When 18th-century European explorers began finding the enigmatic, clearly artificial earth mounds along the Upper Mississippi, they knew this couldn’t be the work of Native Americans. Native Americans were primitive, savage, already being eased out to make room for superior settlers.
No, such earthworks, the length of a room or a bridge, were clearly created by an advanced civilisation. Wandering Greeks were an obvious candidate. So were Vikings, Ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, the Lost Tribes of Israel, or refugees from the doomed lands of Atlantis or Mu. Some early archaeologists bolstered their theories by surreptitiously constructing new mini-pyramid mounds, or burying documents written in runes or hieroglyphics inside existing ones.
In fact, the effigy mounds of the American Midwest were made by a series of indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures, beginning about 500BCE and continuing until about 1200CE. After that, with an abruptness that has led to another set of inventive theories, no more were raised.
A century ago, over 10,000 mounds remained, mostly in northeast Iowa. Agriculture and indifference saw that number dwindle to 1000. Two hundred of these are found in Effigy Mounds National Monument.
I got there from Iowa City, two-plus hours’ driving across prairies with corn, colossal skies, black ploughed pasture, red or white barns, more corn, and roadside signs reading “Biggsville Hog Fair”; “Read the Bible: it’ll scare the hell out of you”.
Some 30 of the Effigy Mounds earthworks are animal-shaped. The rest are conical, linear or a compound of both. They sprawl on both sides of a path that zigzags up and along a wooded ridge, above the enormous Mississippi, where Mark Twain spent two years learning to be a riverboat pilot and where barges as long as three rugby fields now crawl upstream.
I was there in autumn (as Iowans don’t call it), and the woods alone made the trip worthwhile. Glowing, light-flooded stands of ash, she-oak, quaking aspen, hornbeam. Gentians and coneflowers with orchids underneath. All of it in gold, scarlet, purple, and every shade of Fabergé enamel. Deciduous Rules OK. The fauna did its bit, too. Squirrels and chipmunks posed; black-and-white woodpeckers thumped on trunks; harmless – if disconcerting – grass snakes, the size of a large lizard tail, wriggled away from their sunning spots.
I commented to one park ranger in a genuine Mounties hat how spectacular the foliage was. He shook his head. “The weather doesn’t help any longer. It’s warm right through October now; we don’t get the frosts that make the leaves turn.”
Then he went off to help a CO2-puffing family car find a parking spot.
At first you have to look hard(ish) to make out some of the mounds. They’re no more than two metres high; overgrown with brambles and blueberries in a number of cases, merging into the contours.
Then you get to recognise their shapes. The individual conical ones, like small green geodesic domes. The linear ones. The compounds of linked conicals and linears, found only in Effigy Mounds National Monument, and up to 150m long.
The bear mounds, compact and stylised, the back a powerful arc, the legs clear and symmetrical. A few major ones are kept mown to emphasise their outlines, but otherwise you have the agreeable feeling of something preserved but not prettified.
Why were the mounds built? Possibly for burials: traces of red ochre used in funeral rituals have been found in several. Probably as clan totems or for sympathetic magic during hunting ceremonies in the case of the bear shapes: tribal stories often present bears as a guardian of the Earth, and there’s evidence of carefully shaped fires in the heads, hearts and flanks of many bear mounds. Perhaps as statements of belonging and identity with the land.
Like Anglo-Saxon barrows, the mounds are atmospheric, often potent. Stand still near one, and the silence starts to come down on you. So do other objects. As we stared at the Great Bear Group, a shower of acorns rattled suddenly onto the head of one of our group. Since he’s a poet, he – of course – made a sonnet sequence out of it.