Robert Birmingham was touring Ireland when he had "a sort of epiphany." He was visiting megaliths - large, ancient stone structures exemplified by England's Stonehenge. "It occurred to me," he recalls, "that there was a connection between megaliths and the mounds here," in Dane County. Both arose at a time when the people who produced them were adjusting their social structures to become more agricultural, he explains.
Then the Wisconsin state archeologist, Birmingham was finishing Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, co-written by Leslie Eisenberg, coordinator of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Burial Sites Preservation Program. That book was published in 2000 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Birmingham's epiphany drove him to a more localized exploration of mound culture. The result is Spirits of Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes, published by the UW Press as part of its Wisconsin Land and Life series. Now on the faculty at UW-Waukesha, Birmingham, 61, is scheduled to deliver an illustrated presentation on Sunday, March 21, at Dean House.
Representing eagles, wolves, bears and other fauna central to the belief systems of indigenous cultures here, the massive earthworks amounted to vast "cosmological maps," Birmingham says. But those maps were overwritten by European settlement, which destroyed some 80% of the state's mounds. Of the 15,000 to 20,000 that once existed statewide, perhaps 4,000 survive.
An estimated 1,300 mounds are thought to have existed in Madison's four lakes region. Some 200 survive, many preserved on public lands.
His ambition for Spirits of Earth, Birmingham says, was to convey "that this is a world wonder." The mounds here are comparable, he contends, to the megaliths of Europe and the Nazca Lines, the vast ancient geoglyphs of Peru's high desert plateau.
Birmingham's interest in Wisconsin mound cultures has led him to a recent visit to Egypt's pyramids. His next destination: Peru. "The whole concept of landscape archeology has come to the fore. People weren't just building monuments anyplace," he says. "We should look at how the landscape was being used, not just the monuments themselves."