Aztalan - Mississippian Mound Center in Wisconsin

Mississippian Site of Aztalan

Platform Mound at Atalan Mississippian Mound Center, Wisconsin
Platform Mound at Atalan Mississippian Mound Center, Wisconsin. Joshua Mayer

Aztalan is a large Woodland and Mississippian site located on the west bank of the Crawfish River near Lake Mills in the midwestern US state of Wisconsin. The site was occupied between about AD 800 and 1250; it was founded during the Late Woodland period and apparently colonized by Mississippian culture in AD 1060, when platform mounds and fortifications were added. Although the relationship is not well-understood as of yet, Aztalan is believed to have been intimately connected to the enormous Mississippian urban center of Cahokia, approximately 500 kilometers (~310 miles) to the south, along the Mississippi river and its tributaries.

Aztalan contains includes a large number of mounds, including several platform, conical and effigy mounds. A central plaza with adjacent residences makes up the largest portion of the site. The plaza and residences were surrounded by a 4 m (13 ft) high, rectangular fortification palisade wall. Almost one kilometer (.6 miles) long, with regularly spaced bastions, the palisade was constructed of logs, which were covered with clay daub and then fired, enclosing an area of about 600x400 meters (~2000x1300 feet), or nearly 9 hectares (22 acres) along the river bank. Inside the outer palisade are several shorter, and likely earlier palisade walls.

Inside the enclosure are three flat-topped pyramid mounds and a plaza. A precinct of effigy mounds lies to the east outside of the palisade; the row of conical burial mounds lies to the northwest. An early visitor to Aztalan reported that a field of corn hills (called ridged fields where maize would have been planted) was still in existence; an area north of the palisade has been hypothesized as an agricultural field.

Living at Aztalan

Mississippian artifacts recovered at the site include pottery tempered with burned and crushed shell, in the Cahokian types of Ramey Incised and Powell Plain, tri-notched projectile points and rectangular and circular single post houses.

Diet evidenced by artifacts and stable isotope analysis of the human remains includes a wide range of species, such as fish, bear, bison, deer, birds, rabbit, turtles.

Plant remains include choke-cherries, squash and maize, the last the most important part of the Aztalan diet.

Recent strontium analysis of human skeletal material from Aztalan (Price et al) suggests that some of the people buried at Aztalan were born in or near the Mississippian capital of Cahokia, the strongest evidence to date of Cahokian interactions.

Archaeology at Aztalan

Aztalan was first excavated by Increase Lapham in the 1830s. Other archaeologists associated with the site include Samuel Barrett, David Barreis, Lynne Goldstein, John Richards, and Robert Ritzenthaler.

Aztalan was fancifully named by travelers in the 1830s, who assumed it was part of the Aztec empire. 'Aztlan' is the ancient (and so far legendary) capital city of the Aztecs; but they had nothing to do with Aztalan.

Visiting Aztalan

Aztalan is a Wisconsin state park, and open to the public between 6 am and 11 pm daily. There's a museum open between mid-May through late September, and the Crawfish River can be fished in. A festival is hosted by the Aztalan Historical Society on the museum grounds each year on the Sunday closest to July 4.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to the Mississippian Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Baerreis DA, and Freeman JE. 1958. Late Woodland pottery in Wisconsin as seen from Aztalan. Wisconsin Archeologist 39(1):35-61.

Freeman JE. 1986. Aztalan: a Middle Mississippian village. In Introduction to Wisconsin Archaeology. Wisconsin Archeologist 67:339-364.

Birmingham RA, and Goldstein, LG. 2006. Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Goldstein LG. 1991. Ancient Aztalan: the cultural and ecological context of a late prehistoric site in the Midwest. In: Richards JD, Emerson TE, and Lewis RB, editors. Cahokia and the hinterlands: Middle Mississippian cultures of the Midwest. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p 193-206.

Goldstein LG, and Stoltman JB, editors. 1991. The implications of Aztalan's location. In New Perspectives on Cahokia: Views from the Peripheries.

Madison, Wisconsin: Prehistory Press.

Jaehnig MEW. 1971. A buried soil profile at the site of Aztalan, 47-Je-1, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Archeologist 52:71-77.

Lewis TH. 1894. The Aztalan enclosure newly described. American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal 16:205-208.

Maher RA. 1958. The Aztalan lithic complex. Wisconsin Archeologist 39:5-26.

Maxwell MS. 1952. Clay ear spools from the Aztalan site, Wisconsin. American Antiquity 18:61-63.

Peters GR. 1976. A reevaluation of Aztalan: some temporal and causal factors. Wisconsin Archeologist 57:2-11.

Price TD, Burton JH, and Stoltman JB. 2007. Place of Origin of Prehistoric Inhabitants of Aztalan, Jefferson Co., Wisconsin. American Antiquity 72(3):524-538.