Excavating Aztalan: Ancient people, modern story

It was late in the first millennium (AD). The site, a grassy expanse along the banks of the Crawfish River.

A small group of Late Woodland peoples, native to Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, lived off of the land here and built a sense of community alongside migrants from Cahokia. These migrants were Mississippian peoples from a 20,000-person settlement near present-day St. Louis. The migrants brought their culture, evident in pottery and tools. They would all live here together for a century or more on this glaciated plain in south-central Wisconsin, building homes, flat-topped mounds and large palisades to surround their community, surviving harsh Wisconsin winters and thriving in its fertile summers.

This was and still remains Aztalan. It is now the site of a state park, where the mounds and stockade walls these Native Americans built stand, recreated. Aztalan is a National Historic Landmark and resides among the National Register of Historic Places.

Aztalan. Credit: Sissel SChroeder, UW-Madison

Aztalan. Credit: Sissel Schroeder, UW-Madison

It is also the subject of archaeological inquiry because, despite 100-years of exploration here, there is still much we don’t know about Aztalan and the people who called it home from A.D. 800 and into the early part of the second millennium (AD). An excerpt from the website of UW-Madison anthropology professor, Sissel Schroder, presents some of the questions that have driven her and her contemporaries to study Aztalan in recent decades:

Archaeological evidence suggests that Aztalan was an ethnically diverse community – some residents were local to the area, but others were newcomers who brought their exotic beliefs, practices, and ways of living with them. Who were these diverse peoples? How did they combine their different beliefs and practices to form a joint community? Did they get along, or did their differences ultimately lead to Aztalan’s abandonment? Despite nearly 100 years of investigations at Aztalan, these questions remain unanswered.

It’s a modern story told on an ancient scroll. And it challenges the conventional archaeological tale of colonizers moving into an area and forcing cultural change on the natives. Instead, Schroeder says, it just might be possible that Cahokian migrants and Late Woodland natives learned how to live together, joining their mutual cultures to form a unique and diverse community. Today, the same might be said of the region surrounding the park, where migrants drawn to the region by agricultural opportunities and native Wisconsinites alike navigate a mutual existence.

Here, at Aztalan, Schroeder leads a summer field course for undergraduate students, directed by her graduate student Jake Pfaffenroth and managed this year by recent UW-Madison graduate, Marissa Lee. And this year, efforts at Aztalan are bolstered by a grant from the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment intended to help bring Aztalan to life for Wisconsin K-12 students and the surrounding communities.

People and a field vehicle at Aztalan, mound and stockade in background27110531880_c7b2f35519_oA stone drill point held in palm



Over the course of the next three years, Schroeder and I (as co-leader of the Baldwin grant) hope to excite people about archaeology and about the history of this site by inviting them to visit, to ask questions of the scientists and students, to get their hands dirty. We want to develop curricula for students – currently, little exists about Aztalan – and we’ve enlisted the help of an Oneida graduate student in these endeavors. We have partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Wisconsin Historical Society, Friends of Aztalan and, in particular, Fort Atkinson Middle School. We hope to host middle school students at the site in future years, visit their classrooms, give them opportunities to take on Aztalan projects of their own and more. And, we plan to build a robust website with local artist and designer Sue Medaris, to welcome people virtually to Aztalan and share what the scientists are learning and the students are producing.

Sissell Schroeder, UW-Madison Professor of Anthropology, stands in a grassy field at Aztalan

UW-Madison Professor of Anthropology, Sissel Schroeder, at Aztalan. Photo: Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison

Today, you can find more about work at the site on Schroeder’s website. This year’s undergraduates are writing weekly blog posts from the field: This Week at Aztalan. One of their goals is to help dispel myths about the site, which is precisely what they tackle in their Week 1 dispatch.

On Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11, from 10 am until 3 pm each day, Schroeder, her students, me, the Friend of Aztalan and the DNR invite everyone from school kids on summer break and their families to legislators and reporters to the site for special public days. Anyone visiting Aztalan on these days will be treated to background information about the area and its ancient peoples, an exploration of artifacts, the chance to ask questions and a front-seat view of actual archaeological excavation in action.

Schroeder’s work at the site is designed to locate and excavate ancient residential structures at Aztalan. Unpublished data from excavations in the 1960s should complement the findings. From her website:

Aztalan’s houses were built in a variety of forms and with different construction techniques, which may reflect Aztalan’s diverse ethnic groups. Understanding the details of these houses and their contents will be helpful in understanding how the people of Aztalan cooperated in daily life. Additionally, architectural variability in Aztalan’s palisade walls also has the potential to reveal information about the site’s diverse occupants.

It turns out the everyday adage – One man’s trash is another man’s treasure – is actually true at Aztalan, where finding a discarded animal bone or broken stone tool are exciting events from the (archaeological) trenches. Visit and find out why!

To see past coverage of field work at Aztalan, see this 2013 story, or, watch the video below: