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House Basin, Winter – Cade



December 2022 brought a true winter blizzard propelled by the weather phenomenon known as a “bomb cyclone.” Below-zero air temperatures and sustained winds of 20-40 mph dropped wind chills to -40 F. Prolonged outdoor exposure was life threatening. Most of us were fortunate to be cocooned in warm dwellings with a predictable heat source and good winter attire. Even so, it was a frightening situation--and for some people, a fatal one. Especially for people in rural settings, in an emergency, help might or might not be on the way.

So how did people survive harsh Midwestern winters centuries ago? The Cade 5 site in Vernon County, Wisconsin, offers an intriguing possibility. The site is attributed to the Effigy Mound culture, an archaeological term for peoples who constructed a stunning array of animal/spirit-shaped burial mounds in western Wisconsin and surrounding areas during Late Woodland times, ca. A.D. 750-1050. Archaeological studies have provided insights into daily lifeways of Effigy Mound related peoples. There is good evidence that they were heavily invested in hunting and gathering wild plant and animal resources (wild rice, fish, and deer) harvested on a seasonal cycle across the landscape. Corn horticulture appears to have developed rather late during this time, and corn is thought to have been a lightly used supplemental resource.

Effigy Mound related peoples sometimes used south- or east-facing rockshelters during cool-season deer harvests and camped along rivers or lakes during the warm season. They probably built houses similar to a traditional Ho-Chunk house type called a ciiporoke (pronounced chee-POE-doe-kay). These rounded, wigwam-style structures, made of bent saplings covered with bark sheets or cattail mats, would have been suitable for a wide range of conditions. (Link to a photo of a ciparoke.)

A house basin found in 1996 at the Cade 5 site (47Ve643) in Vernon Co., Wisconsin, raises another possibility for winter— a covered, semi-subterranean house that might have served as an emergency shelter during severe cold snaps. An apparent house basin (Feature 3) found beneath the disturbed plowzone soil was 11.5 by 13 feet in area and 30 inches deep. The bottom had fire-cracked rocks, a projectile point, and a few pottery sherds attributable to the Effigy Mound culture. Several feet away was a large hearth (Feature 1), partially excavated in 1995, that contained 600 pounds of burned limestone (dolomite) rock lying on a bed of oak charcoal. Radiocarbon samples dated both Features 1 and 3 to about AD 1000.

The excavator (Jim Theler) was initially unsure about purpose of the basin, but he now thinks it was a winter house for extreme cold weather. It might have had a flat or low dome covering. Hot rocks brought in from the outside hearth would have warmed the interior without the smoke produced by an interior fire. Similar “winter” houses of a “keyhole” design, with long, narrow entryways, were excavated at Late Woodland sites in Dane County, Wisconsin, by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

(Entry by Dr. James Theler)