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On Wisconsin: Fact, fiction and legend in Lake Mills
ON WISCONSIN | lake mills

On Wisconsin: Fact, fiction and legend in Lake Mills

From the On Wisconsin series

LAKE MILLS – Let’s call last Wednesday a day of contrast sprinkled with a bit of the bizarre.

It began on the level with a visit to the banks of the Crawfish River, where UW-Madison researchers used trowels, spoons and screens to search for old foundations, garbage pits and pieces of pottery at what is now Aztalan State Park.

Anthropology professor Sissel Schroeder and her students are spending almost a month digging, scraping and sifting, looking for evidence that after 1050 A.D. the Late Woodland people and the Middle Mississippians may have co-existed here.

The sun-drenched day ended with a skeptical ride on Rock Lake in the rescue boat of the Lake Mills Fire Department so a grocery store clerk could point out on a sonar what he believes are burial sites and rock formations in the shapes of dinosaurs, birds and pyramids.

Steve Balding believes human remains, pottery and other evidence of people living and working on the lake bottom before it was filled is buried in the silt of the 1,365-acre lake located just south of Interstate 94. The proof, he and friend Judy Gerstner say, are 6,500 sonar images they’ve collected since 2002. Some of the shadowy photos were hung last week on green poster board at the shelter of Lower Rock Lake County Park as part of a media event that was supposed to include members of the Ho-Chunk, Ojibway and Menominee Indian tribes.

None of them showed.

We took the bait, as did John McGivern and his film crew from Milwaukee Public Television’s “Around the Corner” program. A reporter from the Watertown Daily Times showed up, too, but didn’t stick around long.

“That’s a dinosaur skull,” Balding said pointing to a fuzzy image. “You can’t mistake certain things. There’s a city down there. There’s no question about it.”

The myth of Rock Lake’s ancient civilization refuses to fade. Go ahead, blame the media.

“That’s why we’re called Legendary Lake Mills,” said Kate Anderson, Lake Mills Chamber of Commerce executive director. “It’s a legend. It’s a story to tell. Whether it’s factual or not, who knows.”

Actually, Bob Birmingham knows.

He’s the volunteer executive director of the Friends of Aztalan State Park and a former State Historical Society state archaeologist.

He’s spent nearly 20 years studying the archaeology and former residents of Aztalan. He teaches anthropology at UW-Waukesha, is an expert on effigy mounds, an award-winning author, and in 2007 was given a Wisconsin State Park Hero Award for his work in promoting the park.

Bring up Rock Lake and its alleged pyramids and other man-made structures and Birmingham’s response is quick and direct.

“It’s a bunch of baloney,” said Birmingham, who puts the submerged city in the same category as Big Foot and Rhinelander’s Hodag. “Every archaeologist would kill for a spectacular discovery and all the professional archaeologists that look at this just don’t want their names associated with it.”

Birmingham said the explanation for the underwater shapes is simple. When a glacier melted and retreated 12,000 years ago, it dropped piles of rubble into the Rock Lake basin.

“Just about every lake in the area has rock piles,” Birmingham said. “Because Aztalan is so close by, people are imagining things.”

Talk of pyramids and other structures on the lake bottom has been around for decades and has been fueled by sensational cable television programs, websites and books by controversial authors making big claims with little physical evidence.

Fishermen discovered the rock humps in the late 1800s or early 1900s. In the 1930s, a diver promoting a new kind of suit dove into the lake, stumbled upon a pile of rock and then created a drawing of an oblong pyramid.

Because of the proximity of Aztalan — designated in 1964 as a national landmark — many made the jump that the rock piles of Rock Lake were made by an ancient civilization.

The legend, as stated on the Chamber of Commerce website, is that “in 1066, after suffering a long and terrible drought, Aztec Indians appealed to their gods for help by building and using sacrificial pyramids,” it reads. “In answer to their prayers, great waters soon covered the pyramids and created the beautiful lake the Indians came to call Tyranena meaning, sparkling waters.”

But for students of real history, the story is not under 60 feet of water but two miles east of Lake Mills on a mound-covered prairie along Highway Q.

The 172-acre piece of land is where an estimated 500 people lived from 900 to 1200 A.D. in what is considered Wisconsin’s oldest community.

Aztalan is believed to be the northernmost outpost of the Middle Mississippian culture, whose members also built pyramidal mounds and villages in Cahokia, Illinois, and other regions of the country, primarily in the Midwest and South.

Birmingham is in the midst of a fundraising project for the construction of an $800,000 visitor and interpretation center at the park. About $300,000 is needed to meet the goal and begin construction, something Birmingham hopes will begin in the next two or three years.

Professor Schroeder, who has worked on digs at Aztalan in the past, was joined by Professor Lynn Goldstein, an anthropologist at Michigan State University since 1996 who has been studying Aztalan since 1976. She previously worked at UW-Milwaukee and is publications director for the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association.

The professors once thought the Late Woodland and Middle Mississippians lived here at different times. They now think they may have co-existed.

“Trying to understand how multi-ethnic communities formed has a lot of relevance for today’s society,” Schroeder said during a break. “How do people of different cultural traditions come together, establish a community and sustain that community for multiple generations?”

Schroeder’s expertise includes the micro-historical investigation of households, ancient architecture, planned communities, and built landscapes as expressions of social order.

Aztalan had homes, a public plaza and at least four platform mounds. One served as the base of a home for a leader, another held a mortuary building and another a temple. The purpose of the fourth mound is unclear, she said, but studies showed it contained shells, animal bones and soils of different color.

“We have a lot of evidence that these people lived here together,” Goldstein said. “So if it’s a multi-ethnic village, then maybe we should be asking different questions.”

UW-Madison students Gabby Peterson, 19, a sophomore from Illinois, and Jessica Button, 25, a senior from Cottage Grove, worked in a two-foot-deep square hole that may have been part of a house.

Peterson used a serving spoon and Button a trowel to scrape away thin layers of dirt to reveal part of a foundation or possibly a wall.

Button visited Aztalan a few times as a Girl Scout and later as a student at Madison Area Technical College. On Wednesday, she wore gloves and worked under a tarp for shade to uncover history of a centuries-old culture 20 minutes from her home.

“This is pretty cool,” Button said. “You usually read about it, but you don’t see it (in person) or do it. It’s more exciting now that we’re finding stuff because during the first several layers we weren’t really finding a whole lot. Now we’re bisecting what might be a post mark.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at


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Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal in the weekly On Wisconsin column.

Paul Robbins is director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, which teaches students "to create new kinds of knowledge about the environment."

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