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Aztalan History

The ancient Indian town of Aztalan is Wisconsin's premier archaeological site and a National Historic Landmark.

Located on the Crawfish River, successive Native American cultures lived here for thousands of years. Between 1050 and 1100, people from the great Mississippian civilization in southern Illinois established a fortified town, living with local Woodland people until the mysterious abandonment of the town about 1200 A.D. The name Aztalan derives from early settlers who mistakenly thought the town was related to the Aztecs of Mexico. Evidence uncovered at the site, however, indicates that many of the Aztalan people came from the area of the large Native American city of Cakokia along the Mississippi River near modern day East St. Louis, IL.

Archaeological excavations throughout the years determined that the town at one time covered over 35 acres. Indian people constructed three earthen platform mounds within the massive exterior log and clay fortification that supported important buildings: a temple where a sacred fire was burning, a mortuary structure and probably residence of the chief or leader. The town was divided by interior log walls into a residential area, a plaza and a high area of land that seems reserved for elite members of Mississippian society. A mysterious enclosure extended from the town's southwestern end.

Two of the mounds survive and have been faithfully restored after some damage from years of modern agricultural use. Portions of the fortifications have also been constructed on the same places were archaeologists found evidence of log walls.

Most of the Aztalan people lived in small pole and bark structures covered with clay for insulation. They grew corn, squash, gourds, sunflowers and other crops. Deer hunting provided most of the meat. The massive fortifications and other evidence suggests that the people of Aztalan were sometimes at war with other people.

Among the many artifacts found at the site are beautiful clay pots, uniquely fashioned arrow points, a figure of a Mississippian deity, shell beads, copper and stone ear decorations worn by nobility and warriors, large stone hoes imported from southern Illinois and small stone disks or wheels from a spear throwing game called "chunkey."

What brought the Mississippian people to southern Wisconsin remains a mystery. Also unknown are causes of the disappearance of Mississippian culture from the Midwestern United States. These questions are currently being investigated by Aztalan archaeologists who frequently give presentations at the park.

State park history

Aztalan's beginnings as a park date to 1922, when a group of concerned Jefferson citizens purchased the few conical mounds remaining from a group that once numbered more than 40. At that time what is now part of the state park was called Mounds Park. In 1927 the property was turned over to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society and a formal dedication took place on October 20, 1928.

On April 2, 1947, the Wisconsin Legislature directed the state Conservation Commission to acquire the land as a historical memorial park. The commission bought 120 acres and the Wisconsin Archeological Society and Lake Mills - Aztalan Historical Society donated their lands. The site opened to the public as a state park in 1952, designated a National Landmark in 1964 and listed in the National Registry of Historic Places in 1966.

The present Aztalan State Park covers 172 acres including a large tract of forest on the East side of Crawfish River. The park preserves the remains of the Mississippian town, a line of ceremonial mounds that extend northward above the town, ancient agricultural fields, and other fascinating cultural features.

Last revised: Friday October 17 2014