved, edged stone tools), mauls, net sinkers, grinding stones, pecking stones, sharpening stones, smoothing stones, pipes, and cooking stones, along with others that have questionable uses. (Barrett, 1970, pp. 265-85)
Ceramics: "There can be little doubt that we have here two major types, the pottery of at least two distinct cultural groups" (Barrett, 1970, p. 299). One characteristic type of pottery found at Aztalan is Lake Michigan, which is circular-mouthed and grit-tempered. Another grit-tempered type is the angular- mouthed Woodland pottery. The most common type of pottery at Aztalan is Middle Mississippi, a shell-tempered pottery. There are also transitional types. Barrett acknowledges that the earlier, grit-tempered types were more characteristic of the northern early American cultures, while Mississippian type was more directly related to Aztalan's cultural source of the south.
Flora: There seem to be no direct evidence of plant remains, except for the use of wood in structure building and firepits. When Aztalan had been used originally, it was most likely situated between the extensive forests of the east and the prairie of the west. It is also next to a river, and close to several lakes. To the south there existed a marsh. Each of these environments would have supplied Aztalan with their normal products of vegetable life, including wild rice from the marsh. Very little actual evidence of flora was found, except for "a few charred fruits, apparently choke-cherries, a few grass or weed seeds, and a few squash seeds" were found to give any indication of floral remains. (Barrett, 1970, p. 356) Barrett states that in all probability nuts and berries were also consumed. (Barrett, 1970, p. 356)
Bone Implements: Most of the tools made of bone were awls, and the animals from which they came were largely unidentifiable. One bone object was used as an arrow-head. One elk scapula was used as an ear spool.
Animal Remains: Animals used for food eventually found themselves in the garbage pits. These have been identified as bird, bear, raccoon, buffalo, moose, deer, squirrel, woodchuck, rabbit, wolf, turtle and fish.
Antler Implements: Both elk and deer antlers were used as tools, especially as projectile points. Some of the tools show evidence of being used as rubbing or grinding instruments. They were also used for chisels, but most items made of antler are difficult to interpret.
Shells: The shells found at Aztalan were either used for decoration or as hoes. Most of the decorative shells seems to have come from the Gulf of Mexico. Hoes tend to be the shells of river mussels. Much of the other shell remains appear to have been discarded after the contents had been consumed.
Source: Barret, S. A. Ancient Aztalzn. Introduction to the Greenwood reprint by Rovert E. Ritzenthaler. Westport, Connecticut Greenwood Press. 1970.
Aztalan Princess ?
Few archaeological sites in the nation can equal the mysterious allure of the thousand-year old ruins near Lake Mills called Aztalan. Studded with conical and huge, flat-topped pyramidal mounds built by a Native American community around the twelfth century AD, it once held a bustling village of 500, surrounded by a massive, fortified wall of logs and wattle. Apparently an important trade and ceremonial center, Aztalan was a northern outpost of a much larger city in Illinois near East St. Louis called Cahokia, which also featured pyramidal mounds.
Cahokia once supported about 35,000 citizens and was easily reachable via the Mississippi River system - giving our name of Mississippians to the people of these unusual places. But Aztalan, first discovered by settlers in 1836, received its name because of the largely discredited idea that it was somehow connected to the Aztecs. The village flourished for about three hundred years, then disappeared suddenly around 1200 AD for unknown reasons. At the end, the entire place was burned to the ground.
But they did leave one resident behind, safely deposited in a burial mound, who poses perhaps the biggest mystery of all. Unearthed in 1919 by Dr. S.A. Barrett from her grave situated on what would have been a high point overlooking the Crawfish River, she was dubbed "the Princess" for her splendid costume. Her body, found lying on its back, was lavishly draped in seashell beads. She was wrapped in three separate "belts" of beads, from shells found in local river mussels and in the Gulf of Mexico. Counting a few that either were separated from the belts later or were thrown into the grave separately, a total of 1,996 beads were buried with her. Each of the belts was about four feet long and six inches wide, and was constructed with the shells graded from largest to smallest from one end to the other.
Measurements of the skeleton show that she was five feet six or seven inches, tall for that time, but that she had a spinal deformity. She was estimated to be about twenty-five at the time of her death.
Although the mound was originally forty-seven feet in diameter and probably stood about six feet above the earth surrounding it, most of its soil was hauled away over the years. Judging from the original size of the mound and the richness of the burial garb, this young woman was evidently a member of the ruling class. Studies of other Mississippian type cultures that remained around southeastern United States at the time settlers came show that women could occupy high places of power.
THE OFFERING STONE FOR A PRIESTESS?
Elite ruling families lived in special houses set atop some of the flat, pyramidal mounds. Some think she may have been a type of priestess/shaman. Whatever her ancient title actually was, a former historical museum groundskeeper, Don Schuler, made a discovery that may show she was a woman of religious significance to her people. While clearing a tangle of brush behind the museum, Schuler found a flat, slightly hollowed-out slab of stone set into the earth, about two foot square, and it struck him that this was not a natural formation. Schuler called in an archaeological expert who agreed the stone's placement implied it might have been an offering place for the burial shrine.
