Aztalan State Park, Wisconsin

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Aztalan State Park is a Wisconsin state park located just south of the town of Aztalan, Wisconsin at latitude N 43° 4' and longitude W 88° 52', and established in 1952. It was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The park covers 172 acres (70 hectares) along the Crawfish River.

Aztalan is the site of an ancient Native American settlement that flourished during the 10th to 13th centuries.

1855 map of Aztalan historical site

1855 map of Aztalan historical site
North is approximately up
Larger image | Full size

On larger images, north is approximately right


Pre-history (900–1300)

Aztalan was first settled around 900 by a Native American culture known as the Middle Mississippian Tradition. The most famous example of a Middle Mississippian settlement is at Cahokia, Illinois. These settlements are characterized by the construction of mounds, stockades, and houses, by decorated pottery and agricultural practices. There are also elements of the Woodland culture found here.

The residents were involved in trade. Some of the items found include copper from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, shells from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and stone from other areas of the Midwest.

Sometime between the years 1200 and 1300, the Aztalan settlement was abandoned for reasons that remain unknown to this day.

Life in Aztalan

Most of the residents dwelt in circular or rectangular houses between the river and the eastern secondary wall. The placement of the structures suggests that the layout was planned, but not in rows such as are found along streets. Posts for the house frames were either placed in individual holes, or in a trench dug slightly narrower than the posts. Walls were then completed with wattle and daub, a plaster mixture of grass and clay, and the roof covered with bark or thatch. The doorway usually faced south, to keep out the winter's north winds. Inside, a single family slept on pole frame beds, covered with tamarack boughs, deer skins, and furs. A fire was kept in the middle of the house, and a hole in the roof let out the smoke. Pits in the house stored foods like corn, nuts, and seeds in woven bags, while perishable foods like meat were probably stored outside prior to cooking.

The site was well chosen to provide a variety of food sources, and other resources. The staple of the diet was corn, and other plants were also gathered as food, such as acorns, hickory nuts, and berries. The main source of meat was deer, and they also caught and ate beaver, elk, fox, muskrats, and raccoons. They also hunted birds, turtles, and mussels, and caught fish in the Crawfish River directly next to the site, where they had set up rock barriers called fish weirs at key points, one of which is still visible when the river is low. Some of the fish found have been catfish, bass, suckers, buffalo fish, pike, drum fish, and gar.

Raw materials for tools and building were available in the area, or could be obtained through trade from remote places. Trees nearby provided wood for posts for house walls and stockades, bows and arrow shafts, bowls and spoons, and firewood. Smaller tree branches and grass were used for bedding and roofs. Shells from the river could be used for jewelry, beads, spoons, and digging tools, and clay was dug for pottery.

Physical features

The most obvious features of Aztalan are its pyramid-shaped platform mounds and its stockade.


There are three platform mounds on the site. The largest is the one in the southwest corner of the stockade; one almost as large is located in the northwest corner. The smallest of the three is along the east side of the settlement, near the Crawfish River (labeled "West Branch of Rock River" on the plates). The hill in the southeast corner is a natural gravel knoll, not built by the inhabitants.

The largest mound was built in three stages, with a set of steps leading to the top, where a structure was built over the entire flat top. The mound was covered with a clay cap, probably to enhance its appearance. Corn was stored in pits inside the structure, but there are several theories about why this corn was kept here, and the reason for the structure itself. This may have been the storage facility for the entire village; storage for food just for the top village officials; it may have been used for ceremonies and rituals; or it could have been a house for the village officials. This structure was rebuilt each time a larger stage of the mound was built on top of the old.

The northwestern mound was also built in three stages. A special structure, approximately 4 m by 2 m (12 ft by 5 ft), with its long axis towards the northeast/southwest, was built on the west side of the mound, with a doorway in its southwest corner, and covered with a mixture of clay, willow branches, and grass. The floor was covered with a mat of what may have been cattails, on which ten people were placed side by side, with their heads towards the doorway, and the bones of another person were bundled together with cord. Once this construction was complete, and the bodies were inside, the building was burned.

The eastern mound had a large open-walled structure, about 27 m by 12 m (90 by 40 ft), built on top of it, with firepits lined with white sand inside. The function of this mound and structure remain unclear.

