Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town

By Robert Birmingham and Lynne G. Goldstein

Paperback: $14.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-362-6

152 pages, 90 b/w photos, illus. & maps, 6 x 9"


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Aztalan has remained a mystery since the early 19th century when it was discovered by settlers who came to the Crawfish River, 50 miles west of Milwaukee. Who were the early indigenous people who inhabited this place? When did they live here? Why did they disappear? Robert Birmingham and Lynne Goldstein attempt to unlock some of the mysteries, providing insights and information about the group of people who first settled here in 1100 A.D. Filled with maps, drawings, and photographs of artifacts, this volume examines a time before modern Native American people settled in this area.

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This book is part of the Wisconsin First Nations: American Indian Studies in Wisconsin collection. Developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin American Indian tribes, Wisconsin Public Television, and the Wisconsin Historical Society, this collection of resources provides educators and pre-service teachers accurate and authentic educational materials for teaching about the American Indian Nations of Wisconsin.

Note: This book meets and exceeds the requirements of the Wisconsin American Indian Education Act (Act 31).

Robert Birmingham is the former Wisconsin State Archaeologist (1989-2004) at the Wisconsin Historical Society and the author and editor of many publications on Wisconsin archaeology. He took his undergraduate and graduate school training (M.S.) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has conducted fieldwork throughout the state. He is the senior editor of the Wisconsin Archeological Society special volumes "Wisconsin Rock Art" and "Wisconsin Archaeology" and the recipient from that organization of the Increase Lapham research medal for outstanding contributions to the field of archaeology. He received the Steinberg Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press for the 2000 book "Indian Mounds of Wisconsin" written with Leslie Eisenberg. He now teaches anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and writes from his home in Madison. Forthcoming books are "Spirits of Earth: Effigy Mounds of Madison and the Four Lakes"and "Skunk Hill: A Ceremonial Indian Community During the Great Depression."

Lynne Goldstein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University where she has worked since 1996.Previously, she spent 21 years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her BA in Anthropology is from Beloit, and her Ph.D. in Anthropology is from Northwestern. Goldstein has conducted fieldwork in various places, but especially in Illinois, Wisconsin, and California.She has worked with Native American tribes in Wisconsin and elsewhere, including collaborative work in developing Wisconsin's burial law.In addition to a regionally based research program in Southeastern Wisconsin, Goldstein has examined late prehistoric societies and mortuary practices. She has served in many roles in national and regional repatriation debates, discussions, and committees, including 15 years as a member of the Smithsonian's Repatriation Review Committee. Most recent research has been focused on the Aztalan site; she has worked at or around Aztalan since 1977, and since 1998, has directed a project to integrate and summarize all known Aztalan data.

Interviewwith Bob Birmingham

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about the mysteries of Aztalan?

Aztalan is Wisconsin's most famous archaeological site and is a state park visited by tens of thousands of people each year. It has exciting stories to tell, yet there was no modern book on the site. I'd hope this book would be a good introduction for visitors, and one that would draw more attention to the place.

WHS Press: What are your research interests concerning Aztalan?

I am most interested in mysteries of what brought these people to the banks of the Crawfish River north from the city of Cahokia, and why they left.

WHS Press: What do you want your readers to learn from this book?

That a world class cultural wonder is located within their midst. Quite a bit about it is known through archaeological and historical research, but there are still many mysteries that stir the imagination. It is Wisconsin's Stonehenge.

WHS Press: What do you find most fascinating about Aztalan?

The grip it has on visitors. People are genuinely moved by visits and become very attached to the site because of its scenic quality and mystery

WHS Press: How can this book serve as a guide to touring Aztalan State Park?

A chapter in the book actually walks the visitor around the site.

Interviewwith Lynne Goldstein

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about the mysteries of Aztalan?

Aztalan is the most famous archaeological site in Wisconsin and it is in a prime location between Milwaukee and Madison, yet the general public knows very little about it. I would like people to have a greater appreciation for what is there.

WHS Press: What are your research interests concerning Aztalan?

My interests focus especially on the structure and layout of the site and how space was used within the site. I am interested in the organization of Aztalan and why the people who lived there put things where they did. I am also interested in Late Woodland and Mississippian ritual practices and mounds.

WHS Press: What do you want your readers to learn from this book?

I want readers to learn that about Wisconsin's ancient past, and that not all Indians were hunters and gatherers who lived in teepees. I would like them to come to appreciate the complexity of Aztalan and the degree of organization required to plan the layout of the town, build the mounds, and create the artifacts.

WHS Press: What do you find most fascinating about Aztalan?

The intricacies of its structure and plan.

WHS Press: How can this book serve as a guide to touring Aztalan State Park?

The book outlines many aspects of the site and life of Mississippian people, so the reader can use the book with its maps to walk around the park to try and visualize what life may have been like. You can stand on the mounds and try to picture the houses, the plaza, and the agricultural fields. You can try to imagine some of the ceremonies. Hopefully, people will be able to better imagine the ancient town of Aztalan.

