A fortified city stood on the west bank of the Crawfish River nine centuries ago. Adobe-like walls – upright wood posts, plastered with clay – surrounded tiered platform mounds, a community plaza, and the dwellings of some four hundred people. The homes, like the fortifications, were built with what the river provided: woven willow branches sealed and bound together by the Crawfish River’s clay. Hardened clay also covered at least one of the great mound structures.
When the sun shone brightly, as it did when I visited the Crawfish River yesterday, how the city must have gleamed! When any of the occupants slipped outside the great walls to tend the crop fields or hunt for deer, perhaps they paused on the hillside to admire the sight.
We will never know what these people called themselves. The name we use today for the ancient city, “Aztalan,” was bestowed in the early 1800s by white immigrants who, examining the ruins, thought they were connected to the Aztec civilization. As signs at the Aztalan State Park explain, archaeologists have more recently determined that this was an outpost of the vast Mississippian culture. I grew up just a few miles away from Aztalan, and to me – as to many local residents – this was just a riverside park with weird grass-covered hills. The only visitors I ever saw there were people taking their dogs for a romp.
Lately, I’ve found it a pleasant place to take a short walk by the river and watch the swallows and meadowlarks. And yesterday, I saw something more. Standing on the hillside, I watched the Crawfish River sparkling in the sunlight and thought, “This is what they saw.” Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the river’s utility to the people of Aztalan. The Crawfish supplied not only building materials, but also food: it once teemed with fish. And it served as a highway, connecting this to other Mississippian towns. But what of the river’s spiritual value? Perhaps the people of the Crawfish delighted in its beauty. Perhaps they celebrated the stream in stories or in song. I choose to think so.
Sometimes the most fascinating things are right before us, just waiting to be seen in a different light. When I left Aztalan, I went straight to the library to see what I could learn about this remarkable place – a place suddenly transformed by the alchemy of imagination.
Birmingham, Robert A. and Leslie E. Eisenberg. Indian Mounds of Wisconsin. Madison: U of Wis P, 2000.
Birmingham, Robert A. and Lynne G. Goldstein. Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town. Madison: Wis. Hist. Soc. Press, 2005.