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Crimes and Confessions of the Effigy Mound Superintendents

Crimes and Confessions of the Effigy Mound Superintendents


In the center of the United States, nestled within the dense red oak and black willow tree forests of northeastern Iowa, slumbers the Effigy Mounds National Monument. This area is designated by the government as a National Park containing over two-hundred prehistoric burial effigy mounds. Many of these mysterious mounds were made to mimic animal forms like lizards, snakes, birds, bears, and other mammals.

What is today the United States was, in prehistoric times, a tranquil landscape bejeweled with thousands of burial and effigy mounds. As far as the limited radiocarbon data is concerned, the earliest mounds appear to be those of Florida and Louisiana which date as far back as 4500 BC, and all archaic mound construction ceased around 2800 BC for reasons that are unknown to archaeologists.

Other cultures, like the Woodland and Fort Ancient groups (fabricated names for unknown peoples), then allegedly revived mound building practices, which all came to an end by the mid-seventeenth century AD. It is estimated that today less than twenty percent of these effigy mounds still exist, most of which were destroyed by urban development.

Lidar image of Marching Bears Mound Group, Effigy Mounds National Monument. (U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey / Public domain)

Effigy Mounds: Monumental Mysteries And Misconceptions

Who exactly built these effigy mounds has been a source of controversy since the late nineteenth century when the first official studies occurred. The prevailing academic narrative is that a variety of Native American, and pre-Columbian cultures like the Calusa, Hopewell, and Adena (all of which are invented names for an unknown people) built various kinds of earthen mounds over a five-thousand year period for religious, ceremonial, and elite funerary purposes.

However, early archaeologists commissioned directly by the Smithsonian, officially reported in their findings that the mounds were constructed by a “vanished race” who preceded/coexisted with the Native Americans and then subsequently disappeared. This discrepancy is compounded by scores of old news reports that state that during government excavations of these mounds, abnormally large human remains were discovered, along with anomalous artifacts like alloy metals, and stones with Old World inscriptions such as those on the Bat Creek Stone.

One such report comes from near the Iowa Effigy Mounds. An 1897 New York Times’ article describes the unearthing of a nine-foot-tall (2.7 meter) skeleton from a burial mound in Wisconsin. Despite a nation-wide rash of similar reports, the Smithsonian vehemently denies these claims, insisting that these news reports are universally examples of yellow journalism, and that the Bat Creek Stone and others like it, are all hoaxes.

State Park Effigy Mound Scandal Summary #1 

Between 1999 and 2010, the superintendent of Effigy Mounds National Monument was Phyllis Ewing, who according to the National Park Service, unilaterally decided to violate federal building restrictions at the park. Ewing’s team carried out some seventy-eight construction projects, spending over three million dollars (2.46 million euros) of tax payers’ funds on buildings like elevated boardwalks, maintenance sheds, ATV roads, and a five-ton steel bridge.

Supposedly, Ewing did so without the blessing of her superiors at Park Service headquarters, who only found out when a former employee blew the whistle in 2010. Although irrefutable evidence of illegal constructions had come to light, which were crystal clear violations of section 106 reviews, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Ewing or her team. Ewing then filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service claiming she had been scapegoated. Her case was dismissed.

This image shows the entirety of The Great Serpent Mound located near Peebles, Ohio. (Eric Ewing / CC BY-SA 3.0)

State Park Effigy Mound Scandal Summary #2

From 1974 to 1994, the superintendent of Effigy Mound National Monument was Thomas Munson, who in July of 2016, pleaded guilty to the theft of some two-thousand bones from forty-one ancient skeletons, all of which were excavated from the park’s effigy mounds and had been collecting dust under lock and key for decades. Once Munson had retired in ninety-four, a couple of his predecessors realized the remains were missing and asked him over the course of inquiries and a criminal investigation about their whereabouts.

National Park Service Midwest Regional Headquarters. (Jon Clee / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Munson would tell several versions of what exactly happened. But perhaps the most revealing iteration was the one in which he claimed he “received a call from an unidentified source at the Park Service asking him to send the remains to the Midwest Archaeological Center.” And according to an official NPS news release from 2016, “When the boxes containing the stolen remains were finally recovered, specialists discovered many of the human bones were broken or fragmented beyond recognition.”

