It was easy to understand why Dr. John Richards kept glancing toward a raised area to the northeast while talking about his latest findings at Aztalan State Park earlier this week.
“It’s stunning and amazing,” he said as he watched his students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee dig carefully into two areas of what was the ancient Middle-Mississippian village’s temple mound located near the midpoint of the park close to the western bank of the Crawfish River.
What was stunning and amazing to Richards is the fact that the recently brushed mound, which almost runs due east to west, still has as much of its base intact as it does.
“I’ve been coming here for years and since it was covered with trees and brush, who knew that this much of the mound still existed?” Richards said.
While archeologists have known about the mound’s location since Increase Lapham surveyed and mapped the site in the 1850s for the Smithsonian Institution, no one has dug at the mound’s location since the 1960s. What’s worse is that the results of those studies were never published.
“During this dig, we’re trying to locate some of the remaining standing profiles of the mound and get a better idea of its construction,” said Richards. “Unlike other mounds on the site, this one seems to have been constructed in one stage from top to bottom. The 1960s data indicates that the layers of soil alternated between dark and light soil bands and we’re also trying to document that.”
In addition to Richards and his students, geologist Mike Kolb was nearby examining vertical and horizontal core samples to determine the temple mound’s boundaries.
“We haven’t been able to find the western edge yet,” said Kolb while taking a brief break from his analysis, “but we’re working on it. I like looking at (core samples) and trying to determine how the people living in Aztalan changed the landscape to suit their needs and their beliefs.”
Richards said that like Kolb, he and his students are committed to doing a thorough examination of the mound.
“The master plan for the site calls for reconstructing it,” he said, “and before we do that, we need to have a better notion about the mound’s dimensions. There also are a number of archeological questions we want to answer before the answers get buried. And we want to establish a baseline for the mound to better manage it when you factor in nature and the elements.”
It also means that the UW-Milwaukee team is looking to dig in areas of the mound that were untouched by the excavations in the 1960s. By carefully mapping the previous efforts at the mound, the team will be able to concentrate its efforts on mound’s undisturbed areas. That’s important because Richards and his students have a limited amount of time, being scheduled to wrap up work on Aug. 17.
Early on Tuesday afternoon, the team found what it was looking for.
“We just found evidence of where the old trench was dug in the 1960s,” teaching assistant Jennifer Picard excitedly told Richards.
“That lets us know where we want to dig next,” she told this writer.
The temple mound isn’t the team’s only focus. To the southeast of its pits on the mound, the team is digging at a site where a previous team led by Richards dug during 2011.
“We weren’t able to finish our work at that site when we excavated it two years ago,” said Richards. “What we found then seemed to indicate that we were looking at a fire pit since we found cut sheet copper, corn — which was radio carbon dated to 1040 A.D. — raptors and pottery that may have been from an earlier Mid-Mississippian occupation than first thought.
“What we found this time was that it was a house that burned, and the palisade, which surrounded the entire village, along with a defensive bastion, were built over the house’s remains,” he continued. “We’ve also found significant amounts of copper, parts of a wood-working tool and more pottery, including what looks to be a large Mid-Mississippian vessel.”
Richards added that once the coring around the mound is finished, the team will undertake another coring project along the Crawfish River.
“There’s a lot of evidence that the Mid-Mississippians were filling in the ravines along the river, perhaps to provide more area for housing,” he said. “We want to find out how extensive that public works project was.”
Since the Middle Mississippians had no beasts of burden, one of ultimate calculations that can be made, is the number of hours they spent carrying baskets filled with dirt to fill in the ravines. Depending on what the team discovers, the answer to the equation could be staggering. In addition to revealing some of his team’s findings, Richards also had promising news regarding future archaeological efforts at the state park.
“What we’ve found so far on this dig will lead to further work by UW-M in the future,” he predicted. “Hopefully, it will lead to a long-range Aztalan research project at the university that will go on long after my tenure.”
The archeological excavations underway by UW-Milwaukee are the second to occur at the park this year. Earlier this summer, professors from Michigan State University, UW-Madison and the University of Northern Iowa led students from those three universities and Illinois State, during a dig that examined parts of the gravel knoll near the southeast corner of the ancient village — currently the site of the park’s informational kiosk — and the area located between the two palisades that once existed just southwest of the site’s striking double-platform ceremonial mound. A preliminary analysis of their findings is expected to be released by the end of this year.