The Man Mound: A Transformative National Historic Landmark

 

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Aerial View of the Man Mound after the spring “burnoff” of dead prairie grass, 2014.  Image via Sauk County Eagle.

Deep in the rolling hills of the northern flanks of the Baraboo Range, and about two miles northeast of Baraboo, Wisconsin, lies an ancient and mysterious earthen figure, cut off at the shins. An amputee.

The Man Mound of Greenfield is the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound in North America.  It was formed of earth between 700 and 1000 AD by the Late Woodland effigy mound builders, who constructed both humanoid and zoomorphic mounds across the eastern and middle western portions of what is now the United States.  Until the turn of the 20th century, Sauk County had as many as twelve humanoid mounds, with hundreds of others depicting birds, snakes and other animals.  Despite early recognition by surveyors of these earthworks as special monuments, almost 75% of the mounds previously identified have disappeared.

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Looking north towards Man Mound’s “horns.”  Despite the snow cover, the rise above grade is clearly visible.  Mowing of the mound ceased in 2008, attributing to an array of prairie grasses and flora seeding from it, including ferns not native to Wisconsin.

Not long after measurements of the Man Mound were taken and the mound was brought to wider public attention by civil engineer and naturalist Increase A. Lapham, an east-west road was cut below the figure’s knees, detaching the body from the feet, an unmistakably adverse effect that would be inconceivable today, and illegal in terms of federal and state laws regarding the mound’s historic and cultural status.  But this was the Midwest in the 1860s, less than a lifetime after the Indian Removal Act, and the center of a century where transportation routes and the opening of government lands pushed non-native people westward.  Immigrants of German and Irish decent were coming by ship, steamboat, railroad and then in wagons through the Baraboo Valley.  Thirty years prior to the construction of Man Mound Road, Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of Wisconsin.  The name of the road has a deeply disquieting effect, as if the mistake was acknowledged as soon as the road was laid.

The Man Mound is a transformative being, a curiosity of the Lower World, a primordial deity, a water spirit, a bear, or a rabbit, or any of these things.  And to native peoples like the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lay claim to the Late Woodland effigy mound builders as parent stock, a symbol of renewal.  In 1908, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, along with the Federation of Women’s Clubs and The Sauk County Historical Society moved to acquire the Man Mound Site, establishing it as one of the first archaeological sites preserved specifically for preservation purposes.  This purchase occurred in the nick of time, as the previous land owner had disclosed that he was looking into cultivating the site.  Man Mound Park was dedicated on August 8th, 1908.

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Historical marker erected by the Sauk County Historical Committee, 1969, alongside the Wisconsin Historical Societies’ plaque from the 1908 park dedication.  The Man Mound’s torso and right arm are visible in the background.

While the dedication of the park did include an invocation of indigenous peoples, accounts of that day paint a woefully misguided picture of appropriation as appreciation, showing a version of the disconnection between Americans and native peoples that we see today, from feathered headdresses at Coachella to the Washington Redskins to referring to a work meeting as a pow-wow.  Native Americans were not considered a part of the 20th century narrative of the Man Mound, and were instead relegated to a cultural footnote during the celebration-tipis, wampum and all.

Detached from the rest of the body, the feet were now located in a cow pasture on the other side of Man Mound Road, and would over time get trampled down to grade. Even without legs, which is certainly an integrity problem for the ages, Man Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Rob Nurre is a landscape historian and longtime steward of the Man Mound who has come to live “seventeen man mound-sized steps away from the park.”  With the 100th anniversary of the park looming, Nurre began thinking about the Man Mound’s amputated legs and feet, along with ways to raise public awareness for the site.  Using measured drawings from the 1850s and a can of white paint, Nurre gave Man Mound new prosthetic limbs stretching across the road, and worked with the land owners north of the road to mark off the area where the feet once stood.

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The Man Mound’s “ghost legs” stretch across Man Mound Road.

“How do we best care for these sites,” asked Nurre. “When they are such a reference point in terms of how we see the world?” Perhaps the Man Mound’s painted legs are an arbitration between a careless past and a conscious, deliberate future.  They also “get in your face” Nurre said, as they clearly do not relate to roadway safety, and you’ve got to drive over them in order to get west of the mound.  Rebuilding the missing extremities from grade wouldn’t be appropriate mitigation, as it would serve to erase the lessons in stewardship and our cultural dialog with the past that the flattened legs and feet force us to interface with directly.

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The location of Man Mound’s trampled feet, fenced off from a cow pasture.

In 2016, the Man Mound was designated as a National Historic Landmark, a distinction only given to historic places that have a profound national significance, and are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Only 2,500 of our nations historic landmarks meet this criteria.  The boundary of the Man Mound National Historic Landmark was extended beyond the boundary of the National Register of Historic Places listing to include the area of the road containing the “legs” as well as the section of pasture where the feet once were.  The creative mitigation of modern interference is now a part of the Man Mound’s official story.

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William H. Canfield’s map of the Man Mound, 1859.  Canfield shared Man Mound’s discovery with Increase A. Lapham, and Lapham publicized the find.  Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-77567.

In 1859, Increase A. Lapham wrote that the Man Mound “is in the act of walking, and with an expression of boldness and decision which cannot be mistaken.” At over 214 feet tall, Man Mound is striking when viewed from the ground, but aerial views are truly mystifying, and beg some serious questions.  Was the Man Mound meant to be viewed from the sky?  Where is it walking to?  What is the true meaning of the iconography?  We as a modern people know so little about the purpose of effigy mounds, and almost as little about their contents.  As many as 87% of effigy mounds that have been subject to archaeological investigation were used to mark or contain human burials, with most contained near a figures’ heart or inside the head.  While archaeological digs have occurred in the area where the feet once were, yielding nothing of interest, there is no record of disturbance for the rest of the body.  Digging into a cultural monument that is over a thousand years old would be a selfish, obscene choice, and would produce nothing of value.

The Man Mound will continue to yield information on our collective reference point, but by way of our understanding of what has occurred above ground, and how we weigh our current decisions against the established effects of the past and the unknown future.  So what is the best practice in terms of an effigy mound without legs, when there are no other effigy mounds with legs to compare it to?  Perhaps this is the Man Mound’s true character as a transformative being.  One that continues to learn from us as we learn from it.

The author would like to thank Rob Nurre for his generous contributions to this article.

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