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What is a cemetery? A Guide to Wisconsin's Burial Sites

Could you recognize a cemetery, if you wandered into one? Don't be so sure! People have lived and died in Wisconsin for over 12,000 years, and cemeteries have taken many different forms as time has passed.

Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic cemeteries (12,000 to 7,000 years ago)

The oldest documented burial sites in Wisconsin were left behind by Wisconsin's First Peoples over 9,000 years ago. Only two of these enigmatic burial places have been identified. At the Renier site, in Brown County, Wisconsin, the cremated remains of a young adult were buried with a set of burned and broken spear-points. A similar cache of heat-shattered projectile points has been found at the Pope site in Waupaca County, Wisconsin. Though no human remains were found with them, the assemblage is similar in type and condition to that at Renier, and may represent a second cremation.

The incidence of cremation in the pre-contact period is probably heavily under-reported, since burned bone and ash may degrade over time or may be mis-identified as belonging to animals. There is no evidence that more than one cremation was left behind at either the Pope or Reiner sites, nor that either site was marked in any way. Wisconsin's earliest cemeteries are thus very vulnerable to disturbance and destruction.

Old Copper Complex (7,000 to 3,500 years ago)

Cemeteries that seem more familiar to Wisconsin's modern citizens were established by participants in the Old Copper Complex—a technological and ritual phenomenon that spread across the Upper Midwest 7,000 years ago.

Because of Wisconsin's harsh winter, it was not always possible to bury the deceased right away. This may be why the oldest burial sites in Wisconsin contain only single cremations. Though cremation was still practiced during the Old Copper complex, new methods of burial were used too. Some bodies were elevated on platforms and left for about a year, until only bones remained. The platforms were placed on post scaffolds, or hoisted into trees. They were probably wrapped in cloth, matting or hide, or placed in temporary coffins fashioned from canoes, bark or hollowed logs.

When enough time had passed, the bones were gathered up and buried in a bundle. Some bone bundles include all the parts of a skeleton, some just the largest bones, and some contain only skulls and long bones. Bundle burials found in Wisconsin can contain the bones from a single person or many people. People were buried in separate bundles in small graves, or mixed together in massive communal graves called “ossuaries”.

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