Town meets gown to explore Wisconsin’s Trempealeau mounds

July 23, 2014

by David Tenenbaum

Archaeology at Trempealeau

It’s all eyes down in late June as UW-Madison students and local volunteers dig and screen for artifacts in the village of Trempealeau. Bones are not well preserved at the site, so the main evidence of occupation consists of ceramics, stone chips and soil color.

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Why did migrants from Cahokia, the large mound city near St. Louis, move to the present-day village of Trempealeau in western Wisconsin to build flat-topped mounds about 1,000 years ago?

That question has intrigued Danielle Benden, senior curator in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Anthropology, for more than a decade.

Archaeologists discuss a potential find

Taylor Nealis (left) of New Glarus discusses a possible find with archaeologists Ernie Boszhardt (center) and Danielle Benden (right). Every detail was documented in exhaustive records as the dig progressed.

In June and early July, 11 UW-Madison students and half a dozen local volunteers got their hands dirty at a summer archaeology field school that Benden directed with help from Ernie Boszhardt, her spouse and a fellow archaeologist.

The Mississippian people who built the Trempealeau mounds apparently felt safe, as there is no sign of defensive earthworks or palisades. The site may have been chosen for its proximity to Trempealeau Mountain, a steep rise that is the only hill “with its feet in the water” along the entire Mississippi River, Benden said.

One volunteer for this summer’s project was Phil Palzkill, former manager of Perrot State Park. “My favorite job here is shaking, but digging is OK — you never know what’s going to be in next shovelful,” he said. After the topsoil was removed, every shovelful was screened by “shakers,” who must eagle-eye stone flakes (left over from production of tools or weapons) and ceramic. Bones rarely preserve in the sandy, acidic soil.

“I hope this will expand our knowledge of what really took place here a long time ago,” Palzkill said. “We have effigy mounds in the park, a Hopewell structure there, we’ve got French and British influence. It was a crossroads here.” (The Hopewell culture dates back about 2,000 years.)

Studying soil

Soil color, compared to a standard color key, reveals signs of buildings and other disturbances, like human movement of soil.

The dig had little of the Indiana Jones mystique, said Mikayla Fehring of West Bend, a UW-Madison anthropology major who will be a junior in the fall. “We have pits that come up with nothing but flakes of rock,” she said. “Our pit shows mostly soil staining,” which can indicate the presence of a building. “Normally you would think this is not much, but morale is great. Instead of being discouraged, (thinking), ‘We dug a meter-deep pit for nothing,’ (our attitude is), ‘Let’s try a different place.’”

Still to be explained was the brief duration of the Mississippian occupation, which began around 1050 and lasted as few as 50 years. Pottery remains indicate that the area was not occupied by commoners. “By looking at the kind of pottery, we conclude these are special pots you see only in a context like feasting,” said Benden. “Eighty percent of the pots are fine ware, small individual bowls meant for passing and sharing, like you see in a church, for the body and blood of Christ.”

Working at the site

Taylor Nealis of New Glarus flings dirt into a screen operated by Phil Palzkill, a volunteer from Trempealeau. “I’ve always been interested in history,” says Palzkill. “I grew up on the farm between Mineral Point and Darlington. During the Black Hawk War, there was a stockade on our property. I started taking history, geography, geology, and it just continued on from there.”

The working hypothesis, she said, is, “This is a small group of people, maybe priests, setting up a religious mission — Cahokia north — without many of the everyday things you find at other sites.”

The multiyear dig depends on local buy-in, and that was difficult at first, said John Ebersold, who works in the village of Trempealeau street department. “To me, it’s all interesting, but years ago, when they came into the area, a few people did not believe in what they were doing, and that slowed it down.”

“(Benden and Boszhardt) give a great presentation at the end of the dig, and each time, more people come, and they are bringing stuff they have found,” Ebersold said. “Danielle and Ernie answer questions, and the opposition has melted away. You can’t find two nicer people.”

Trempealeau Mountain

The unique geography of Trempealeau Mountain, just upriver from the dig site, may have attracted priests from Cahokia, Ill., to settle nearby.

The project succeeds in multiple ways, said Benden. “The cool thing is that we are rewriting a chapter of Wisconsin history. The research is getting national attention in the archaeological community, but I am equally interested in the Wisconsin Idea, to make sure the general public, the statewide community, is aware of how magical the archaeology is in our own state. This year we hosted three presentations with between 50 and 100 people at each one.”

Eventually, with funding from the Morgridge Center for Public Service and the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, Benden hopes to create a local exhibit and trail markers to guide visitors around the Mississippian sites in and around Trempealeau.