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John H. Boihahn, Wisconsin State Archaeologist
"Aztalan has fired the imagination of generations of Wisconsin residents. Not surprisingly, it has been a magnet for antiquarians, archaeologists, and sight seekers. Robert A. Brimingham and Lynne G. Goldstein trace the story of the public's fascination with Aztalan and the archaeological investigations that have been undertaken. They weave this information into the rich tapestry of Native American traditional history and historical accounts to bring the lives of the people who lived, worked, and worshipped at Aztalan to life. This book provides the most current and up-to-date synthesis of Wisconsin's first farming community. It serves to remind us again of the diversity of our experiences and the commonality of our lives."

Tom Emerson, Adjunct Professor, Anthropology, ITARP Specialist in North American Eastern Woodlands archaeology, especially of the Upper Mississippi River Valley region
"Birmingham has once again demonstrated his not inconsiderable ability to make the late prehistoric people of the Midwest come alive. In Aztalan he and his colleague Lynne Goldstein, have revealed the perilous nature of 12th century life in southern Wisconsin where a group of colonists from the great center of Cahokia near St. Louis maintained a tenuous foothold for two centuries in this frontier area. These lordly intruders married and traded with the local common folk, worshiped sky deities and the forces of fertility, were ruled by families of nobles, and were involved in nearly continuous brutal warfare with their neighbors that left extensive evidence in the mutilated remains of their enemies. In the 13th century Aztalan succumbed to hostile forces and its people and their fortress disappeared forever in a massive conflagration that left only the fire-baked walls found by early European settlers over 500 years later. An exciting read for both the general public and professionals, in Aztalan the authors bring us the story of native life in the Old Midwest as it really was with all of its joys and sorrows. They make the mute relics found by archaeologists speak and they tell an exciting story in human terms about both the wonders and tragedies of the lives of native peoples centuries before Columbus' monumental discovery in 1492 changed the New World forever."

This feature by William Wineke appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on Sunday, March 19, 2006.

Examining A Wisconsin Indian Mystery

One of the great historic sites of Wisconsin remains pretty much as much a mystery today as it did when it was discovered in the early 19th century.

Aztalan, located near Lake Mills on the Crawfish River, is the abandoned home of 11th-century Indians. It is marked by flat-top earthen mounds which seem to be smaller versions of mounds found in Mexico and Central America that date from approximately the same period.

In "Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press: $14.95), Robert A. Birmingham and Lynne G. Goldstein set out to solve the mysteries of the settlement.

One of which originally appeared to be that the residents of Aztalan were cannibals.

"Early excavations at Aztalan unearthed a surprising number of scattered human bones discarded in refuse pits, fireplaces and refuse deposits. ... The bones and bone fragments found here represent all parts of the skeleton and many show clear signs of cutting, dismemberment, breaking and charring ..."

Birmingham and Goldstein, however, surmise that the Aztalan settlers were not cannibals. The bones, they say, may well have come from "well-documented Mississippian funerary customs" that include "dismemberment, bone-processing, bundling and eventual reburial ..."

However, they point out, "what is unusual about Aztalan as compared to other period sites ... is that so much fragmentary and broken and cut human bone was discarded. This is another one of the Aztalan mysteries that needs to be solved."

In the end, no one really knows why the Indian residents left.

The residents may have been cut off from their parent community. Or climate change could have made life there untenable.

"Whatever the case, a long life would not have been expected for such a town. ... Native American towns and villages typically moved after several generations due to such practical factors as depletion of firewood in the area and soil exhaustion."

This feature by Tom Heinen appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on June 10, 2006

Preserving a civilization Aztalan State Park could develop into major visitor site

Stand atop the pyramidal platform mound at Aztalan State Park near dawn, peer through the mists of time and imagine an exotically ornamented chief welcoming the rising sun with outstretched arms and sacred rituals.

At first blush, the scene seems more reminiscent of Aztecs or Incas than of North American Indians. That's what the first Anglo to map and name it thought when he saw the ruins in 1837.

But the ancient site's mounds and mysteries are homegrown.

Few motorists know any of this as they speed along I-94 near Lake Mills between Milwaukee and Madison. Many associate the name Aztalan with the motorcyclists they glimpse on the dirt motocross trails at Aztalan Cycle Park on private land next to the freeway, about three miles north of the site.

All of that could change.

The Friends of Aztalan State Park is launching a $1 million fund drive this month to help build a visitors' center with interpretive displays that could make what is touted as Wisconsin's premier archaeological site come alive. A park master plan approved in 2003 estimates 400,000 or more visitors could be drawn each year by a center and other improvements.

Aztalan's heavily fortified, well-planned town of 350 to 500 Indians was the northernmost outpost of what is known as the Mississippian Indian civilization. The town arose about 1050 amid the existing Woodland Indians and was abandoned by about 1250, for reasons still unknown.

