Iowa: Effigy Mounds National Monument

Little Bear Mound
Little Bear Mound

Courtesy of National Park Service

American Indian ceremonial mounds can be found in many different locations across the United States; however, only in northeastern Iowa, along the high bluffs and lowlands of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, have so many of these mounds been found in the shape of animal effigies. Established in 1949, Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves many examples of pre-contact American Indian mounds that provide visitors with the opportunity to see remarkable evidence of, and further understand, the Woodland period American Indian mound building culture.

The 2,526 acre Monument preserves more than 200 mounds, including 31 in the form of bear and bird effigies. People known as the Woodland Indians built the mounds. The Woodland Culture, which dates from 500 B.C. to about 1200 A.D., is broken down further into three different sub-cultures: the Early Woodland (also called the Red Ochre), the Hopewellian classified as Middle Woodland, and the Effigy or Late Woodland. Between 800 and 1,600 years ago, in the Late Woodland period, American Indians began building earthen effigy mounds in the shapes of mammals, birds, and reptiles.

The hunter-gatherer culture that built these mounds thrived on the rich natural resources of the Mississippi waters, wetlands, and forests. They lived in large campsites along the river in the summer and found refuge under limestone rock outcrops in northeast Iowa in the winter. They survived by eating fresh water mussels, wild rice, nuts, fruits, and berries, and by hunting white-tailed deer, bear, bison, turkey, and waterfowl. On the two mile round-trip walk on the Yellow River Bridge Trail, visitors at the Monument can explore a wetland similar to the ones that Indians in northeastern Iowa depended on for survival. 

Why these mounds were constructed remains a mystery. Archeologists and researchers hypothesize that some of the mounds were built for religious ceremonies, burial ceremonies, as clan symbols, or possibly as a way to connect people to their ancient ancestors and the spiritual world. Visitors to the Monument can view examples of the four different types of earthen mounds in this area as well as four different types of burial methods used throughout the Woodland period.

Four Types of Burial Mounds

The four types of burial mounds
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Conical mounds are the oldest and most numerous in the area. A conical mound is round, dome-shaped and usually about 10 to 20 feet across and two to eight feet high. Conical mounds were often used as burial mounds. A second mound type is the linear style: these mounds were two to four feet high, six to eight feet across, and were up to 100 feet long. Sometimes referred to as “cigar shaped,” these elongated mounds are often classified as ceremonial mounds and are generally absent of burial materials. The compound style was a combination of the conical and linear styles. These mounds look like a string of beads, where the conical domes are connected by the linear mounds. Like the conical mounds, the compound mounds were often used as burial mounds. Linear and compound mounds are only found in the Effigy Mounds Region. The mounds are accessible from the hiking trails in the Monument. Fire Point Trail is a two mile round-trip hike where visitors can view over 20 mounds, including all four types: conical, linear, compound, and an effigy.

Great Bear Mound Group
Aerial view of the Great Bear Mound Group (the white lines were added to make the mounds visible from the air)
Courtesy of the National Park Service

During the late Woodland period from 400 AD to 1200 AD, effigy mounds began to appear. Effigy mounds (“effigy” meaning in the shape of) are found in various mammal, bird, and reptile shapes. Bear and bird effigy mounds dominate the Effigy Mounds National Monument. The effigy mound is both a burial and a ceremonial mound; however, its main use appears to be ceremonial. Only about 20 to 25 percent of them contain any burial material. One of the largest effigies visitors can see is the Great Bear Mound, which is 137 feet long and 70 feet wide. Great Bear Mound is about a two mile round-trip walk from the visitor center.

The four different burial methods were not particular to a specific mound style. Evidence of different burial methods has been uncovered within a single mound. The most common style was the bundle burial. In this style, human remains were left outside until most of the flesh was gone, and then the bones were bundled together with a piece of string and placed in a shallow rectangular pit. Sometimes these bundles contained the bones of many individuals. The other styles include cremation, the flexed burial, and the extended burial. In the cremation burial, ash and charred bone fragments were collected and placed inside the mound. In flexed burials, the body was in a sitting or fetal position, and in extended burials, the body was laid out flat. Trails throughout the Monument allow visitors to view mounds with evidence of these burial styles. 

At Effigy Mounds National Monument, visitors can explore the mysterious origins of the mounds and gain an understanding of the Woodland period American Indians. The mounds are considered ceremonial and sacred sites by many Americans, especially the Monument's 12 affiliated American Indian tribes. A visit offers opportunities to contemplate the meanings of the mounds, the peoples who built them, and the relationships to their modern descendants. The Monument is located in a natural setting within one of the most picturesque sections of the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area and along the "Great River Road" of the Mississippi River - a National Scenic Byway.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 151 Highway 76, Harpers Ferry, IA. The Monument grounds are open daily sunrise to sunset year round. The park is accessible via 14 miles of hiking trails. The hours of the visitor center vary seasonally. For more information, visit the National Park Service Effigy Mounds National Monument website or call 563-873-3491.

Last updated: March 1, 2019