Munson was gently patted on the wrist by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who sentenced him to ten consecutive weekends in jail, community service, a three-thousand dollar (2,465 euros) fine, one year of home detention, and payment of 108,905 dollars (89,487 euros) in restitution fines.

The Effigy Mound Scapegoats And Smokescreens

The narrative presented by the federal government, regurgitated by the mainstream media, and backed by the midwestern archaeological authorities, is that Munson and Ewing had gone rogue, and that the holy National Park Service (NPS) was shocked to discover actions they would never dream of sanctioning.

However, their actions towards innocent and victimized whistle blower Sharon Greener contradict this tale and expose their actual motives. The NPS fired Greener supposedly for her initial withholding of information, but Greener nobly fought the NPS in court and proved definitively that between 1990 and 2012 she made seven separate attempts to alert her superiors about the criminal activity, all of which fell on deaf ears. Faced with certain defeat, the NPS settled with Greener, conceding her two years of back pay, legal fees, and an undisclosed sum for compensatory damages. 

If the NPS was truly blameless, why would they have ignored Greener in the first place, and why would they fire her? Is the public to believe that Ewing could spend three million dollars in funds without this bloated bureaucratic machine being informed for what specific purpose? Also keep in mind Munson stated on record that an unnamed NPS superior of his had instructed him to remove the remains, as well as Ewing filing a lawsuit claiming to be scapegoated, all of which clearly indicate that the NPS or someone in it was not only complicit, but that they were directly responsible.

National Park Service sign. (Workman / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not An Isolated Incident: This Has Happened Before!

It may be conveniently comforting to fantasize that this must be at least somewhat of an isolated incident, but it’s not. In 1998, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln admitted that in the 1960s, the anthropology department found ancient remains during excavations and burned them in the veterinary school incinerator because they felt these remains had “no scientific value.”

In 2013, Patrick Williams who was employed by the Mid-Pacific Regional Office of the Bureau of Reclamation as a museum specialist, claimed that the agency in its construction of dams and waterways for the western states had committed similar crimes.

In 2014, another whistle-blower emerged accusing the NPS headquarters in Sacramento of hoarding 164,000 uncatalogued artifacts and remains which were obtained during construction projects, and then altering databases to erase records of their existence. Furthermore, reports from the Smithsonian’s own Bureau of Ethnology, dating all the way back to the late nineteenth century, clearly indicate troves of artifacts and remains that were unearthed by their excavations were sent off to Washington to never be seen again.  

Scientific Misconduct: The Malicious Motive

Why would these NPS superintendents or their superiors, who are paid with taxpayer funds to safeguard these sites, resort to such criminal behavior? What could their motives be for desecrating ancient sites, and hiding, and or destroying these remains?

Referring to the same 2016 NPS news release, “Munson thought thwarting the law (regarding a nineties legislation to repatriate Native American remains) would allow the monument to keep the associated funerary objects in its museum collection.” At Munson’s sentencing, Chief Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles stated, “there can be no explanation for what [Munson] did.”

In the 1990s, around the time of this incident, the Bush administration, which is now infamous for corruption, passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). On its surface, this legislation appears to be an anomalous bright spot for the administration. However, while returning disturbed Native American remains is certainly justified, this may be a veiled maneuver to further aid in the concealment of enigmatic remains/artifacts that contradict the establishment’s human history narrative.

Robert Birmingham is a former Wisconsin state archaeologist and supposed expert on effigy mounds. He expressed an apologetic point of view, “There was a sense that they were taking away objects of study that would inform us about ancient societies in America.”

A Native American protestor saying, "enough is enough!" And these kinds of protests or outrages also happened in relation to effigy mound violations. (Shane Balkowitsch / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

It’s tempting to believe that these officials are acting out of a misguided sense of scientific duty, doing what they feel they must do to ensure these relics are mined for every shred of scientific value which they are certainly abundant in. However, this cannot possibly be the case, for if this were their motivation, why then have they failed to conduct any analysis of these remains? Why would the anthropology department of a university literally incinerate remains and artifacts? They would have at the very least studied them thoroughly before they were repatriated. They should have volumes of catalogs and diagrams, hundreds of scientific reports, carbon dating analysis, dendrochronological studies, genetic testing, etc.

