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Museum Mondays: rare photos document earthen mounds (including our turtle)

April 15, 2012

Back in 1919, long before Google Earth or even standardized aerial photography, Wisconsin archaeologists were seeking ways to photograph the state’s distinctive effigy mounds. Because most mounds in the region are no more than two or three feet in height, photographers had great difficulty making pictures that showed mound topography and edges.

Enter George R. Fox, a self-taught and avid avocational archaeologist. Fox (1880-1963) was somewhat of a Renaissance man and polymath: a mail carrier, department store owner, museum curator and director, and, from 1924 to 1939—longer than anyone else—secretary-treasurer (later, president) of the Central Section of the American Anthropological Association (later the Central States Anthropological Society.)

After some experimenting, Fox developed a workable method of photographing mounds. In the spring or fall, he would outline them with a continuous band of whitewash (later, powdered lime); then he would generally haul his camera to a nearby high point and take an oblique photograph of the mound. He often used a rope to climb trees; “this was not always attended without mishap,” he wrote.

Fox described his technique and published a few examples of his mound photos in a 1921 issue of The Wisconsin Archeologist.

Recently, while preparing a grant proposal to improve the care of the Logan Museum’s photographic collections, staff members rediscovered a set of 47 prints of Fox’s 1919 photos. This is a rare find: only one other set is known to exist, at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

041612 sandwich 

The subject and location of the photos are indicated in pencil on the back of each print. Print number 1 in the set is a photograph of Beloit College’s turtle effigy mound, probably taken from the college’s old observatory that was located near the current Neese Theatre. Note the treeless vista in this view looking northwest, with Riverside Drive and the Rock River in the background. Today, trees and brush cover much of the hillsides.

Visit the turtle mound behind the Wright Museum and see if you can detect the appendages as shown in this photo. The mound has experienced some damage and repair over the years but still is a key part of the city’s and the college’s terrapin identity.