One of Wisconsin’s most well-preserved and important ancient settlements sits right alongside modern-day I-94 in Aztalan State Park. This area was settled from the 10th through 13th centuries by a Native American people known to be part of the Mississippian culture. They interacted with other groups all throughout the midwest using rivers and waterways to connect. Discovered in the mid-1800s, this area was placed on the National Historic Register in 1966.
Located right along I-94 about midway between Madison and Milwaukee, this area might be better known to Wisconsinites for the bike racing track that fronts the freeway. But there's so much more to see here if you take the time to explore. There's a two-mile loop through the park that takes you along the area of the settlement and down to the Crawfish River. It's the perfect way to discover this important site.
This area was important to a Mississippian Native American culture that thrived in the area from the 900s to the 1200s. According to Wikipedia, "They were part of a widespread culture with important settlements throughout the Mississippi River valley and its tributaries. Their trading network extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast, and into the southeast of the present-day United States."
The largest of these groups was just outside present-day St. Louis at Cahokia, but the groups all used the rivers that were an important part of their settlements to interact. The group in Wisconsin chose a strategic location along the Crawfish River.
Aztalan is a stunning, wide-open area and it's easy to understand why an ancient people would settle here. The area also has access to a wide variety of food sources, ensuring the civilization could survive. Knowing what we know now, standing here can carry an aura of mysticism. It feels special and full of promise.
One way we know the history of this area is the mounds that were built here. The largest mound has three "steps" of a sort that were used to create it. Historians believe there was a structure built atop this mound and then torn down and rebuilt every time the mound was enlarged. There was also a bit inside this mound where corn was stored.
Other mounds here were used for formal burials or possibly as markers so that travelers could know they were at the correct site, for announcements or warnings.
Another fascinating feature was the stockades that were erected. The ones standing now are recreations, but these stockade walls were long and provided not just fortification, but also privacy. Ceremonies were a large part of this culture and the stockade walls ensured that others weren't privy to the happenings here.
The stockades surrounded the settlement, stretching for nearly 3,000 feet. They had hidden doors and battlements from which archers could attack intruders, and they were woven together and fortified with mud and clay.
Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been recovered from this area, from arrowheads and pottery to bones. There is a dedicated group that ensures that the history of this area remains intact and honored. It's a fascinating piece of Wisconsin's history.
Aztalan State Park is located at N6200 County Rd Q, Jefferson, WI 53549.
You can learn everything you need to know about visiting this Wisconsin State Park
from the DNR website.
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