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Title: Spiro Mounds: Prehistoric Gateway ... Present-Day Enigma
Author: Peterson, Dennis, Wyckoff, Don G.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                              SPIRO MOUNDS
                        PREHISTORIC GATEWAY ...
                           PRESENT-DAY ENIGMA

                         Text by Don G. Wyckoff
                          and Dennis Peterson

A traveling exhibition presented by the Stovall Museum of Science and
History and the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey.

    [Illustration: Spiro Mounds: Prehistoric gateway ... Present-day

    [Illustration: The Mound builders of North America circa A.D.

                              Spiro Mounds
               Prehistoric gateway ... Present-day enigma

The mounds at Spiro, Oklahoma, are among the most important
archaeological remains in the United States. A remarkable assemblage of
artifacts from the mounds shows that prehistoric Spiro people created a
sophisticated culture which influenced the entire Southeast. There was
an extensive trade network, a highly developed religious center, and a
political system which controlled the region. Located on a bend of the
Arkansas River, the site was a natural gateway between societies to the
east and the west, a gateway at which Spiro people exerted their
influence. Yet much of the Spiro culture is still a mystery, including
the reasons for the decline and abandonment of the site. Their objects
remain intriguing, and pique the creative thoughts of professional and
layman alike. Today, the Spiro site and artifacts are among Oklahoma’s
richest cultural resources, and the site is Oklahoma’s only National
Historic Landmark and archaeological park.

This archaeological site includes the remains of a village and eleven
earthen mounds. Although various groups of people had camped on or near
the Spiro area since early prehistoric times, the location did not
become a permanent settlement until approximately A.D. 600. Spiro Mounds
was renowned in southeastern North America between A.D. 900 and circa
1400, when Spiro’s inhabitants developed political, religious and
economic institutions with far-reaching influence on societies from the
Plains and the Mississippi Valley to much of what is now the
southeastern United States. Because Spiroans maintained such practices
as mound construction, a leadership of priest-chiefs, horticulture (of
corn, beans and squash), and a religious tradition (the “Southern Cult”)
common to the Southeast, they were an example of what archaeologists
have termed the Mississippian cultural development in America.

Spiro was known locally as a prehistoric Indian site as early as the
late nineteenth century. However, it was not until 1933 that the Spiro
Mounds attracted national and worldwide attention. In that year, a group
of treasure hunters leased the site and began excavating the largest
mound. They discovered rich troves of spectacular artifacts, including
objects of wood, cloth, copper, shell, basketry and stone.
Unfortunately, the diggers were only concerned with finding and selling
the relics, not with preserving or recording their significance or their
context. Consequently, not only were important prehistoric artifacts
looted and sold out of Oklahoma, but, like pages ripped from a rare
book, irreplaceable information about Oklahoma’s past was lost forever.

    [Illustration: _Pot hunters digging Craig Mound, 1933_
                                                         Robert E. Bell]

    [Illustration: _Works Progress Administration controlled
    excavations, 1936-1941_                              Robert E. Bell]

In an effort to prevent repetition of the tragedy at Spiro Mounds, the
Oklahoma legislature passed the state’s first antiquities preservation
law in 1936. At the same time, state leaders worked to initiate a joint
research venture by the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Historical
Society, and the University of Tulsa to scientifically excavate the
Spiro Mounds site. Between 1936 and 1941, Works Progress Administration
(WPA) workers, under the supervision of University of Oklahoma
archaeologists, conducted a systematic excavation of the remainder of
the Spiro Mounds. The WPA crews and archaeologists excavated and
recorded the stratigraphy (sequence of deposit), burials, crematory pits
and other features which remained in the largest and most severely
damaged mound. Called the Craig Mound, this earthwork was 33 feet high
and 400 feet long. Study revealed that Craig Mound, which was actually
four joined mounds, had been constructed between A.D. 800 and circa 1350
to cover the graves of the society’s most important leaders. Besides the
Craig Mound, WPA workers excavated the remains of other mounds, the
locations of several prehistoric houses, and other features at many
nearby village sites.

    [Illustration: OU Electronic Media and Photo Services—Gilbert A.

