Return to Rock Lake

Wisconsin’s “Sunken Pyramid” Continues to Raise Questions

Our pontoon boat was probably the largest of its kind ever afloat on Rock Lake. Nearly 100 feet long, the vessel’s exceptional stability made an ideal diving platform, while its lofty bridge afforded an almost aerial perspective for observing large, suggestively man-made shadows lurking beneath the surface. They belonged, we hoped, to the ancient pyramids long said to stand in the murky depths of this deceptively ordinary-looking body of water. It lies beside the Wisconsin pioneer town of Lake Mills, between Milwaukee, 56 miles to the east, and westward, 35 miles to Madison, the state capital. Somewhat less than three miles long from north to south and about one and three-quarter miles east to west at its widest stretch, pear-shaped Rock Lake goes down 90 feet at its deepest point at the north end.

For our  June 2009 cruise, I was asked by Mary Sutherland, organizer of annual “Vortex Conferences” in Burlington, 54 miles south of Lake Mills, to show her the sunken pyramids I had been reporting on since 1987. During those intervening 22 years, I participated in more than 100 investigations of Rock Lake, where I observed some questionable, if tantalizing, stone piles on perhaps ten, widely separate occasions—admittedly, a low rate of success due chiefly to poor underwater clarity resulting from local agricultural runoff and building construction pollution.

These steadily worsening conditions eventually became so discouraging, I began scaling back most attempts at research there. My efforts had been by no means original, however. They were preceded by dozens of similar expeditions going back to the turn of the nineteenth century, when the first recorded sighting of a “lost pyramid” was accidentally made by Lake Mills’ duck hunters. But Mary was insistent; she had, after all, arranged for the big pontoon boat, and the weather was good, so I agreed to point out those locations in the lake where we experienced some measure of discovery, however equivocal.

The early summer outing included her husband, Brad; our skipper, Mark Enepper; his son, Travis, recently graduated from scuba school with a Master Diver’s certificate; and Viet Nam War veteran scuba diver, Steve Ashmore. Even so, I entertained no expectations and had, I confess, grown almost cynical about the entire notion of an alleged necropolis, or prehistoric “city of the dead,” in Rock Lake. Predictably, its subsurface visibility was spoiled during our latest expedition by thick algae growth sufficient to conceal Egypt’s Great Pyramid. Beginning around 10:00 a.m., Travis, Steve, and I nevertheless dove in search of an opening somewhere in the impenetrable green curtain of plant life, while Mary snorkeled overhead, looking down through her face mask on our bubbly progress. We saw nothing, however, but weeds and fish.

By late afternoon, our divers had exhausted most of their air and virtually all our hopes, such as they were, when Mark asked me if I knew of any other conceivable target area we might explore while there was still enough daylight. Not really, but I did recall that my own diving instructor, Doug Gossage (of Goose’s Scuba Shack in Lansing, Illinois), claimed to have found something in the southeast quadrant back in 1987. Subsequent attempts at relocating his find came to nothing. “Let’s give it a try,” he said, so I set our course for the coordinates of Doug’s elusive discovery. We arrived there with more post-diving fatigue than excited anticipation, so we decided, as an after-thought, to conduct our last search via Steve’s underwater camera.

We had forgotten all about this piece of equipment until now, when its deployment seemed preferable to struggling yet again into tight, cold wet suits, donning cumbersome air tanks, weight belts, and all the rest. Steve lowered away his small camera—configured to resemble a fish at the end of a long transmission cable—and we were happily surprised to see real-time, high-quality, black-and-white images of the lake floor, some 20 feet beneath our pontoons, passing across the monitor. Subsurface visibility had unexpectedly cleared—occasioned, as it sometimes is, by lower temperatures preceding dusk—to reveal a mostly flat, sandy bottom, with only a few weeds this time, but nothing more. Mark cut the motors, allowing us to drift slowly with a mild breeze in a southeasterly direction over the placid surface of Rock Lake.

We relaxed aboard the gently rocking boat, taking turns idly watching Steve’s six-by-five-inch television screen for any signs of something man-made. Ours had been, and still was, the only vessel on the water that memorable Monday. But the hour was getting late for searching below, where darkness arrives much sooner than on land, and Travis was leisurely packing up his gear for the return run to shore. Going on 4:00, while standing amid-ships, watching the sky for any sign of changing weather, I jumped suddenly at the blood-curdling scream Mary let out from her position near the stern, where she stared wide-eyed at the little monitor. My first reaction was that it had revealed the corpse of a drowning victim, a more common sighting in Midwestern lakes than sunken cities.