Follow the archaeological trail down to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in southern Illinois, about eight miles from St. Louis, Mo., and you encounter the ruins of a Mississippian city that once supported 10,000 to 15,000 people.

Its main platform mound alone is so huge that its upper level still stands 100 feet above the surrounding plaza, and its base takes up at least 14 acres. Remains of at least five "woodhenges" circular placements of poles that used the sun to determine religiously and agriculturally important things such as equinoxes and solstices have been found.

Cahokia's interpretive center which includes an audio-visual show and a large, walk-through diorama drew 500,000 to 600,000 visitors annually after opening in 1989, said Mark Esarey, the site's manager. The count now ranges from about 325,000 to 425,000, depending on the hours of operation.

Cahokia was the center of a Mississippian culture that arose with the cultivation of corn and flourished from about 1000 into the 1600s, spreading south to the Gulf of Mexico and southeast to North Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida, said Robert Birmingham, retired Wisconsin state archaeologist, president of the Friends of Aztalan and co-author of a new book, "Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town."

"I think that the Mississippian civilization is comparable to the great civilizations around the world," said Birmingham, who lectures at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. "They involved themselves in monumental architecture. They obviously had very sophisticated astronomical and engineering skills. They had very complex social and religious structures. They had a large warrior society that was equivalent to standing armies. Additionally, some of the art of the Mississippians, I think, is every bit as beautiful and intricate as many of the civilizations in the rest of the world."

What they did not have was a written language or a unified empire under one king. Fortified towns and cities were controlled by chiefs. Warfare and conflict were major themes of myth, ritual and art, according to Birmingham and the book "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South."

"The atmosphere here would have been very much like in medieval England or France: a lot of feudal lords competing for any number of reasons, the developing of young men into a very formalized warrior status," Birmingham said.

The four-phase master plan for Aztalan envisions $9 million in improvements, including a $5 million visitor center. Beyond that, it calls for the purchase of adjacent farmland to preserve a buffer for the site.

That's a lot for a state park that almost lost the salary for Tom Davies, its site manager and lone employee, to budget cuts less than two years ago. He has trouble keeping the grass cut and covering other costs with an $11,000 operating budget.

With the Department of Natural Resources getting just $9 million every two years from its stewardship fund for park improvements, the entire master plan isn't likely to be implemented.

But the DNR is on schedule to spend about $110,000 for archaeological surveys, a layout survey and a design report for a visitors' center in the 2007-'09 budget cycle, said Peter Biermeier, a DNR section chief. And about $280,000 for a relocated park entrance, a boardwalk, trail improvements and a footbridge over the Crawfish River to reach inaccessible parkland is doable in 2009-'11, he said.

A visitors' center is further off. It might get moved up if the Friends group raises $1 million, Biermeier said. The chances of the state paying $4 million for a center are slim, but if costs are lowered or $3 million in private money is raised, dynamics change, he said.

American Indians thought the master plan respected the land and their ancestors, said Barbara Gross, a management consultant and Ojibwe. She sought input for the plan from the Great Lakes Inter-tribal Council and Ho-Chunk Nation leaders, whose ancestral territory includes the site. Some Ho-Chunk believe they are descendants of the Mississippians' interaction with Woodland Indians, she said.

Why the Mississippian culture disappeared from the Midwest by the 1400s remains a mystery. But the culture was still so active in the South and Southeast that Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto's chroniclers and early French explorers described the Indians' customs and beliefs. Some bearers of that culture include the Creek, Natchez, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Alabama and Caddo Indians, Birmingham said.

"The Mississippians would be best characterized as living in a theocracy," Birmingham said. "Individuals would go through all kinds of rituals and ceremonies every day. There was a seamless belief between the physical and supernatural worlds."

Mississippians believed in a layered cosmos with a celestial "above world," a "middle world" where everyday life occurred, and a "beneath world" that lay under the waters, said James Brown, a Northwestern University anthropologist.

"The mounds were, in a sense, conduits from this world and the earth we stand on to the upper world," Brown said.

The site at Aztalan along the Crawfish River reflects that cosmology. The land rises from the river to a residential area, to a ceremonial plaza where religious rituals were held, to the main mound and high ground where the chief and elites lived. A series of conical mounds nearby, believed to be sites of ceremonial poles, lead to a mound where the remains of a woman known as "the princess" were found. Elaborately decorated with hundreds of shell beads, some from the Gulf of Mexico, she was treated with great honor.

Archaeological excavations revealed that the 21-acre town was enclosed by massive walls made of poles driven into the ground, intertwined with branches, covered with clay and bolstered by 32 bastions, or watchtowers. Interior walls separated the residential, plaza and elite zones.

The main platform mound, where the chief's house may have been, rises 16 feet at the site's southwest corner on a 130-foot-by-185-foot base. On a ridge, it looks higher from the plaza. A mound that had a mortuary structure is at the northwest end.

Once partially smoothed over by farming, the main mound has been restored. And parts of the stockade have been partially reconstructed.