Effigy Mounds - More Than a Pile of Dirt

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April 30th 2018
Published: April 30th 2018
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Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry, Iowa

It is not unusual to view, in a national park, works made of dirt. At Ocmulgee, in Georgia, on last year’s trip we saw huge platform and burial mounds, one as tall as fifty feet and bigger than a city block. Mostly, they believed, these mounds served as platforms for the houses of the power and religious elite. Some of them, as digging found, served as burial mounds. And there were a few that were definitely ceremonial lodges where people entered through a dug-out hole into a chamber that was partially underground, and surrounded with thick walls of dirt.

Ancient Puebloans, with a different kind of mostly sandy dirt, didn’t create piles of sand, but rather learned to create mud bricks and built elaborate great houses. Although involving more than 100 rooms in some cases, these buildings were largely ceremonial and housed very few families compared to their size. Their kivas, rich with mostly unknown tradition, were still dug into the ground and their wooden beam roofs covered with dirt.

At Homestead National Monument we saw pictures of homesteader homes, many of which were made out of sod, and some carved

Trail on top of the bluff
right into the earth, much like a hobbit village.

Clearly it is not unknown for humans to use dirt to build things - it is an obvious material with properties that can help create long-lasting structures yielding survival value. So we arrived at Effigy Mounds National Monument prepared to see piles of dirt - the name sort of hints at that. But we weren’t prepared for the curious kind of emotional impact these mounds of dirt would have. And warning, the pictures we took are all very inadequate - maybe a drone would get better images.

Yes, mounds have appeared everywhere in Native American culture over the years and have sometimes been analyzed as burial sites, and in others as underground structures. But these piles of dirt are different and cultural scientists don’t have much of an explanation for them. Some of them appear to serve as burial mounds, but not most of them. And they are really too small to serve as habitats. So their practical function seems missing.

And then there is their shape. At least here at the monument, they take the shapes of birds, a four-legged creature that has been declared a ‘bear’, and long series of conical mounds that are arranged in a row (in one case nearly 200 feet long) that almost suggests a caterpillar. Because they take the form of animals, they call these ‘effigy mounds’. Because of their precise placement and size, about the only function that can be ascribed to these things is a spiritual one. The birds, it is suggested, pay homage to the sky; the bears to the earth; and the caterpillars (if that’s what they are) well who knows what that means.

Compared to most of the mounds found around here, effigy mounds are fairly recent. Still they were all constructed long before white man bumped into America trying to find East Indian spices. They are most prominent in southern Wisconsin and I bought a book on the Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, hoping to learn more about what we know and don’t know about them. The National Monument, however, is in Iowa, right across the river from Wisconsin. (There is some political history about Wisconsin and the National Parks that I don’t know but must be very interesting. Wisconsin is one of the few states that don’t have any national parks and that can’t be because they don’t have anything interesting going on. For some reason, Wisconsiners decided not to have national parks and so they don’t. Except for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.). So although Wisconsin is the center of all the effigy mounds in the country, the national park preserving them isn’t in that state.

The National Monument visitor center is a little disappointing. They don’t have a film to explain things and the museum exhibits are a little on the sparse side. The rangers at the visitor center though, Erin and Albert, were extremely helpful and fun to talk to. Joan recognized Albert, a Native American, as someone who was interviewed for a book that she is reading about our parks and the conservation efforts surrounding them. So that was kind of unique.

The park is divided into the North and South Units, with the visitor center right in the middle. Except for three little mounds right behind the VC, you will have to hike to see any of the more interesting mounds. And the hikes will be a minimum of four miles, round trip, with the first half-miles being a fairly strenuous climb. The mounds in the monument are pretty much all located on the tops of the bluffs overlooking the river. If you are in really good shape you might be able to hike both units, but most of us will be lucky to do one of them.

We chose to hike the southern unit because, at the end of the trail is a series of a dozen mounds known as the Marching Bears, one of the most interesting and largest mound clusters. We missed our right turn to go see them and ended up taking a spur that took us to the longest mound in the park, the compound mound stretching 195 feet. On the way there we also saw our first big mound, a bear, and a spectacular eagle shape. There are no signs telling you that the mounds are there - you have to be aware and be looking for anomalies in the earth around you. Once you see them, though, and walk around them, the shapes become obvious.

We retraced our steps back from the compound mound and ran into a park service conservation crew working on getting the park back in shape for the season. Staffed by seasonal, dedicated, and very young workers, they were fun to talk to and they really loved our dogs. Mostly because of their encouragement, we found the right path to the Marching Bears and walked the additional mile down to the southern tip of the park. After a half-hour or so frolicking among the bears (and two eagles at the end of the series), we returned to the work crew to thank them for their help and get the girls some more loving. Then we hiked back down to the car for a total of about 6 miles of hiking.

We ate a picnic lunch right on the shores of the Mississippi and watched barge traffic move up and down. Returning to MacGregor, we stopped for a bottle of local Iowa wine (OK, but not Napa Valley), took it home and drank it by a campfire. Everyone was really sore and tired, so it was an early evening. Even the girls slept soundly last night.

Walking amid these mounds provokes an unusual experience. I recognize that at the simplest level, these are just piles of dirt. But it is impossible to walk among them without getting flashes of spiritual insight. These mounds meant something very significant to another group of human beings. They took the time and effort, out of busy routines just to survive, to build these things for purposes that we don’t quite understand. That they made them in the shape of animals means that they recognized how important those animals were to them, and humbly paid homage. A millennium later, there is a message there for us as well. All in a pile of dirt

Additional photos below
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Diagram of the Marching Bears

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