By William Green
The Indian mounds that dot Beloit’s campus have long been surrounded by myth and conjecture, but current scholarship sheds new light on Beloit’s oldest feature.
over the President's House highlights the beauty of the College
Where Beloit College now stands, ancient
Native Americans led rich lives for more than
500 generations. These earliest Americans
belonged to many groups, spoke many languages,
employed diverse technologies, and
had a wide array of customs and traditions.
Long before European contact, they built
communities, agricultural fields, trails, and
dams; extracted and worked stone, copper,
clay, wood, and other products; managed forest
and prairie resources; traded over hundreds
of miles; and carved and painted sacred
and ritual images on rock.
Between about 500 B.C. and A.D.1200,
most Indians also built mounds. They built so
many—perhaps as many as 100,000 in eastern
North America—that 19th-century
observers coined the term “Mound Builders”
to identify the then-uncertain creators of
The Mound Builders came to be considered
an advanced, civilized race that had been
obliterated by the Indians.
To many Americans, it was inconceivable
that Indians—familiar as decimated, nomadic,
and impoverished natives—could have built
sophisticated earthworks that bespoke large,
stable, long-lived, and prosperous past populations.
It turned out, of course, that Indians had
built the mounds.
Archaeological work showed that North
American Indian history was much longer
and more complex than observers had suspected.
Some mounds and village sites could be tied to living groups. Most, however, were not identifiable to particular tribes.
Beloit’s Mounds: A Closer Look
mounds on Beloit’s campus have been part of the Rock River valley
landscape for at least 1,500 years. They tell fascinating stories—not
only about their builders, but also about how today’s dominant society
tries to understand and contend with the region’s ancient human
mound group once contained 27 mounds in three main shapes: 19 were
circular or oval, six were linear, and 2 were effigy mounds. Only
one other mound group in Rock County contained as many, and it was
located at the confluence of the Yahara and Rock Rivers, in the
northern part of the county. Similarly, the setting of the Beloit
College mounds on a bluff overlooking both the Rock River and Turtle
Creek—after the Yahara, the second-largest tributary stream in the
county—likely reflects the builders’ preference for situating mounds
close to travel routes, flowing water, natural landmarks, and ecologically
built the Beloit College mounds? Indians did, of course. But what
group of Indians or tribes might be descended from the builders?
Answering these questions is difficult. In the 1800s, Wisconsin
tribes said they did not know who built the mounds. More recently,
Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) elders have said their ancestors built them.
Some researchers questioned the claims, suggesting that those beliefs
migrated from anthropologists to the Ho-Chunk. Today, the issue
is still contentious.
mounds may reflect beliefs and traditions of the Ho-Chunk and other
tribes, but most mounds are 1,000 to 2,000 years old, older than
many researchers think a distinct tribal identity can be reasonably
traced. Only one of the Beloit College mounds has been firmly dated
by radiocarbon. Excavation in 1956 of a small, circular mound near
the World Affairs Center recovered charcoal dating to A.D. 500,
plus or minus 150 years.
Early Preservation Efforts
in the Beloit College mounds began as early as the founding of the
College itself. As in the rest of the Midwest, the mid-19th century
was a time of extensive mound mapping and excavation. A lot of the
mapping was done carefully, by trained surveyors. Prof. Stephen
P. Lathrop’s 1852 survey of the College mounds
was printed in Increase A. Lapham’s Antiquities of Wisconsin,
one of the Smithsonian Institution’s earliest books. Lathrop, Beloit’s
first professor of science, produced the first of several published
maps of the mounds, and his is by far the most attractive.
contrast to the careful surveys, 19th-century mound digging in the
Midwest was mostly undocumented and poorly controlled. American
archaeology had not developed a standard set of field methods. Curiosity-driven
efforts—well meaning as many were— destroyed a great deal of information.
people began to appreciate the seriousness of this loss of data
and the need to balance research-oriented excavations with site
At the College, this recognition came early.
soon as he arrived in 1848, Professor of Ancient Languages Joseph
Emerson wrote to his father about the College mounds. The Rev. Ralph
Emerson (not the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson) was a professor
at Andover (Mass.) Theological Seminary. Intrigued by reports that
excavation in one mound had exposed distinct soil strata, Ralph
wrote in 1857 that additional “small temporary excavations” in the
mound could determine “the length of time elapsed since its original
formation,” and he laid out a plausible explanation for the observed
However, he firmly believed that limited digging
was all that should be permitted. Ralph
gave Joseph $100 to donate to the College with
the condition that the excavated mound be
restored and that “no part of said mound is
ever again to be removed” except for smallscale
work such as would be useful in ascertaining
the mound’s age. Farsightedly, the
Emersons supported both research and preservation.
Ralph wrote, “I think some future
explorer of the tenth generation may thank
me much more for the condition than for the
gift.” Their stewardship constituted one of the earliest applications of the conservation ethic
to American archaeology.
The College mounds fared better than most
other mounds in southern Wisconsin during
the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Up to
80 percent of the mounds once present in the
region were leveled or destroyed. On campus,
most mounds were left relatively intact,
although they, too, suffered to an extent. Some
mounds apparently were excavated or leveled
by construction, though documentation is
The turtle effigy mound described by Joseph
Emerson in 1848 as having “body, legs, and
tail perfectly distinct” was plowed in the
1870s and partially restored in 1882. The
mound group received wide recognition in the
1880s and 1890s through the publications of
Stephen Denison Peet, the son of a College
founder, a graduate of the College’s first class
(1851), and a self-taught archaeological surveyor
and prolific publisher.
