Middle Mississippian – Aztalan
(1,000 to 800 years ago)
Around 1,000 years ago strangers from the south began visiting Wisconsin. Archaeologists classify these people as ‘Middle Mississippians' and tie them to the great temple town of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis . They came from a very different cultural background than Wisconsin 's Late Woodland residents.
Eventually a group of Middle Mississippians moved into a Late Woodland village at Aztalan, in Jefferson County. They conducted Wisconsin 's first ‘extreme site makeover' and re-made the village into a tiny replica of Cahokia. They also imported Cahokian funeral ritual and cemetery styles.
Only two mound burials have been reported at Aztalan. The first, and most famous, is the ‘Princess' burial found under a dome-shaped mound north of the village. The extended burial was laid in a sub-floor pit and wrapped in three wide belts of Middle Mississippian shell disc beads. The second burial consists of a bone bundle found in a linear earthwork separating two enclosures on the east bank of the Crawfish River. This portion of Aztalan is not well understood, and it is possible the burial pre-dates the Mississippian occupation of Aztalan.
When archaeologists excavated the northwestern platform mound at the site, they found the remains of a building that held ten bodies and one bone bundle. They had all been laid out on a woven cattail mat inside the structure. The structure was then burned with the bodies inside. After the fire, another level of the platform mound was built to cover them. The layout of the structure, and the position of the bodies inside, is consistent with accounts of Mississippian and post-contact charnel structures used in the southeastern United States.
The residents of Aztalan, like many cultures across the eastern U.S., apparently stored the bodies of high-ranking individuals for years. The bodies of the dead were initially removed to special charnel structures where they decomposed naturally or were prepared by undertakers. Afterwards, the bones or prepared bodies were moved to shrines or temples devoted to storage or display of the cleaned remains.
Non-mounded graves—perhaps those of less wealthy people— are located in different parts of the village. Two were found on the side of the knoll in the southeastern quarter of the village. The first contained two flexed infants buried with a turtle shell. The second contained a flexed adult burial. The flexed position of the remains suggests that they are affiliated with the Late Woodland residents of the site, since Mississippians favored extended burial. A third grave containing an extra leg bone was found south of the northwest platform mound. Other graves have been found on the southeastern knoll, along the eastern edge of the village, north of the northeastern platform mound, outside the southwestern corner of the village wall and in the village plaza.
Perhaps the most mysterious burial feature at Aztalan was found by early excavators. Dozens of charred bundles of human arm bones, tied with woven cords, were found in the “largest oval mound in the enclosure”. Each bundle contained the remains of six to twelve arms. They were found lying together in a layer of ash and capped with a layer of clay.
Other human bone has been found scattered across the site. Portions of articulated legs, hands and other body parts have been found in refuse pits and storage features. Broken, burned, crushed and cut human bone has been found mixed with animal bone in trash heaps. Some have interpreted this to mean that human sacrifice or ritual cannibalism was practiced at Aztalan. Others disagree, and suggest that the bone is left over from scaffolds or charnel structures.