An effigy mound is a raised pile of earth built in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol, human, or other figure and generally containing one or more human burials. Effigy mounds were primarily built during the Late Woodland Period (350-1300 CE (current era)). Conical and linear mounds, the predecessors of effigy mounds may date from as far back as 700 BCE (before the current era). They remain places First Peoples frequent to visit and speak with ancestors, to put down tobacco and to give thanks.
The Ho-Chunk suggest that effigy mounds were used as places of refuge as well as burial. Some archaeologists today believe that the mounds were built by particular clans or groups to honor their representative animal. Some believe that the animal shape is the clan or extended family of the person or person’s buried in the mound. Others believe that the mounds were burial sites for everyday people, while still others believe that the depicted animal might be somehow responsible for transitioning the deceased into the next world. The mounds may also indicate hunting and gathering territories of different groups. Other evidence suggests that effigy mounds were used for all manner of rites and ceremonies, from birth ceremonies to funeral rites.
Common shapes for effigy mounds include birds, bear, deer, bison, lynx, panther, turtles, and water spirits. These are somewhat arbitrary names given to the mound shapes by archaeologists who were simply looking for words that would help them classify the mounds. These shapes were most likely chosen for their particular religious or spiritual significance. The earliest mounds are ‘conical’; they are essentially bumps of earth – the simplest and arguably the most intuitive kind of burial. Successive conicals likely evolved into linear mounds. Bird mounds likely came next as modifying a linear mound to make a bird mound required only the addition of a head and a tail. From there many different animal forms emerged. These often expressed a kind of abstract elongation.
In addition to the obvious elongation of tails and the abstracted nature of many of the shapes, colored silts and sand were often used to decorate the mounds. The land was often scraped or raked to move earth from surface soils towards a new mound and in doing so, artful colored sand and silt patterning was sometimes employed as adornment. In terms of positioning, some mounds may have had celestial alignments although with certainty bird mounds were placed in such a way as to suggest that they were flying up or down a hillside, and animal mounds were often placed so as to suggest animals walking along natural landform as well such as a ridge or hillside. It is possible that predominant wind patterns may have been taken into consideration when choosing locations and orientations for bird mounds. In addition bird mounds sometimes appear in different conformations where the wings of the bird may be folded or unfolded to different degrees, suggesting various postures in flying. There are some instances where these different poses may suggest a freeze frame view of a bird flying – wings outstretched, wings partially folded, and wings outstretched again.
Hochunk ancestors naturally buried their dead next to lakes and rivers, and on hillsides. These locations would later become valued as some of the best places to live by settlers. This is one factor that contributed to high rates of mound destruction. Many mounds were destroyed by people grading earth surrounding their houses or what would become the foundations of houses. In some cases linear mounds were used as foundational fill for new house construction. Looting of mounds by settlers was common and this also contributed to the destruction and defacement of many.
-taken from wikipedia’s entry on effigy mounds.