But none of this ever occurred, and in fact, of the cases that have come to light, the exact opposite occurred, remains and artifacts were destroyed thereby preventing study. The mission statement of the NPS and the Smithsonian Institute is as follows “The National Park Service is dedicated to conserving unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. . . The Smithsonian Institution is a public trust whose mission is the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

The Fire Beneath The Smoke 

While published news reports on these kinds of “errors” may not always be credible considering the behavior of the authorities, these reports may shed some light on this subject.

For example, an article published in the Iowa publication the Fort Wayne Gazette from August 1873 used the headline “ Relics of an Ancient Race Discovered in Northeast Iowa.” The article reports the excavation of a nearby mound, which yielded five skeletons, three adult males, one woman, and one infant, along with clothing, artifacts, and pottery. One of the males is described as nearly seven-feet-tall (2.1 meters) and the female’s cranial anatomy is described in sharp detail and said to have been highly like the Neanderthal hominin.

Another such report comes from the Capital City Courier published in September 1888 and the headline reads “Skeletons in Iowa Mounds.” The account states that Professor Webster oversaw excavating the effigy mounds and had uncovered thirty skeletons along with pottery. The most intriguing line of the article states: “While the femur bones show that most of the skeletons are those of people about 5 feet 7 inches tall (1.7 meters) there are four that must have been fully 7 feet tall (2.1 meters).” The report continues to suggest, as the previous article also did, that these seem to have been Homo sapiens’ predecessors, who were like Neanderthals.

The official seal of the Ho-chunk Nation. (Mario1952 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Native American Traditions of the Region

One tribe closely associated with effigy mounds is the Ho-Chunk Nation of neighboring Wisconsin and they have some very interesting oral traditions regarding this geographic area specifically. It’s also worth noting that while they generally regard these mounds as sacred and worthy of veneration, their traditions contain no accounts of who made them or who is entombed in these mounds.

The effigy mounds in Wisconsin rest beside Devil’s Lake, which they regard as an extremely sacred and ominous place that acts as a portal between realms. According to their ancient worldview, thunderbird beings that dwell in the sky are engaged in a perpetual conflict with jaguar/serpentine beings who live beneath the lake. This lake is geologically unique with a high quartzite composition and steep cliffs towering up to 500 feet high (152 meters).


It is difficult to know what to make of all this puzzling information, unreliable newspaper articles, untrustworthy government minions, and ancient myths. Even the physical artifacts and remains seem all but lost or hard to find.

Certainly, the National Park Service and the archaeological institutions in the region are guilty of scientific misconduct. And this disenchantment of knowledge must surely be somehow related to the strange accounts of large, hominin skeletons and the otherworldly paradigms of the Native Americans.

Top image: Effigy Mounds National Monument entrance sign north of Marquette, Iowa.             Source: Jonathunder / Public domain

By Mark Andrew Carpenter


Daley, Jason. “2,000 Sacred Bones Went Missing 21 Years Ago.” June 6, 2016. 

Investigative Services. The National Park Service Investigative Branch (202) 379-4761 “Former Superintendent of Effigy Mounds National Monument Sentenced for Stealing Human Remains.”  (July 11, 2016). 

Keel, Bennie. Southern Indian Studies-Cyrus Thomas and the Mound Builders. The Archaeological Society of North Carolina and The Research Laboratories of Anthropology. pp. 3–16. 1970.

Lankford, G. 2007.  The Great Serpent in Eastern North America. In Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography. University of Texas Press.

Saunders, Joe W. "Middle Archaic and Watson Brake", in Archaeology of Louisiana, edited by Mark A. Rees, Ian W. (FRW) Brown, LSU Press, 2010, p. 67.

Trigger, Bruce. "Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian". American Antiquity. 45 (4): 662–676. Oct 1980.

"Wisconsin Mound Opened: Skeleton Found of a Man Over Nine Feet High with an Enormous Skull". New York Times. December 20, 1897.

Zimmerman, Fritz.  The Encyclopedia of Ancient Giants in North America. Foreword by Marzulli, L.A. pp. 235-7 Middletown DE, 2015.

Mark A. Carpenter's picture

Mark A.

My name is Mark-Andrew Carpenter and I’m an emerging author, filmmaker, and rogue cultural anthropologist based in Baltimore Maryland, U.S. I studied archaeology until I discovered that they were not practicing objective science. Before abandoning the program, I did take... Read More

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