Aztalan is characteristic of other known Middle Mississippian societies, especially Cahokia, but archaeologists don't know exactly why the Mississippians came to what is now known as Wisconsin. One hypothesis is that Aztalan served as a northern outpost in an attempt to gain political and ideological control of this region. Another hypothesis is that the Mississippians came to expand trade with local Late Woodland groups. Mississippian trade interests would have focused on items such as lead for white paint; Hixton silicified sandstone, deer meat and hides, copper from the Great Lake Region, and even the vast stores of wild rice in this region. Whatever the reason, sometime between A.D. 1050 and A.D 1100, a group of Mississippian people moved to the site on the Crawfish River.
Aztalan is ideally situated for ample resources that would have supported a large concentration of people. The woodlands, prairie, and wetlands would have supported a huge deer population, large quantities of fish and clam, as well as huge flocks of waterfowl and dense stands of wild rice and other plant and wood materials for consumption and building. Large springs flow along this stretch of the Crawfish River and would have provided fresh water as well. There is ample evidence that people lived at or near the site of Aztalan to utilize these vast resources for thousands of years before the Late Woodland and Mississippian peoples.
Like other Mississippian towns, Aztalan was a planned community that reflected the belief system and social structure of Mississippian people. The Mississippians used the local topography to arrange space. Like most Mississippian towns, Aztalan was surrounded by a huge wood and clay stockade. The community was segregated in distinct patterns within the approximately 20 acre rectangular enclosure. The two platform mounds were oriented to the cardinal directions and between them were the three major precincts: the residential area, located low along the river; the public plaza, located in the middle; and finally the areas around and on top of the mounds for the elite.
Figure 10. Southwest Mound - Aztalan - Photo by Kurt A. Sampson
The stockade walls partitioned the areas into distinct social spaces. Two other mounds were located in the enclosure. The northeast mound, used for ceremonial purposes, was adjacent to the residential area on the northeast corner of the enclosure. Here archaeologists located the remains of a temple that enclosed special ceremonial fire pits that were filled with charcoal and interspersed with white sand, a purifying material also used by present day Native Americans. The second mound, a natural knoll on the southern end of the residential area in the southeastern corner of the enclosure, was used for an unusual mortuary or human bones disposal area. This type of Mississippian community layout reflects a tight social control and a defensive posture. Many of the gateways into the enclosure were located next to the 32 bastions or watchtowers, and this was presumably built to guard entrance into the site.
Excavations into Aztalan's platform mound revealed that the site underwent at least three expansions, also indicated in the location of stockade posts. The real heart of the town was the residential area located next to the Crawfish River. Most of the population lived here. To date, archaeologists have uncovered 15 house structures. These were typically small circular and rectangular pit houses framed by upright poles, roofed with thatch and bark, and enclosed with the same wattle and daub technique that was applied to the outer stockade wall. The houses also had protected entrances and contained storage pits, a sleeping area, and a fire hearth. Most were single family structures used for sleeping and shelter, with many of the daily activities held outside. The central plaza area at Aztalan was where the inhabitants held special ceremonies. This location also contained numerous storage pits and was an area where the people most likely played their favorite game, chunkey.
The southwest part of the precinct was presumably the area reserved for the elite rulers of Aztalan. Based on the location of the largest platform mound and a series of special separate enclosures on the highest part of the town, it was an important location. The platform mound supported the residence for the chieftains and their relatives and access to this area was controlled by the stockade walls. This mound was sixteen feet high and measured 185 feet by 130 feet at its base. Its orientation faced east towards the rising sun and, at one time, was covered by a thick layer of light-colored clay that coated the entire top part of the mound -- a common feature among the Mississippians of the southeastern United States.
The northwest platform mound is considered a mortuary mound and is about 10 feet high and measures 105 feet by 92 feet at its base. It was built in three stages, the second stage containing a small burned charnel house located on the west side. The remains of 11 individuals were found side by side on a mat that covered the floor of the charnel house.
