Driftless Terroir: Listen as Rock Art Speaks Our Land’s Cultural Heritage

Keith Burrows

by Keith Burrows

Humans have lived in the Driftless Area since before the end of the last glacial period, so in some sense, before there was a Driftless Area. For much of the last 10,000 years, the paleoamericans and subsequent indigenous groups that called the area home lived nomadic or semi-nomadic lives, moving often and leaving only a few archaeological traces behind, including stone tools, animal bones and conic or lineal burial mounds. Then, between 600 and 900 CE, a new culture emerged we now call the Effigy Mound Builders. They constructed more complex mounds that were shaped like birds, bears or other animal forms, and often were designed to fit into the landscape such that a bear appears to walk along a ridgeline or a bird to fly along a prevailing wind.

The modern story of the effigy mounds provides an example of both preservation success and failure. Success because many mounds have been well preserved and protected, and are now features or focal points at parks and monuments. They have been studied by archaeologists from UW-La Crosse, UW-Madison, Beloit College and other institutions. Failure because huge numbers of mounds were lost — plowed under fields or built over by European settlers who coveted their location. It has been estimated that at one time Wisconsin contained between 15,000 and 20,000 effigy mounds, and that perhaps 4,000 of those remain. Failure also because of modern-day mismanagement of these sites, including criminal acts such as the theft of Native American remains from the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, which has damaged the sites as well as the relationship between the National Park Service (and state DNRs) and Native Americans.

Watercolor paintings from “Hidden Thunder,” by Geri Schrab and Robert Boszhardt, offer a unique and respectful opportunity for anyone to experience Driftless Area rock art without endangering the sites. “Worldview” was inspired by the Gottschall Rockshelter pre-Columbian art site in Iowa County. See more at www.gerischrab.com.

The mounds, though, are not the only archaeological remnant of the Effigy Mound Builder culture, just the most prominent. The same culture is also responsible for many rock art sites found around the Driftless Area. While you may perhaps associate petroglyphs (carved into the rock) and pictographs (painted on) more with the southwestern United States, Native American rock art can be found across the continent. Petroglyphs were carved into rock faces using stones, animal bones or perhaps even wood for some soft rock surfaces. Pictographs were often made using red ochre (a pigment containing iron oxide) and sometimes colors made from other minerals, charcoal or plant matter. I imagine the process used to develop these paints would have been essentially the same as that described by Esther Hill in this space last month (“Driftless Terroir: Making My Own Driftless Paintbox from Scratch,” November 2017).

Among the most important of the Driftless Area’s rock art sites is the Gottschall Rockshelter in Iowa County. A rockshelter is the naturally formed space under an overhanging cliff, in this case a sandstone rock face roughly 60 feet wide and 30 feet tall, at the end of a small valley formed by a creek that feeds into the Wisconsin River. Rediscovered in 1974 and excavated in 1982 by Robert Salzer, Gottschall is important to us now, as one of the richest archaeological sites found in Wisconsin, and appears to have been an important ceremonial site in its own time. While there are dozens of pictographs at the site, one particular panel has attracted special interest. Many of the archaeologists who have studied it believe that this panel depicts part of the story of Red Horn, a mythic figure from Ho-Chunk oral tradition. Specifically, the drawings may depict the events when Red Horn and his friends, Turtle and Storms-As-He-Walks, challenged a group of giants to a series of contests. At first they were successful, besting the giants at lacrosse, shooting, dice  and holding their breath. Red Horn even won himself a red-haired giantess for a wife along the way. But at the final contest, wrestling, they failed and were slain by the giants (though Red Horn and his friends would go on to have more adventures after they were resurrected by Red Horn’s sons).

“As Below/Seen Above” was painted from the petroglyphs at Roche-A-Cri State Park, the only publicly accessible site in the state, near Friendship. The paintings express how Schrab’s worldview has been transformed by painting rock art. “Like pebbles tossed in the subconscious pool of my life, these ancient works of art have had a ripple effect, extending well beyond leading me to become an artist. I have come to understand my relationships with others, the true history of the United States, and our responsibility for Mother Earth.” See more at www.gerischrab.com.

The Red Horn Cycle was first written down at the beginning of the 20th century by the cultural anthropologist Paul Radin, long before the rediscovery of Gottschall. The connection between the Ho-Chunk oral traditions and the panel at Gottschall is particularly important because it creates a direct link between the Ho-Chunk people and the pre-Columbian creators of the Gottschall drawings, a link that has otherwise been difficult to confirm.

Unfortunately, Gottschall is also another example of the failure of modern society to protect archaeological sites; in 1994 someone tried to cut one of the main figures from the rock wall, resulting in severe damage. This is not uncommon; many rock art sites have been defaced by graffiti or otherwise damaged. In fear of further theft or vandalism, the exact location of Gottschall (along with most other rock art sites in the Driftless) is kept secret. But even without that threat, the fragile nature of such sites means they cannot easily be made available for public viewing. Current funding is not sufficient to even properly manage known sites, let alone to improve them, or to manage any of the hundreds, or even thousands, of rock art site in the Driftless Area that remain undiscovered.

Given all this, what should we do about the rock art? Continue to protect and study it, certainly. And embrace it as part of our land’s heritage. Whether we consciously know about it or not, I believe we are affected by symbols such as these simply by living where we do. The land shaped the mound builders, and they shaped the land. Now, in turn, we are shaped by it and by them. Like many other parts of life, perhaps what is most needed now is for us to listen. To listen to the Ho-Chunk and other native peoples who are the ideological, and perhaps direct, descendants of the Effigy Mound Builders. And to listen to the mound builders themselves, as that is precisely what the rock art lets us do: communicate with prehistory.

If you are interested in learning more about the rock art of the Driftless Area, I suggest starting with “Hidden Thunder” by Geri Schrab and Robert Boszhardt. Published last year, the book combines archaeological information on the sites (from Mr. Boszhardt) with watercolors painted by Ms. Schrab, inspired by the native art. Her work offers a unique and respectful opportunity for anyone to experience the rock art without endangering the sites. The book also greatly benefits from many native voices, such as Truman Lowe and Louise Erdrich, writing about their personal experience of the rock art. I also suggest making a trip to Roche-A-Cri State Park, the only publicly accessible rock art site in Wisconsin. You could also plan on visiting Frank’s Hill in Muscoda on Dec. 2 (story, p. 9) or Pendarvis in Mineral Point on March 15 to listen to Wisconsin Historical Society archaeologist Dr. Amy Rosebrough’s talk on effigy mounds.

Keith Burrows is a scientist with Cardinal Glass and lives in Mineral Point. He and Leslie Damaso publish the popular Driftless Appetite blog at www.driftlessappetite.com.