Together with my shipmates, I hurriedly stumbled toward the back of the boat, where Mary was oblivious to everything except the screen. On it was the single most astounding image I have ever seen, before or since. Clearly rising through the silty bottom was a steep-sided pyramid, not in ruinous but pristine condition. Other, apparently artificial targets we had previously observed in the lake had been little more than crumbling piles of rock. But this one was composed of precisely cut stone neatly fitted together into an organized structure standing perhaps five feet above the mud. In Steve’s monochromatic camera, the blocks appeared solid black. Using surrounding weeds as points of comparison, we estimated the visible height of the pyramid at no more than five feet. How much more of it was concealed by mud, no one could say with certainty, but hydrological studies carried out by the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1969 determined that varying levels of sediment at Rock Lake at its south end —- our general position —- were nearly 20 feet thick in places.

Across the structure’s face, toward the flat apex, a large, backward S, terminating at each end with a dash or hyphen, had been either carved or embossed. Beneath it was a single, brief line of script that somewhat resembled Numidian, a written language current in North Africa during the Roman Era, a simplified derivation of older Egyptian demotic. The structure itself, however, paralleled nothing known to have been built by ancient Libyans, Moroccans, or Mauretanians fluent in Numidian, but it closely matched an Egyptian style of personalized tomb much smaller than the Giza pyramids. The design’s popularity spread southward to the neighboring kingdom of Nubia, today’s Sudan, where the best-preserved examples may still be found in greater numbers. Their upper part is virtually the same as that of the sunken find we saw, but their base forms into a crypt.

Could a similar chamber be buried beneath the lake floor mud? Hydrologists know that Rock Lake was originally a tarn or pool at the bottom of a valley gouged out by retreating glaciers at the close of the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago. Over subsequent millennia, glacial rebound spilled a nearby river into the north end of the resulting little valley, gradually raising water levels until they eventually rose into their present-day 1,371 acres. Even so, possibilities for visitors in southern Wisconsin from pharaonic Egypt, much less ancient Nubia, seemed unacceptable.

As our boat drifted slowly forward, the monitor filled with enough increasing detail for us to distinguish the graininess and uniformly fitted joints of the stone blocks, until the underwater camera actually collided with them, causing the instrument to spin away in a full circle. When the screen flashed with a moving panorama of the lake, we were afraid the pyramid had been lost to view forever. But our camera completed a 360-degree circuit to come back right on the incredible target once more, then gradually passed along its western flank, and resumed its leisurely tour of an otherwise unremarkable lake bottom.

During the excited confusion of the next few minutes, as we scrambled into our scuba gear faster than human beings normally move, the skipper had enough presence of mind to throw out the anchor and, with Mary and Brad, used various markers on shore—houses, boat-launches, bridges, etc.—to get a reliable, visual fix on our position. Expecting nothing that day, I had failed to bring along our Global Positioning System (GPS), space-based satellite navigation that provides location anywhere on Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to GPS satellites.

Our divers were in such a hurry to personally eyeball the sunken pyramid, they made numerous, potentially fatal errors while carelessly throwing on their gear. Forgetting to inflate his buoyancy control vest (bcv), Steve went over the side and sank like a stone. I went after him, ready or not, my new, thoughtlessly unsecured camera floating forever away on the surface I left behind. He had utterly vanished into thick clouds of algae bloom, which surprised me, because our underwater television monitor had only a few minutes earlier showed a clear lake bottom. Now, in perhaps three feet of visibility, I could barely make out the vague form of Steve Ashmore, grasped the top of his air regulator from behind, and turned on his bcv. After he inflated it, we ascended directly underneath the pontoon boat to reorient ourselves, then dove back down about twenty feet to see the pyramid. We swam to the last breaths of air in our tanks through rapidly declining light, a suspended solution of organic debris, and forbidding forests of tall weeds. In these adverse conditions, the reverse of those shown by our subsurface television, we could find nothing.

Undeterred, Travis, with whom we had meanwhile completely and unprofessionally lost contact, continued his solitary quest after having returned to the surface for an extra air tank he had the foresight to bring along, together with a battery of underwater cameras—still and video—and powerful searchlights against a growing darkness filling the depths of Rock Lake. Back aboard the boat, we anxiously gathered around the monitor screen, across which the kicking image of Travis occasionally flitted, but neither he nor our underwater t.v. ever again detected the pyramid.

All of us had gotten a good, maybe five-minute-long, look at it. I asked each one of our observers to recount in detail what he and she had remembered, while the experience was still fresh in his or her memory, then made a composite line-drawing of our collective recollections.  As early evening came on, we made for shore but were positively ecstatic with the discovery of a lifetime and determined to make it again as soon as possible. Until we had physical proof in the form of unimpeachable photographic evidence, plus the structure’s precise location for revisiting it, we vowed to say nothing to anyone, if only as insurance against its potential damage or even destruction by vandals. For now, silence was its only protection.

