City Cast

A Look at Madison’s Ancient Monuments

Hayley Sperling
Hayley Sperling
Posted on October 4
On Observatory Hill on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a commanding view of Lake Mendota, are two effigy mounds: a bird and a two-tailed water spirit (also interpreted as a turtle).

UW-Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land and there are two effigy mounds on Observatory Hill. (James Steakley / Wikimedia Commons)

Wisconsin has the highest concentration of burial mounds in the U.S. and Madison is home to many of the most-intact mounds remaining today.

Scientifically, effigy mounds represent some of the last remaining physical evidence of human activity from 800 B.C.E. to 1200 C.E. The people who built the mounds are believed to be ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Culturally, archeologists aren’t certain of the exact meaning of the mounds, but they are recognized as sacred spaces and protected under the Wisconsin Burial Site Protection Act. (Though, that’s not to say they’ve always been protected.)

Many effigy mounds were often built in the shape of animals like bears, panthers, birds, and turtles. Man Mound in Sauk County is the only known human-shaped effigy mound left in North America.

Where to See the Mounds

The effigy mounds in Madison can be found across the isthmus, including at Vilas Park, the Arboretum, Observatory Hill, Hudson Park, and Forest Hill Cemetery.

The city has put together a list of effigy mounds in Madison parks, and UW-Madison also has a list of mound locations on campus.

Around the state, you can find mounds at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Cherokee Marsh, Aztalan State Park, and beyond.

Respecting the Mounds

When visiting the mounds it’s important to remember that these sites demand respect. It is inappropriate to walk or climb on the mounds.

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