Since 1964, the Spiro Mounds and other related sites in eastern Oklahoma
have become points of renewed interest to archaeologists. Spurred to
salvage important information from areas threatened by construction and
development, archaeologists recognized an unparalleled opportunity to
document and explain the rise and decline of a remarkable prehistoric
society. Thus, for the past 20 years, archaeologists have re-examined
the WPA records, studied newly excavated sites and patiently pieced
together artifacts to determine the lifeways of these prehistoric

The new findings show the Spiro site as one of the premier trading and
religious centers of prehistoric America. Situated in a narrow valley of
the Arkansas River, the Spiroans were in a strategic position to control
traffic, trade and communications along this waterway, especially
between the small villages scattered among the Ouachita Mountains to the
south and the Ozarks to the north. Both of these regions were rich in
raw materials favored by the Spiro people. Not only did Spiro become an
important center for Caddoan-speaking residents of eastern Oklahoma, but
it also began to play a significant role in controlling trade and
information between bison-hunting Plains farmers to the west and the
numerous settled horticultural tribes in the Southeast. This development
was enhanced by Spiro’s “gateway” position between the rolling grassy
Plains and the wooded Southeast, as well as by the initiative of Spiro

    [Illustration: OU Electronic Media and Photo Services—Gilbert A.

As certain Spiro inhabitants became political and religious leaders,
they also became commercial entrepreneurs. To help identify their
growing status in the community, these leaders accumulated exotic goods
which they wore as status markers or used in special ceremonies. Among
the most favored exotic goods were conch shells from western coastal
Florida, copper from the Southeast and other regions, lead from Iowa and
Missouri, pottery from northeast Arkansas and Tennessee, quartz from
central Arkansas and flint from Kansas, Texas, Tennessee and southern
Illinois. Spiro artisans fashioned many of these materials into
elaborately decorated ornaments, ceremonial cups, batons and other
symbols of status and authority. Among the prehistoric societies, such
objects were a sign of wealth, and Spiro’s priestly leaders were among
the most affluent of the time. Elaborate artifacts of conch and copper
were more numerous at Spiro than at any other prehistoric site in North

The Spiro site reached its peak as an inhabited ceremonial center
between A.D. 900 and 1200 when the village and public buildings covered
nearly 100 acres, with a sizeable village occupying an upland ridge and
portions of the adjacent bottomlands. During this time, two sets of
earthworks were constructed: one on the upland ridge which contained a
ring of eight mounds erected over the remains of burned or dismantled
special buildings, and one on the bottomlands where three mounds were

In contrast to other mound centers along the Mississippi, Ohio and
Tennessee Rivers, the Spiro site was never fortified by either moat or
palisade. Despite their wealth and influence, the Spiroans apparently
had little fear of outsiders. Archaeologists assume that they felt
secure with their military control of a most strategic site. The Spiro
inhabitants depicted themselves as fierce warriors in engraved images on
shell cups and gorgets (pendants worn at the throat). It is clear that
Spiro was the most powerful of a group of at least 15
political-religious centers in northeast Oklahoma. All of these centers
were located at strategic frontier points along navigable waterways in
the area, thus allowing Spiroans or their allies to monitor all traders,
travelers, or potential enemies coming into their sphere of influence.
These northeast Oklahoma natives could easily launch forays into
neighboring regions from these sites. Utilizing canoes, parties were
sent out to hunt, trade, raid or complete diplomatic missions.

Between A.D. 900 and 1350 Spiro was clearly an important
political/religious center. It was also the home of artisans who
influenced the ideas and works of many southeastern peoples. Conch shell
and copper were favored materials for Spiro artisans. They used a
variety of techniques including engraving and embossing, depicting
elaborate scenes of dance, gaming, warriors, and mythological creatures.
Among the latter were winged serpents, antlered serpents, spiders, and
catlike monsters that later became important in the mythologies of
historic southeastern tribes. At Spiro, however, the animal figures
favored by early artisans were later replaced by humanlike figures.

For two or three centuries, Spiro and its satellite centers flourished.
Around A.D. 1250, they began to change their way of life. Frontier
settlements were abandoned, some people completely left northeast
Oklahoma, and others began congregating along the Grand and Arkansas
Rivers. From A.D. 1200 to 1400, a large community developed on the
uplands and terraces around the Spiro site; however few, if any, people
were actually living at the site itself. Apparently, they only visited
the mounds periodically for certain rituals and ceremonies. Mound
construction continued, and many people were buried in Craig Mound.
Their diverse graves and burial associations attest to the presence of a
highly developed hierarchy of political-religious leaders. Of the more
than 700 burials discovered at Craig Mound, most are believed to have
been deposited during this time. Many of these burials may represent the
remains of leaders from other communities who were brought to Spiro for
burial. Because so few “status goods” are known from other northeast
Oklahoma centers, either the distribution of wealth among leaders was
very unequal or it was being deposited at Spiro along with its deceased
owners who had been the leaders of other centers. By A.D. 1450, the
dominant priestly chiefs were no longer evident in Spiro society; trade
and influence among Southeastern chiefdoms were no more; and ritual
mound construction at the Spiro site had apparently ceased.

