Aztec Pyramids in Wisconsin? Welcome to Aztalan State Park
The enormous earth mounds which can be visited at Aztalan State Park in Wisconsin are remnants of an ancient culture that first settled the area around the 11th or 12th century AD. These massive architectural earthwork features were sculpted by a Native American civilization that existed in the United States in the Mississippi River Valley area. Nevertheless, when they were first discovered, these historic mounds caused quite a bit of confusion.
Illustration of Aztalan site as surveyed in 1850 by I. A. Lapham. (Public domain)
Setting the Record State: Why Is It Called Aztalan?
Back in 1835, an early settler named Timothy Johnson discovered the site that today is known as Aztalan State Park. A Milwaukee judge named Nathaniel Hyer then published the first written account of the archaeological remains in the Milwaukee Advertiser in 1837, in which he referred to the site as Aztalan.
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The kernel of this idea was due to the apparent resemblance between the mounds found at the so-called “Aztalan” and the Aztec pyramids as described by Alexander Von Humboldt in his accounts of travelling in Mexico. “The name Aztalan comes from the mistaken idea, prevalent in the early nineteenth century, that the site may have been the northern place of origin of the Aztecs of Mexico as mentioned in their legends and oral traditions,” explains Milwaukee Public Museum. Nevertheless, the name stuck.
Judge Hyer’s report generated a great deal of attention in the United States. Next came the looters in search of Aztec gold, so much so that during the 1800s the mounds suffered extensive damage. The federal government then sold the land for agriculture which led to further destruction and the removal of innumerable artifacts. Many of the distinctive mounds that once populated the site were flattened and destroyed.
Mounds and landscape at Aztalan State Park. (Good Free Photos)
Surveys and Excavations at Aztalan State Park
The first serious survey at the site was conducted by Increase Allen Lapham, a man referred to as Wisconsin's first great scientist. After years of surveying and mapping the area, Lapham presented his Aztalan results in The Antiquities of Wisconsin, a book published by the Smithsonian Institute in 1855. Samuel Barrett, an archaeologist working at Milwaukee Public Museum, was the first to conduct a series of professional excavations in 1919, 1920 and 1932. He published his results in 1933 in Ancient Aztalan.
Barrett’s excavations allowed experts to reconstruct the stockade line, which once protected the settlement, as well as unearthing remnants of small dwellings, burials, tools, refuse, pottery and various other artifacts. By excavating the earth mounds, he also concluded that they were not burial mounds as had been hypothesized. Inside he discovered the remains of enormous wooden ceremonial posts.
“Barrett concluded correctly that Aztalan was associated with the Mississippian cultures of the American Bottoms of Cahokia and the southeast,” states Milwaukee Public Museum. Since then Aztalan has been a subject of continued research and investigation. The site was purchased by the citizens of Jefferson County in 1922. Then, in 1952, 172 acres (0.7 km2) was opened to the public under the name Aztalan State Park. It became a national landmark in 1964 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Visitor on top of one of the restored platform mounds at Aztalan State Park. (James Steakley / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Vestiges of Another Era at Aztalan State Park
According to Friends of Aztalan State Park, before the Mississippians arrived at Aztalan there had already been people living along the Crawfish River since before 900 AD. “We know the inhabitants of this village probably lived in oval pole wigwams covered with mats woven out of river grasses and reeds,” explains the Wisconsin Historical Society. Around 1000 to 1100 AD, people arrived from the south, from Cahokia, the largest archaeological ruins north of Mexico’s great pre-Columbian cities which is located near modern-day East St. Louis.
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Why the Cahokia people settled on the banks of the Crawfish River, we will never know, but they brought with them a new culture and way of life as can be seen when assessing the remains found at what today is known as Aztalan State Park. In fact, the original village was converted into what has been dubbed a “miniature version of Cahokia,” claims Wisconsin Historical Society.
Archaeological investigations have found evidence of a plaza at the center, as well as three earth platform mounds around it. Archaeologists believe one was the base of a charnel house, a ceremonial structure which was used to prepare the dead for burial. Others could have been houses for the ruling elite or even temples, raised up above the ground.
Replica of a house discovered at Aztalan State Park. Now on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison. (Daderot / CC0)
The settlement was surrounded by wooden palisade walls which were covered in fired clay, including guard towers, with rectangular and circular houses inside and outside the walls. Experts believe that the settlement existed for about 200 years before being abandoned for unknown reasons, much like Cahokia itself. Two of the “pyramids” have been reconstructed, as well as sections of the protective stockade.
These days it is now known that the site had no relation to the Aztecs. It was in fact settled by the Native American Mississippian culture which existed in some parts of the United States from about 800 to 1600 AD. This civilization is best remembered for the large platform earth mounds, a type of architectural feature which has survived in numerous locations. The mounds served several purposes; for burials or as platforms for ceremonial constructions such as temples, or as the home of those in power. These ancient towns or cities were then surrounded by log palisades.
Visiting Aztalan State Park
Aztalan State Park covers an area of 172 acres (0.7 km2) along the Crawfish River in Wisconsin. Located near the town of Aztalan, it is open from 6 am to 10 pm all year. The site attracts thousands of visitors every year. People can do a self-guided tour or even visit the Aztalan Museum. A local organization called Friends of Aztalan State Park arranges cultural events to celebrate Native American culture and traditions.
Top image: Fence surrounding the largest mound at Aztalan State Park. Source: Good Free Photos
By Cecilia Bogaard