The Beloit College campus features 20 conical, linear, and animal effigy mounds built between about AD 400 and 1200. One, in the form of a turtle, has inspired the symbol (and unofficial mascot) of the College. Similar mounds are found throughout southern Wisconsin and adjacent portions of surrounding states. They were built by Native Americans identified by archaeologists as Late Woodland people. These people may include ancestors of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people and other tribes.
Wisconsin Indian mounds were usually built along bluff tops adjacent to rivers. The Beloit College group illustrates this pattern, as it is situated on high ground overlooking the confluence of the Rock River and Turtle Creek. Early maps indicate more than 20,000 Indian mounds once existed in Wisconsin. Today, fewer than 3000 remain, the others having been destroyed by farming and development. The Beloit College group once totaled 25 mounds; five were leveled unfortunately by building and grounds projects many decades ago. See the 2003 Beloit College Magazine article by Logan Museum of Anthropology director Bill Green for details on the history, study, and preservation of the College mounds.
Midwestern mounds generally served as burial sites. Human remains have been found in many mounds, including the College mounds. The College mounds and many others in the state are “catalogued” burial sites, meaning they may not be disturbed without a permit from the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Because mounds probably signified religious beliefs and ritual activities, archaeologist Clark Mallam and others have referred to mounds as “ideology from the earth.” Mounds may have helped to define group territories or ceremonial gathering places for people of different groups. Some mounds that contain no skeletons may be cenotaphs—memorials to people whose remains could not be interred there.
Mounds in animal-like shapes—called effigy mounds—were built in the Midwest between about A.D. 700 and 1100. They may represent clan symbols (totems) or spirit beings such as thunderbirds and water spirits. The turtle figure represented by one of the College mounds may represent a spirit being rather than an actual turtle. Read more about Wisconsin mounds in the books Indian Mounds of Wisconsin and the classic Antiquities of Wisconsin.
Late Woodland people lived in villages and temporary camps throughout the Midwest. Several Late Woodland habitation sites have been found in the Beloit area. Two small camp sites are located on the College campus, adjacent to the mounds. Material recovered from Late Woodland sites shows that these people hunted large and small game, fished in local streams, gathered wild resources from forests and wetlands, and grew several types of crops in small gardens. After about AD 1000, they added corn agriculture to their economy. Late Woodland people made pottery vessels with thin but strong walls, decorated with complex geometric designs.
Many of the Beloit College mounds have been partly excavated and restored. Material found in them and in other Late Woodland sites in the region, such as fragments of pottery and stone tools, are in the collection of the College’s Logan Museum of Anthropology.