By the mid-sixteenth century, Spiro’s descendants were living in hamlets
scattered along the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Spiro. Their
settlements consisted of small, less substantial houses with many nearby
storage and trash pits. For the first time in their history, these
people were hunting bison extensively. The use of buffalo and increased
use of storage pits indicates that Spiro’s descendants were becoming
part-time hunters and farmers. After storing fall harvests, they left
their homes to hunt bison in the upper reaches of the Grand and
Verdigris Rivers. Travel was by canoe, with meat, hides and bones being
carried back to villages in early winter. Another noteworthy feature of
these later people’s cultural change was their adoption of ideas and
tools which had long been common with the Plains Indians. As trade with
the Southeastern chiefdoms decreased, that with the Plains people

The principal stimulus for this marked change is believed to have been
the onset of a drier climate around A.D. 1200. This change adversely
affected the ability of northeast Oklahoma villagers to produce crops,
eventually causing them to move downstream toward the Arkansas River
Valley where summer rainfall remained dependable for growing corn,
beans, squash, and sunflowers. However, this increase in population
placed more demand on the available soils and resources, creating
ecological and social stresses that Spiro leaders could not resolve. It
is thought that this eventually brought about the decline of these
leaders’ political and religious power, thus undermining the Spiro
society’s high level of organization and cultural development. By A.D.
1450, the Spiro site was abandoned. And, by 1719, when eastern Oklahoma
was first visited by Europeans, the natives were bison hunting,
part-time farmers of a tribe now part of the Wichitas.

Today, barges laden with Oklahoma grain, coal and oil travel down the
Arkansas River to eastern manufacturing cities and ports. From distant
places come equipment parts, fertilizer, asphalt, pulp products and
steel needed by Oklahoma’s farms and businesses. Ten miles west of Fort
Smith, Arkansas, all river traffic passes through one of the locks and
dams on the Arkansas River Navigational Canal, just a short distance
from the Spiro Mounds site. Even today, the Spiro area is important in
trade, commerce, and travel, and the mounds stand as silent monuments to
a people who, for their day, attained levels of technical, artistic,
commercial, political and religious achievement that rival our own.

    [Illustration: {Arkansas River 10 Navigational Canal}]

Although still an enigma in many ways, the Spiro Mounds have yielded
much information. The thousand year record of the mounds provides us
with valuable insights about this land, its resources and climate. They
are lessons which can be applied today as Oklahoma’s towns grow rapidly
and industry increases in size and scope. As we already know, a two-year
summer drought can seriously drain water reserves and create political
problems among northeast Oklahoma communities. What will happen if,
instead of two years, this region undergoes a 20-year drought? The
record of the past shows us that this is possible. Perhaps the long-term
consideration of present practices can make use of the legacy of
knowledge gained about the Spiro people. Present-day Oklahomans may feel
as secure as prehistoric Oklahomans at Spiro, but current demands on the
Arkansas River Basin are greater. We must find a better solution than
our predecessors, whose intriguing artifacts and mounds are all that

               _Spiro Mounds Park and current activities_

_Spiro Mounds State Park is located in Spiro, Oklahoma on the bank of
the Arkansas River. It is Oklahoma’s only Archaeological State Park and
is a National Historic Landmark. The Park land is leased from the United
States Corps of Engineers to the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and
Recreation. The Department has developed the present Park and manages
its facilities and interpretive activities including an interpretive
center and trail system. The Park is open daily and admission to the
public is free. The Oklahoma Archaeological Survey carries out
excavations at the Park and publishes scientific findings and
interpretations. The Stovall Museum has produced interpretive programs
and exhibits about the Spiro Mounds, with the assistance of the Survey.
The Museum also has a large and important collection of archaeological
materials from Spiro, and serves as the state repository for newly
excavated artifacts. The Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities
(formerly Oklahoma Humanities Committee) has funded several
Spiro-related projects which have presented information and objects to
the public through a series of exhibits, lectures and educational

_The exhibition, Spiro Mounds: Prehistoric Gateway ... Present-day
Enigma, accompanying interpretive materials, and public program
activities have been funded by the Oklahoma Foundation for the
Humanities (formerly the Oklahoma Humanities Committee), the National
Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Oklahoma Foundation,
Inc., and the University of Oklahoma. The project has been sponsored and
produced by the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey and the Stovall Museum of
Science and History._

_Cover design from an engraved shell cup (160, Craig A) unearthed at
Spiro Mounds, drawn by LaDonna Harris from Phillips and Brown, 1978._

_Graphic design: Roger A. Vandiver_

                          Transcriber’s Notes

—Silently corrected a few typos.

—Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

—In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by

—In the HTML version only, added page numbers.

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