Our return was delayed by a week of rain that stirred up the silt, rendering any subsurface investigations temporarily impossible, but our next expedition featured GPS and an additional underwater television with built-in video for recording everything it saw. We assumed that relocating our discovery was a simple matter, as we set out again across the waves, very slowly patrolling within our triangulated reference points for the position of its drowned monument. Though they were less precise than anything the GPS could offer, Rock Lake is a small archaeological arena, but far smaller and narrower still was the circumscribed zone in which our search was intensely focused.

Back and forth we scoured the few dozen square yards of the target area, but neither underwater camera showed anything more than the same lake floor vicinity we recognized from our previous visit. Maybe the pyramid was just beyond their range, or the visual coordinates Mary, Brad, and Mark made were incorrect, so our scuba divers went over the side to look for themselves. Visibility beneath the surface was as bad as ever, but they literally groped their way along the bottom, feeling for the structure they knew was there, for an hour, sucking the last breath of air from their tanks. That the target could have been missed was as inexplicable as it was unacceptable, but we were sure to find it next time.

For the remainder of that summer and into fall, we spent much of our own time and money plowing over and under Rock Lake’s southeast quadrant, expanding our search parameters, even including other divers and boaters for help—all to no avail and to our growing bewilderment. These costly, fruitless efforts continued over the next five years only because we constantly had before our mind’s eye that unmistakable underwater camera image of 2009. By fall 2013, I tracked down the state’s leading sonar man, a thorough professional, who worked with police agencies to find corpses in other Wisconsin lakes and rivers. Rick Krueger’s success rate was exceptionally high, thanks in large measure to his array of high-tech search instruments, which he operated with the deft skill of a concert violinist.

We hired him and his 18-foot boat for our on-going investigations, but an overabundance of weed growth in Rock Lake frustrated even his state-of-the-art “Hummingbird” 998 sonar. He suggested any further attempts be postponed until early spring, just after the ice cover melted and the organic curtain beneath the surface would be at its thinnest. The following April, we shivered in our winter coats and caps aboard Rick’s open-air cabin-cruiser, as it sped at high speed across the otherwise deserted lake, toward the familiar target area. Once there, we were delighted to observe that most of its weeds had vanished, leaving the water clear enough for us to see straight down to the bottom.

Conditions were ideal. Thus encouraged, we began a deliberate electronic sweep of the shallow depths, our expectant gaze alternating between the sonar screens and over the side into the lake. Rick’s equipment performed flawlessly, revealing every subsurface detail in a transparent panorama of the lake floor. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, but no indication yet of the inconceivably elusive structure. Hours went by. We lost count how often our boat tediously traversed the same stretch of lake. Morning dragged into mid-afternoon, and I caught the look of consternation on the face of fellow diver, Mark Lund, as the same realization occurred to us: “The physical has become the metaphysical.” No other explanation seemed possible. Half a dozen persons had been eyewitnesses to the appearance of a sunken pyramid. Their underwater camera had bounced off it.

I recalled many years earlier, at the beginning of our research, how an Oneida Indian shaman described Rock Lake as a kind of passageway or opening between worlds. “Things come and go through it,” he said, which explained why so many divers who saw similar structures there throughout the last century and into our own were never able to find them again. They had been real enough, according to regional Native American oral tradition but simply vanished into a different realm.

Another case in point was a feature known for many years to Lake Mills’ residents as The Knob. No more than 100 yards straight out from Bartel’s Landing, on the eastern shore, and only about 10 feet down, the structure was easy to find and investigate by skin divers using only a snorkel. On rare days of water clarity,       boaters directly over The Knob could look down at it from above the surface of the water. I dove on and around it several times myself during the late 1980s.

James Scherz, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Madison’s University of Wisconsin, characterized The Knob as a pokasawa pit, an Ojibwa term for a kind of family crypt still found along the southern shores of Lake Superior, and associated by Upper Michigan Indians with foreign-born miners who extracted prodigious amounts of copper during the ancient past. Rock Lake’s pokasawa pit resembled a small, squat volcano made of roughly assembled, uncut stone, circular at its 20-foot base and rising perhaps eight feet to a crater at its summit. It was in this depression that living survivors would sit to pray for the dead entombed in the surrounding walls.

The Knob was important, because it established a pre-modern presence in the lake. But when we returned to photograph it, the submerged pokasawa pit was gone. It has not been seen since, despite repeated attempts by many investigators over the last 20 years.

The same may now be said of a far more extraordinary structure in Rock Lake.

By Frank Joseph