With the founding of the Logan Museum in
1894, the College began extensive, professional
anthropological collecting, research, and eventually
teaching. Faculty members George
Collie and Ira Buell conducted local mound mapping and excavation, although after 1920
most field studies and collecting were done in
exotic locales such as North Dakota, New
Mexico, France, and Algeria.
In this era, Charles E. Brown of the State
Historical Society promoted and coordinated
local mound preservation efforts throughout
Wisconsin. Marking mounds with bronze
plaques and stone monuments helped develop
local pride and made it more difficult for
mounds to be “inadvertently” damaged by
An Outdoor Classroom
Mound excavation resumed in 1934 under
the supervision of anthropology professor Paul
Nesbitt and again in the 1940s under Nesbitt
and Professor Moreau Maxwell. Excavations
continued on a periodic basis until 1959
under Professor William Godfrey, Logan
Teaching Fellows Robert Alberts and Richard
Keslin, and then-student Tyler Bastian’58.
Students participated by excavating square
units and trenches into at least five mounds.
Initially, Nesbitt wanted to prove that these were in fact ancient Indian mounds, not piles
of ash dumped by a college maintenance man
(apparently a standard bit of College folklore).
Excavators also sought to learn about the
mounds’ ages and significance, as well as the
mortuary behavior of their builders. The digs
served as local, small-scale field schools to
train students in archaeological methods.
Students apparently enjoyed the experience,
even though the work was termed “Operation
Back Break” in at least one year. Several participants
(including Charles DiPeso’42, Lee
Parsons’54, Tyler Bastian’58, and Norman
Barka’60) went on to distinguished careers in
archaeology. The usual pranks were discovered:
Lois Malone Hough’42 reports that her
group found pork chop bones and an “Indian
Club,” an exercise club from the gym.
Nevertheless, most mounds proved to have
been largely undisturbed, offering glimpses
into the lives—and deaths—of their builders.
Most mounds contained burials, the skeletons
either “flexed” (on the side, knees folded
toward the head) or “bundled” (the bones
gathered and buried well after death). Adult individuals of both sexes and a child were
found. The remains from excavated mounds
are in the Logan Museum collection, though
they are not displayed.
Rock piles found in two mounds are termed
“altars,” but their purpose is unknown.
Scattered artifacts were found, mostly bits of
broken pottery and stone chips from toolmaking,
as well as a few projectile points and
scrapers. None appear to have been deliberately
placed with burials. Instead, they were likely
accidental inclusions in the dirt that was
used to build the mounds.
Artifacts from the mounds appear to be of
Middle Woodland and the Late Woodland age,
1,000 to 2,000 years old. One mound is dated
more precisely: the radiocarbon age of A.D.
500 mentioned earlier comes from charred
wood found at the base of a circular mound.
We don’t know whether the other mounds are
of the same age, but the frequency of Late
Woodland artifacts suggests that most of the
mounds were built around that time or a little
People may have built one or more mounds
on the site every few years for a few generations,
or different groups may have built them
hundreds of years apart. Most linear mounds
are on the west side of campus, whereas most
circular and oval mounds are located to the
east. The distinction may relate to ideological
or cosmological mapping: if the linear mounds represented mythical water panthers as some
people suggest, it makes sense that they are
situated closer to the river. Alternatively, if
different cultures built the differently shaped
mounds, the clusters may represent
ritual precincts traditionally
used by each social group.
Feasting and ceremonies probably
accompanied mound building;
these rituals most likely
were held at seasonal gatherings
in the fall when resources were
Future of the Mounds
The final reported excavation
and restoration occurred in
1971 under Professor of
Anthropology Frederick Lange.
Since then, the mounds have
been preserved and maintained
in good condition. Erosion is a
problem on a couple of mounds,
but post-excavation restoration
work has held up well.
Mound preservation is now
law as well as policy.
Wisconsin’s tough burial sites
law, passed in 1986, protects all
cemeteries, whether ancient or
modern, so no more excavation
Excavations directed by Assistant Professor
of Anthropology Shannon Fie in 2002 were
the first to focus on an area between mounds.
As reported in Beloit College Magazine (spring
2003), this dig recovered Late Woodland pottery
from what appears to have been a temporary
habitation site adjacent to the mounds.
Was this site a location of mound-related rituals?
Further archaeological testing on campus
may answer this question.
The mounds are resting again, as their
builders and Ralph Emerson intended. There
are many ways to learn about them now without
additional excavations: geophysical surveys
using electrical, magnetic, and even subsurface
radar techniques; soil testing with
advanced chemical methods; new dating tools
that require only a fraction of a gram of carbon.
The Logan Museum plans to install new
interpretive panels on its second-floor railings
so community members and visitors can view
the mounds and learn about their builders.
The ancient sculptors of Beloit’s landscape
left us with an intriguing legacy as well as
weighty responsibilities: to preserve their
works and to learn about their lives. In so
doing, we help Beloit’s ancient residents live
into yet another millennium.
William Green is director of the Logan
Museum of Anthropology.
Sign Digs Up Campus History," Beloit College Magazine,
News, spring 2003
Museum of Anthropology home page
William Green - Director, Logan Museum of Anthropology
Kasten - Editor, Beloit College Magazine