Wisconsin’s First Burial Mounds
(2,500 to 2,200 years ago)
Around 2,500 years ago amazing changes began taking place in Wisconsin. The people who participated in the early Red Ochre complex began placing their cemeteries on small knolls and hills. As time passed, some communities began making their own knolls by carrying earth to sacred locations and building Wisconsin 's first burial mounds. Around the same time, people began using pottery and cultivating small seed-bearing plants like sunflowers, marsh elder and goosefoot.
This set of innovations—gardening, pottery and mound-building—ushers in a way of life that archaeologists call the “Woodland tradition”. Though cemeteries gave way to burial mounds, other aspects of the Red Ochre burial complex survived the transition more or less intact.
The simplest mounds are dome-shaped piles of earth placed over a grave. Some mounds have prepared “mound floors”, where sod was stripped off and clay, sand, charcoal, stone or red ochre was laid down. Some mounds were built in stages. Others incorporate layers of brightly colored earth, stone or charcoal. Bodies were placed in rectangular pits underneath the mounds, in pits dug into unfinished mounds, directly on mound floors, or in stone or earth chambers inside the mounds.
Only two Red Ochre burial mounds have been excavated scientifically. Both were located at the Hilgen Spring mound group in Ozaukee County, excavated in 1968. The people who built the Hilgen Spring mounds prepared the floors by digging down to a layer of bright yellow and red sand. Then they dug grave pits in the center of each mound floor and built hearths and stone piles near the graves. All these features were covered by miniature mounds of black soil. Bone bundles and extended burials were placed in the grave pits, and other bundle burials were placed directly on the mound floors. Dome-shaped piles of yellow sand were then built to complete each mound.
A third early mound was opened by accident in 1877 at Henschell in Sheboygan County , after a plow horse broke through the top of the mound. When the farmer and his neighbors investigated, they found a circle of skeletons of forty to fifty people in sitting positions, facing the center of the mound. A large marine shell from the Gulf Coast had been placed on the floor in the middle of the group.
Many different reports describe sitting burials in mounds. These burials, as the name implies, are placed upright within graves or tombs. The legs are bent or straight, and arms usually hang straight down. So far, no scientific excavations have uncovered a sitting burial in Wisconsin. It is possible that some amateurs interpreted bone bundles as sitting burials, assuming that upright skeletons had collapsed over time. In other cases, amateurs clearly describe extended legs and upright torsos, still in their relative positions.