Some Native Americans began making pilgrimages to burn sweet sage on the stone and leave offerings such as a heart-shaped rock from Mount Shasta, said Schuler. The offering stone, located about eighty feet from the mound, was later blessed in a special ceremony by a Native American shaman that was witnessed by Schuler. The shaman lit a smudgepot, said Schuler, and placed three pieces of charcoal on the stone, lighting one with a stick formed of sage and cedar. Although he only lit one piece of charcoal, the other two pieces of charcoal immediately leaped into flame, too. "I saw it myself," said Schuler. "He never touched the other two p ieces with his fire."
Some archaeologists, however, caution that it's possible the woman was a member of a Woodland tribe and not from Aztalan at all, especially since the mound was found outside the village enclosure. The offering rock may have been placed by Woodland people as well. And the origins of another stone, a boulder wrapped in birch bark that was, again, unearthed outside the walls are also unknown. Area tribal members asked what the boulder might be at the time it was excavated referred to it as a "spirit stone." But the mixture of Woodland and Mississippian artifacts continues to be one of the most confusing elements about the site for those professionals who still try to fathom its secrets.
It's amazing that anything remains of Aztalan to study. When the site was first mapped in 1850, over forty mounds existed. Only a fraction remained by 1912, when some portions of the site were purchased by area residents and named Mound Park. The land had been sold as cropland at one point. Farmers hauled away soil from the pyramid mounds to level the fields, and souvenir hunters dug for artifacts. Others coveted the burned clay/grass wall remnants known as "Aztalan Brick" which were hauled out by the wagonload to fill rut s in area roads.
The pioneer town of Aztalan that sprang up next to the grounds was located on a busy crossroad, and developers expected it to be a grand city some day. In fact, in 1839 it lost being named state capitol by one vote. The archaeological site was originally tagged "The Ancient City" by settlers and local Woodland Indian tribes alike. The fact that Woodland artifacts were found throughout the site suggests at least some "locals" were on friendly terms with the Mississippians. Not all were, however.
The stockade walls themselves are suggestive of warfare, and bones that appear to have been butchered or cracked to remove the marrow were found here. These raise the spectre of ritual cannibalism, a not-unknown practice which usually involved consuming parts of conquered enemies in order to take on their courage or other desired characteristics. Some have suggested there was more to the cannibalism than this, that the Aztalaners degenerated toward the end and made human flesh a diet staple, but anthropologists say the evidence doesn't support that idea.
Strangely, both Aztalan's and Cahokia's inhabitants cleared out around 1200 AD. Some people still speculate that the Mississippians migrated south to become the Aztec population of Mexico. Readers Digest Mysteries of the Americas says, "The Aztec were latecomers to the Valley of Mexico, settling there in the 12th or 13th century AD, following a long and arduous migration from the north." Their new home was named Mexico-Tenochtitlan, "place of the Mexica and Tenochca," after the two populations who made the journey. Could the two factions have been the Aztalaners and Cahokians? Few anthropologists think so, but according to Schuler, some tribal members he's talked to believe it's true.
Schuler and other historians find further evidence of connections between Aztalan, Cahokia and the Aztecs in the way key elements of each village's mounds and main structures align with one another and with features of the landscape. A rise near Aztalan named Christmas Hill by settlers, for instance, lines up with the Princess Mound in the same "azimuth," or distance in degrees from the North Star, as do similar structures in Cahokia and in Aztec settlements in Mexico, said Schuler.
Of course, scientists note that when investigating societies of people who are no longer here to tell us their true intentions, we shouldn't leap to conclusions. Dr. Lynne Goldstein of the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University stated that the theories about the "priestess" are certainly possible, but cautions they have not yet been scientifically tested or verified, especially in regard to the offering rock. That doesn't mean, however, that they should not be considered, she emphasized.
Restoration is ongoing. Some of the conical mounds that were once used to hold huge marker posts were rebuilt on the grounds in 1921, and in 1948 the park was donated to the Wisconsin Conservation Dept., which bought the rest of the site and named it Aztalan State Park. The largest mound, a flat pyramid built on a natural terrace with a series of steps to the top, was rebuilt in 1951 although it lacks its original covering of clay. In 1952, reconstruction of the stockade wall posts began.
Today the "Princess Mound" can be seen directly behind the settler's Baptist Church that serves as the Aztalan Historical Museum. For years, the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibited the burial contents`although a purchased male skeleton was used since the original female bones had disintegrated. The display was scuttled decades ago, however, after the museum moved to a new building. The shell belts are stored in its collection vaults.
Incidentally, one of the greatest mysteries of Aztalan is where the other inhabitants were buried! Other than the princess mound and a few isolated remains, no burial grounds or mounds have been located anywhere nearby. Bodies may have been left to the open air and/or carried away as bone bundles to be deposited elsewhere, but the people of Aztalan did not leave their dead near the sacred city for today's scientists (or yesterday's looters) to find. Whoever the people of Aztalan were, they probably would have considered that a good thing.
Besides the old church that serves as museum and the small log cabin that doubles as gift shop, there are several other pioneer-era buildings on the grounds furnished with period articles. Aztalan State Park Historical Museum is located in the restored settler's Baptist Church. Aztalan State Park is located 3 miles east of Lake Mills on Cty. Hwy Q. It is open May through October from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and features parking and rest areas and a self-guided walking tour of the grounds. Please note: as with all mound parks, this area is considered sacred ground by Native American tribes and should be treated with respect, and federal law strictly prohibits any type of digging or destructive acts.
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