Middle Woodland and Hopewell
(2,200 to 1,500 years ago)
As the Red Ochre complex faded away, it was replaced by a number of related burial customs grouped under the heading “Middle Woodland”. Small settled communities began to form, continuing the hunting, fishing and gardening way of life established by their ancestors. Middle Woodland people built large dome-shaped mounds, dug individual and communal burial pits, and sometimes buried people in single graves under house floors or in old storage pits. Some Middle Woodland burial sites contain pottery and stone tools manufactured locally. Others contain imported items related to the Havana Hopewell ceremonial complex of Illinois.
Many Middle Woodland mortuary and ceremonial sites have been excavated in the Mississippi and Wisconsin river valleys. Less is known about contemporary sites in eastern or northern Wisconsin. Western communities were apparently engaged in considerable exchange with Havana Hopewell communities in Illinois. Extended and bone bundle burial were favored, and cremation may have been used on occasion.
Middle Woodland tombs and burials in the west sometimes contain offerings like platform pipes, copper breastplates, copper and pearl beads, copper panpipes and ear spools, silver-plated buttons, perforated bear canines, local and imported pottery, and fine knives fashioned from exotic stone like obsidian, Knife River chalcedony or quartzite. Only a quarter of the people buried in western mounds are accompanied by such offerings, and most were given only one object. A very small number of people were richly endowed with offerings—suggesting the presence of significant social divisions.
Connections with the Havana Hopewell seem to be absent in eastern Wisconsin. Excavations there have revealed a wide range of variation in burial type, including extended, flexed and sitting burials and bone bundles. Middle Woodland mounds at the Lake Lawn site in Walworth County were built over a rectangular pit lined with white sand and a thin coating of blue clay, divided into two sections by an earthen partition. The northern half of the tomb produced eight flexed and sitting burials, and the southern half six flexed and bundled burials.
Offerings in eastern tombs and burials include freshwater pearl and shell beads, bone pins, large knives, animal jaw bones, and platform pipes. Grave goods were placed directly with specific individuals in tombs. Archaeologists do not know why eastern peoples did not participate in Hopewellian ceremonialism, like their neighbors to the west. Since Hopewellian offerings are sometimes found in eastern tombs, it seems that they did have access to such items. Perhaps the Middle Woodland residents of eastern Wisconsin made a deliberate choice to be different.
Middle Woodland mounds across Wisconsin typically contain communal tombs, ossuaries or crematory basins. The mounds represent the last stage of funeral ritual at individual gravesites. Bodies were placed within large, rectangular pits, on stone or earthen platforms, or within above-ground stone, clay or log chambers. At least some burial pits were initially covered by matting, fabric or hide, held down by pins, while platforms may have been covered with temporary structures built of wood and bark. When use of the features ended, mounds were constructed over them.
Many Middle Woodland mounds contain evidence of ritual. Some skulls were covered by clay masks or coverings. Some early excavators describe finding tombs poured full of a mixture of liquid clay and ash that had subsequently hardened. Other graves were filled or capped with black muck or blue clay. Many mounds contain a sub-mound or mound core of hardened sediment and/or stone (sometimes containing human remains) that was built over the central burial feature. Red, white, blue and black sediments were favored.
While many graves were capped with conical mounds, not all were. In the 1990's, excavations at the Tillmont site near Prairie du Chien revealed the presence of a non-mounded Middle Woodland communal tomb containing over a dozen people. Offerings were present, but were not of the quality or quantity associated with mounded burials. At the Millville village site in Grant County-- excavated in the 1960's-- archaeologists found the remains of two infants in two trash pits. Three flexed and semi-flexed adults were found in nearby grave pits. None of these burials were accompanied by offerings.
Archaeologists have also found artifacts made of human bone at Hopewellian sites across the Eastern United States. Human bone was used to make jewelry, masks, awls, and musical instruments. Evidence for this practice is very rare in Wisconsin, though a cut and polished leg bone that may have been used as a de-fleshing tool was found at the Price III site in Richland County.