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Prehistory and Archeology of the Upper Kickapoo Valley - Report by Kickapoo Valley Reserve

The portion of the Upper Kickapoo River Valley located between Wildcat Mountain State Park and La Farge, Wisconsin, is rich with more than 450 prehistoric archeological sites. These sites represent the day-to-day life and expressions of people dating back as far as 12,000 years ago when mastodons roamed this valley.

The Upper Kickapoo Valley

The Upper Kickapoo Valley Prehistoric Archeological District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located between Wildcat Mountain State Park and the village of La Farge in portions of Stark and Whitestown Townships. The district covers 8,569 acres along a 10-mile stretch of the Kickapoo River and several of its tributary creeks: Weister, Indian, Jug, Warner and Billings.

The district is located in the "Driftless Area" of southwestern Wisconsin. Evidence suggests that during the last ice age, which ended approximately 10,000 years ago, this area was neither scoured by glacial ice nor blanketed by thick glacial deposits known as glacial drift. As a result of the area's long exposure, wind and water erosion have cut deeply into the land surface, creating an intricate system of steep-sided stream valleys with numerous sandstone and limestone outcrops that form the cliffs, overhangs, and caves of the Upper Kickapoo River Valley.

More than 450 prehistoric archaeological sites dating between 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 1150 have been identified by archeological surveys within the district. Most of the surveys were conducted between 1960 and 1974 by the state Historical Society of Wisconsin. Survey methods ranged from surface collection and shovel testing to interviews with local collectors. The surveys were performed in connection with plans for a proposed dam, reservoir and recreational area to be constructed within this portion of the Kickapoo Valley. However, because of possible environmental impacts, together with the project's rising costs, the work was stopped when the dam was only partially completed.

The Upper Kickapoo Valley Prehistoric Archeological District contains archeological sites representing most of the major periods in Wisconsin prehistory. These sites include rockshelters, burial mounds, petroglyphs and open-air camp and village sites.

Rockshelters are primarily overhangs formed in the soft sandstone in the cliffs along stream and river edges. Some of these rockshelters contain ancient fire hearths and refuse pits, which are buried beneath 1 to 15 feet of stratified (layered) sandy soils and rocky, roof-fall debris on the shelter floor. Radiocarbon dating of plant and animal remains, as well as the style or artifacts found in these shelters, provides the basis for dating the occupation strata, or layers, of the shelter. The dates and artifact styles also suggest the shelter's relationship to other sites in the district and in southwestern Wisconsin. Generally, preservation in rockshelters is better than in open-air sites because of greater protection from wind and rain. Carbonized (charred) plant remains and animal bones from rockshelters provide information about the diet and the seasonal movements of the people who occupied them.

In the district's Bard Lawrence Rockshelter, for example, stratified deposits representing many episodes of occupation were dated by artifact style and radiocarbon analysis of charcoal from fire hearths. The remains of deer, elk, bear, puma and wolf, as well as smaller animals such as fox, fisher, raccoon, muskrat and beaver, were discovered in this rockshelter. Evidence of birds, such as turkey, sharp-tailed grouse and robin, in addition to turtle and fish, was also present. The animal bones from the shelter suggest that it was used primarily during the winter. For example, the frontal bones of deer skulls suggest they were killed during the anterless period between January and the first of May.

Burial mounds in the district are conical, oval, or linear. They are commonly thought to be affiliated with the Woodland Tradition (500 B.C. to A.D. 1000). Generally, they are situated on prominent areas of high ground, often 100 to 200 feet above the valley floor. Some mounds were ritually constructed over a long period of time with different burial episodes adding to the size and shape of the mound. Oval and linear mounds were often formed when burials were placed next to each other, or the mound was expanded horizontally. Conical mounds were built up vertically. Burial mounds are sacred features on this cultural landscape and should be treated with the respect afforded any cemetery.

Petroglyphs are images etched into rock. Typically, petroglyphs in the Upper Kickapoo Valley Prehistoric Archeological District were formed by carving grooves into soft sandstone outcrops to form images. Often, more than one image may be found at a site, comprising a rock art or petroglyph panel.

Prior to 1997, only one petroglyph site, the Hanson petroglyphs, had been identified within the district, and only three other sites were reported for the Upper Kickapoo Valley Area. The Hanson petroglyphs were known to local residents and reported to archeologists in 1960 during the first archeological survey of the proposed reservoir. This site is a panel of three complete bird figures and the wing of a fourth bird, suggesting that more figures were present in the past.

During the 1997 and 1998 archeological surveys, more than six additional sites were identified. All of the newly identified sites consist of abstract combinations of lines carved in the soft sandstone.

It is difficult to date and interpret petroglyph sites. The age of some sites may be suggested by the degree of weathering, the extent to which the petroglyphs are covered by lichens, or stylistic markers such as bows and arrows. The history and traditions of ancestral Native American groups may provide provocative interpretations for many petroglyph sites.

Send all inquires, letters, questions or answers, and photos to Hans c/o the Westby Times or Hans at hans4802@netscape.net

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