Summer Research at the Effigy Mounds During the Pandemic

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Note: Effigy mounds are part of what is defined by archaeologists as the Late Woodland culture and the practice of constructing zoomorphic and anthropomorphic earthen mounds between A.D. 750-1000.

Since 2018 I have been using remote sensing technology—including ground penetrating radar—to study a group of effigy mounds located on private property in a remote setting along the Mississippi River in Allamakee County.  

The project builds on a long legacy of effigy mound research at Luther, dating back to the founding of the anthropology program by Professor Clark Mallam in the early 1970’s. Effigy mounds are one of the defining cultural features of the Driftless area and serve as the most visible reminders of the regions’ original inhabitants.  

How It Started

The initial stages of this work were immensely rewarding; working with student research partners on projects in local settings epitomizes one of the areas at which Luther excels. The first rounds of data collection yielded exciting new perspectives on the mounds. I was looking forward to spending part of the summer in 2020 working with a new set of student research assistants to wrap up the survey of my original research site and extending our work to an additional mound group at Effigy Mounds National Monument.  

The Pandemic Set In

As with many elements of pandemic-era life, my plans to complete the research in the summer of 2020 fell through, however, a fall deadline for the submission of a final grant report for funding I received to conduct the research at my original site location meant that simply suspending all research activities until after the pandemic was not an option.

As a consequence, the research originally scheduled to take a week to complete in early June with student assistance would now take at least three to four times as long and would have to be shoe-horned into open weekdays and weekends during the spring and early summer before the growth of vegetation made survey impossible. The need to finish my data collection promised to be one more in a cascade of factors which only heightened existing levels of instability and anxiety. In addition, because of Covid-19 restrictions and students leaving campus, I knew I would be doing the research on my own.

Surprising Benefits

Although undeniably stressful, my modified research schedule also brought an unexpected respite from pandemic-related mental fatigue and a welcomed sense of structure and constancy. Both the process and setting of the research provided both some structure to the somewhat unmoored environment of the spring semester and also represented a temporary relief from the attendant psychological stresses. The mundane elements of conducting the fieldwork, such as prepping the research instruments, checking and loading the field gear, and making the ~45 minute drive to the research site provided a much needed degree of routine to my life at a time when many of the ordinary elements of my professional and personal life were in a state of flux due to the transition to remote teaching and having high school and college age kids at home.

The mechanical and rote elements of geophysical survey, such as calibrating the instruments and counting lines of survey data both required and permitted me the ability to lose myself in the task at hand, to the exclusion of all other concerns. Spending an entire day in a remote setting more than a mile from the nearest road with no concerns for social distancing and no cell service (one of the underappreciated benefits of Driftless area topography) was also a wonderful escape. Finally, the nature of conducting field work of any sort always involves its own unique and unpredictable distractions and diversions, whether in the form of a young fawn who unwittingly walked up behind me and scared the daylights out of me, watching bald eagles bring food to their young in a nearby tree, or the anxiety caused by the baby rabbits who insisted on hiding motionless in the dense foliage of the survey grids where I was systematically jabbing sharp soil resistivity probes. All of these elements provided a much needed reprieve from the mental stresses and disruptions created by Covid-19.

However, it was the unfolding state of change surrounding me where I paradoxically found the greatest source of constancy during a time where so little seemed routine. Professor Clark Mallam posited that the construction of the mounds “functioned as a ritual of lifeway reinforcement and world renewal…expressed in seasonal regeneration of plants and animals.” The mounds were likely constructed during the spring as a means of both celebrating and fostering this renewal as well as to acknowledge the place of humans within it. However, as Mallam noted, the mounds were not a commemoration of change but rather of the stability found within “the cyclical regularity of life itself, ever-changing, always the same, constantly being reborn.”  

A Deepened Perspective

Although I have long had an academic understanding of Mallam’s argument, my experiences during the spring of 2020 provided me with a different vantage point from which to appreciate it. Anthropologists often emphasize the importance of positioning, where through our life experiences we come to either more completely understand or empathize with the significance of the cultural behaviors we study. The timing of my research permitted me to experience the full scope of the seasonal renewal from the tail end of winter to the full-fledged onset of summer and all of the attendant changes in the flora and fauna.  

As a lifelong Midwesterner spring is neither new to me nor have I become jaded to its wonder. However, something about experiencing so much of it in one setting, doing so in the company of the mounds, and also as part of a process that required me to mentally engage with the mounds gave me a deeper appreciation for the reassuring permanence of the powerful forces that inspired the people who built them.

Seasonal Yet Timeless

My experiences during the spring also permitted me to observe the extent to which the mounds physically mirrored this same theme, where an underlying and more subtle degree of flux resided within a larger state of physical stasis. The mounds exhibit subtle seasonal transitions that both recapitulate the seasonal renewal occurring around them and belie their seemingly timeless material forms.

In late winter and early spring the mounds are largely invisible underneath a layer of snow and the previous year’s vegetation. With the onset of the spring thaw and the seasonal burning of the overlying vegetation, however, they reappear and are most fully manifest at just the point in the seasonal cycle when the forces of world renewal are at their peak, only to disappear once again in early summer under a thick mantle of vegetation until the following year. Whether this cycle of rebirth was intended or recognized by their creators is impossible to ascertain (although I suspect it was), but it provided me with a small degree of comfort at a time when so little seemed certain. That and the fact that I avoided impaling any bunnies.

Learn more about summer research at Effigy Mounds.

Mallam, R. Clark. 1982. “Ideology from the Earth: Effigy Mounds in the Midwest.” Archaeology 35, no. 4 (July/August): 60-62, 64.

A composite image of magnetic gradiometer surveys of a linear, 4 bear, and 2 bird mounds.
A baby rabbit hiding in the tall grass on a bear mound.

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