Figure 11. Northwest Mortuary Mound - Aztalan - Photo by Kurt A. Sampson
According to maps produced by Nathaniel Hyer, Aztalan's agricultural fields most likely lie on a large stretch of fertile river terrace just north of the town enclosure. Modern farming techniques have obliterated all surface evidence of these ancient farm fields, but recent research has found evidence that this was not the only agricultural production area. Archaeological surveys have found fragments of stone hoes to the south of the enclosure suggesting that this area was also cultivated.
Other mound groups adjacent to, and possibly associated with, the Aztalan site are the Greenwood Mound group, the Ceremonial Post Mound group, the Drumlin Mound, the mounds and mound enclosure on the east side of the Crawfish River, and the "Princess Burial" (see separate section). The Greenwood mounds are the westernmost mound group adjacent to the site. These mounds were examined by Dr. S.A. Barrett, revealing burial pits under some that contained cremated human remains and bundle burials. Unfortunately, no artifacts were found to help place the mounds in time, and their relationship to Aztalan is not known.
The Ceremonial Post Mound group is located northwest of the enclosure and, when excavated by both Increase A. Lapham and Barrett, was found to include at least six mounds that contained large posts in their centers. No burials or artifacts were found here, and the posts in these mounds suggest a ceremonial purpose.
Figure 12. Aztalan Ceremonial Post Mounds - Photo By Kurt A. Sampson
The conical mounds and the mound enclosure on the opposite east side of the Crawfish River from Aztalan have been mapped and described by both Lapham and Barrett. The enclosure mounds are no longer clearly visible but they are thought by Dr. Lynne Goldstein to be remnants of the Effigy Mounds culture. Their relationship to Aztalan is not clearly understood.
Life at Aztalan
Based on several thousand artifacts found at Aztalan we can gain a glimpse into what life was like over 900 years ago. Broken pieces of pottery form the largest and most common class of artifacts at Aztalan. These tell us the most about the origins and the social composition of the people themselves. Although we characterize Aztalan as a Mississippian site, it is important to emphasize that much of the material remains come from earlier indigenous groups. Late Woodland and Mississippian peoples both occupied Aztalan and examples of both of these cultures are represented in the distinct pottery from the site.
Several different varieties of animals, especially deer bone, makes up the vast majority of the animal remains found at Aztalan. They hunted deer with the bow and arrow, which was introduced into the Midwest about A.D. 500. Fishing was also very important and several species of fish and clam remains have been identified. The discovery of an ancient fish dam at Aztalan on the Crawfish River showed that the site's location on a narrow and shallow part of the river made the location ideal for harvesting this resource. Aztalan fishermen used bone and antler spear tips as well as copper fish hooks to catch fish.
Figure 13. Antler Spear Tips - Aztalan - Dr. Samuel A. Barrett Excavations.
MPM Photo Collection # 166821
Figure 14. Aztalan Ear spools - MPM Photo Collection # 70424
Figure 15. Aztalan Copper Maskettes - MPM Collection
The people at Aztalan adorned themselves with finely-made earspools made of Baraboo pipestone, shell beads, and whelk shells from the Gulf of Mexico. Among the rare and important ornaments found at Aztalan are two copper long-nosed god maskettes. These small, face-like earrings are linked by archaeologists to the Native American cultural hero legend of Red Horn*. Similar maskettes have been found throughout areas of Mississippian influence and the image is depicted in many other Mississippian artifacts, such as carved shell and pottery.
*Red Horn, also known as "He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-As-Earrings," was a legendary figure whose exploits were recounted in historic times by the Chiwere Siouan-speaking people, including the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and Ioway. On Mississppian artifacts, warriors are sometimes depicted wearing human head earrings, perhaps in reference to Red Horn who, in one story, is killed but magically brought back to life, symbolic of rebirth and indestructibility. Archaeologist Robert L. Hall, a leading expert on Native American belief systems, believes that the long-nose maskettes were used in Mississippian times to identify individuals representing Red Horn and his sons in adoption ceremonies pertaining to trading relationships.