Additionally, to the northwest of the stockaded area, a row of round mounds extends northward. When archaeologists dug in these mounds during the 1920s, they did not find the burial sites they had expected. Instead, each mound had a large post set in a pit in its center, surrounded by gravel and soil, with the pit capped with clay and gravel to hold the post steady. These mounds have been termed "marker mounds" because they may have been used to mark the site for travelers, but this is not certain; they may also have been used for announcements, message relays, or for calculations of astronomical phenomena.


The settlement was surrounded on the north, west, and south sides by a stockade, a wall of logs set into the ground vertically. These were made by digging narrow holes in the ground with digging sticks, then lifting the posts into position and setting them into the holes. The stockade was then finished by weaving flexible willow branches through the posts, and plastering the whole with a mixture of clay and grass to fill in the gaps, a technique similar to wattle and daub.

A smaller stockade was built within the outer one, around the housing areas, at some point. It is not clear whether both stockades existed simultaneously, for a layered defense, or one was built after the other fell into disuse.

The outer stockade was described by Lapham (v.i.) as being "631 feet (192 m) long at the north end, 1,149 feet (350 m) long on the west side and 700 feet (213 m) on the south side; making a total length of wall of 2,750 feet (838 m). The ridge or wall is about 22 feet (7 m)wide, and from one foot to five (30 cm–1.5 m) in height." It had at least 33 square watchtowers at regular intervals along its length, remarkably similar in form and placement to European fortifications, in addition to some more along the secondary walls. Rather than having a gate to protect the entrance, though, the builders constructed the entrance in such a way that it was camouflaged when one looked at it from the outside, blending in with the wall around it.

During the time Aztalan was inhabited, two sets of outer stockades were built. The posts of the first one eventually rotted, and the second one burned and was never rebuilt. It is not clear whether the purpose of the stockade was to keep out invaders, or if it was built for another reason.

Modern discovery (1835–1919)

In 1835, a young man named Timothy Johnson discovered the ruins of the ancient settlement, and in December of that year and January of 1836, N. F. Hyer committed the first rough survey of the site, publishing the discovery in the Milwaukie Advertiser of January 1837. According to Lapham:

"The name Aztalan was given to this place by Mr. Hyer, because, according to Humboldt, the Aztecs, or ancient inhabitants of Mexico, had a tradition that their ancestors came from a country at the north, which they called Aztalan; and the possibility that these may have been remains of their occupancy, suggested the idea of restoring the name. It is made up of two Mexican words, atl, water, and an, near; and the country was probably so named from its proximity to large bodies of water. Hence the natural inference that the country about these great lakes was the ancient residence of the Aztecs."

Hyer wrote that "We are determined to preserve these ruins from being ruined." However, in 1838, President Martin Van Buren refused a request by Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett to withdraw the site from public sale, and the site was sold for $22. In the following years, the surface was plowed, the mounds were leveled for easier farming, pottery shards and "Aztalan brick" were hauled away by the wagonload to fill in potholes in township roads, and souvenir hunters took numerous artifacts.

In 1850, Increase A. Lapham, an author, scientist, and naturalist, surveyed the site, and urged its preservation. At the time, the stockade was still standing, though not in the condition it had once been.

State park foundation and reconstruction (1919–present)

In 1919, archaeological excavations began at Aztalan, under the direction of Dr. S. A. Barrett. In 1920, the Landmarks Committee of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin under Publius V. Lawson started a new effort to save what remained of Aztalan, supported by the Friends of Our Native Landscape and the Wisconsin Archeological Society. They made their first purchase of some of the land in 1921, three acres (12,000 m²) west of the stockade with eight conical mounds, and presented it to the Wisconsin Archeological Society.

Work for preservation continued. In 1936, the state's archeological and historical societies petitioned the federal government for funds to reconstruct the stockade without success. In 1941, the newly-founded Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society began an energetic campaign to preserve the stockade area.

In 1945, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill directing the State Planning Board to study the possibility of establishing a state park at Aztalan. In 1947, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a resolution requesting the State Conservation Commission to purchase Aztalan. 120 acres (490,000 m²) were purchased to this end in 1948, and the Wisconsin Archeological Society and the Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society donated their holdings. Aztalan opened to the public as Aztalan State Park in 1952.

Aztalan was designated a registered National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

In 1968, portions of the stockade wall were reconstructed by placing new posts in the original holes. A section of this was also covered with the wattle and daub, but this has since worn away or been removed.

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