Robert Birmingham was state archaeologist from 1989 to 2004, and is co-author of “Indian Mounds of Wisconsin” (University of Wisconsin Press 2000). His “Spirits of Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes” was published in 2009, also by the university press.
These Indian mounds all around us are amazing, aren’t they?
Yes, and that is the chief reason I wrote the book. My particular interest in Indian mounds rose when I moved to Madison from Milwaukee. … And I was really stunned by how many mounds survived here.
So that really got me started in mound research, but as I looked more carefully at the Madison area, it really struck me that this is, as I put in the book, a world wonder. This is something that doesn’t occur any place else in the world in such large numbers.
Do people appreciate the mounds?
More and more. When I first became state archaeologist, generally no. No one knew too much about the mounds. There really wasn’t a sense that this was anything special, and in a lot of cases these were things that just got in the way.
But when people know the background, when they’re educated as to the significance of the mounds, the appreciation level just goes off the graph. Since then, things have really turned around and people are very, very sensitive to the mounds.
I get a lot of phone calls all the time, people think they have mounds in their yards or other places, and that wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago because people would have thought these to be trouble somehow for them.
What should people see when they’re looking at mounds?
They should see religion. They should see churches. They should see not simply a cemetery but rather an artistic composition that directly related to a belief system.
How are we doing today in terms of preserving the mounds?
Very well. Time to time there are some incidences but rarely do we hear about any deliberate destruction of mounds. … But we have done a good job of preserving individual mounds but not the landscape.
My argument is wherever possible to preserve the environment of the mounds because that’s why the mounds were at a particular place.
Do we still make Indian mounds, figuratively speaking, today?
Our architecture reflects our world view. In some cases, it may be chaotic, but that’s our world view. … So almost everything we build and rebuild sort of says something of how we look at the world. But the difference is they’re not closely tied to the supernatural.
What do you believe about the mounds?
I believe that the people who made these mounds were not simply making static monuments or representations or symbols. Through their rituals they were actually bringing back to life their ancestors and powerful spirits. So this was a living landscape.
What do we not know about the Indian mounds in the Madison area?
We don’t know why they started to build these mounds in such huge numbers. Between about 700 and 1200 AD, they started to build the mounds in the shape of animals, and they were building them everywhere … so something happened that greatly accelerated mound building and changed its entire form.
Why? This is an extraordinary phenomenon, and it requires an extraordinary explanation … (about) why they stopped. The effigy mounds quite suddenly came to a close.
What’s your favorite mound?
It’s the large eagle or thunderbird mound at Mendota State Hospital. It’s the largest bird mound in the world, and it’s awesome.