The UW campus was built on ground that was inhabited by Wisconsin’s American Indian people for thousands of years before the advent of the United States. In fact, Madison and its surrounding lakes have more than 1,500 effigy mounds, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society, because this area was the capital for mound-building in the state. Effigy mounds were constructed in complex animal shapes and were often the burial sites for a number of people. Without any written evidence to go by, researchers surmise that the shapes represent spirits of the earth, sky and water.
There are signs of this rich history nearly everywhere you look — and Observatory Drive is no exception. Perhaps the UW’s most famous effigy mound group is located near Liz Waters: the Observatory Hill Mounds, including a bird, an unusual double-tailed water spirit, a panther and a linear-shaped effigy. Portions of these mounds were destroyed when the campus was developed. A nearby plaque says that the Ho Chunk people built the mounds 500 years ago; but archaeologists believe the mounds are at least a thousand years old, and may have been constructed by a related tribe.
The Observatory Hill Mounds are among nearly 40 others across campus — more than can be found at any other university in the world. Some of the UW’s buildings, such as Bascom Hall and Kronshage Hall, were constructed on top of effigy mounds. Most of them are located in the Arboretum or near Picnic Point.