Posts Tagged ‘Spiro’

Spiro Mound People, Part 2

Posted: January 29, 2020 in Uncategorized

At the beginning of the 12th century, Spiro was just one of the many towns growing up along the rivers and streams of the American Southeast. It possessed the foundations of an impressive ceremonial center, but so did other towns, some even in the general vicinity of Spiro, such as the Harlan site many miles to the north. However, the next 150 years would propel Spiro to fantastic heights, dominating eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas, southwest Missouri, and heavily influencing the entire region east of the Mississippi River and beyond. Four things, all connected and intertwined, brought Spiro to greatness. These included internal stability, success in war, control of trade, and religious power. – La Vere, David, Looting of Spiro Mounds: An American King Tut’s Tomb

It is true that Spiro was not the only ceremonial center (meaning a place where hardly anything but religious ceremonies were supported) as the Harlan site was a very influential center. But, their reign ended around 1250 CE just as Spiro was gaining speed. In the early stages of settlement, Spiro was a bountiful place to live as the seasons were predictable and the land was easy to cultivate. There was a great diversity of subsistence available as well because of the region’s proximity to rivers and forests. Just like any rich place there was social stratification within Spiro which eventually led to a religious class that was specially selected to care for the ceremonies associated with the mound center. Priest-chiefs and nobles lived healthier lives than the commoners and even separated themselves via clothing. “Noblemen might wear large snake-like necklaces and cloaks made of feathers. Their earlobes were pierced, actually slit with a knife, and large round ear spools were inserted into the slits.” Spiroans also practiced skull deformation which is a process that is performed on babies when their skulls are still developing. One particular form of “cone head” deformation seems to be a form of identification for Spiroan traders, believes Frank Schambach. Meaning, if a neighboring trader met some cone headed folk, then they knew the items they were pushing were high quality. The commoners are not known to wear any form of jewelry but probably tattooed their bodies like so many American Indians in this period.

The mounds grew larger and larger as priest-chiefs died and were interred with their afterlife possessions. Just as in many cultures in Mesopotamia, priest-chiefs’ bodies were laid to rest in a house where their bodies would decay. After this process was complete, their bones were carried to a ceremonial mound and laid to rest there along with exquisite goods such as effigy pipes (towards the latter stages of Spiro as their wealth grew), pipes, pottery and copper plated items (such as the wooden mask with a sheet of copper laid over that was referenced in the first post of this series). One of the particular signals that archaeologists identify cultures by, are the pottery sherds. More specifically what was mixed in to the clay (temper) to increase the strength of the pottery.

Aren’t they gorgeous?

The pottery found in Spiro mounds were numerous and varied, obviously. Spiroans were extensive traders, for example pottery from the Pueblo (Southwest) people were found. This pottery (Pueblo) is identified in part by their extremely sandy clay. In contrast, pottery produced by Spiroans lacked this sandy texture and were tempered with grit, bone or grog (crushed pottery). In some rare instances the pottery was tempered with conch shell but this was an exotic item. This is one of the methods archaeologists use to discern which pottery is exotic and which is local. This helps measure the magnitude of their influence in the region as well as establish a heritage for Spiroan descendants (Caddos claim this heritage today). Conch shells with exquisite engravings were found as well. These were used as containers and, just as most items still preserved at Spiro, were most probably used ceremonially.

The last materials extracted from the mounds that I will talk about are the lithics (stone tools). Just as the materials used to create the pottery helped identify their origination, the same goes for tools. The raw materials used for tools are mined from quarries that can be easily traced. Most of the tools found here can be traced to sources found in the Southern Ozarks which is sometimes referred to as Boone chert (full disclosure: Daniel Boone is my great^5 grandfather so I’m partial to the name). Other sources of chert found here are from Flint Hills, Ouachita Mountains, Red River Basin and the Texas panhandle.

Just like the ceramic and shell containers, archaeologists uncovered an embarrassing amount of immaculately produced projectile points. Many of these points were rarely used and seemed to have one purpose which was to be interred with very important people.

Now, there can only be the end. It was a great and powerful run but the sources for Spiro’s boom eventually dried up.

Spiro Mound People, Part 1 (Society)

Posted: January 23, 2020 in Uncategorized

Today’s post is by guest writer Chas Stewart. Chas is doing several of these posts on interesting archeological sites around Oklahoma. Chas is a graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a BA in Anthropology, so that makes him imminently more qualified to write on this subject than me. Enjoy!

I’ve spent enough time talking about why you should care about this site and its tragic history but I have yet to give great details about the actual people that lived in and around Spiro and those that were so inspired to build these mounds. This seems like a mistake on my part because I have highlighted the things found and the people that found them before bothering to give voice to the people that make all those things meaningful and important. Before we move on to the description of the early settlement of Spiro, we must first reckon with the name. It’s just a name that people started to call this grouping of mounds and since archaeologists are yet unable to identify a true identity for the people then we must call them Spiroans. It has no meaning beyond this, sadly.

From the beginning, then. The Spiro settlement process began around the 800-950 A.D. period (though there is some evidence of occupation before this time). This falls on the heels of what archeologists regard as the Woodland Period (1,000 BCE to 1000 CE) and the main evidence (ceramics, points, house structures) that archaeologists find around this area is attributed to Fourche Maline farmers (and archaeologists wrap this particular type of ceramics, points and house structures in to the Fourche Maline Focus). They inhabited an area around the Fourche Maline Creek and Poteau River and it is hypothesized by Dr. Don G. Wyckoff (a legendary Oklahoman figure) that before 800-950 C.E. the lands around Spiro were uninhabited but once Fourche Maline people had exhausted their lands to the south, they began to work their way in to the “fertile bottomlands…along the Arkansas, Canadian, Illinois and Grand Rivers (The Woodland Southeast: Anderson, David G.; Mainfort, Robert C., page 97). Or maybe not. This is where I have to slay my hero worship tendencies (sorry Dr. Wyckoff) and admit that it seems unlikely that these Fourche Maline farmers would make such a drastic change in environments. This Arkansas Valley (where Spiro Mounds lie) is described as a “mosaic…of upland dry, scrubby forests” and “tallgrass prairies” (The Woodland Southeast: Anderson, David G.; Mainfort, Robert C., page 98) while the land they had inhabited up until this point was a forest of oak, hickory and pine trees which are much more suitable for the slash and burn horticulture that the Fourche Maline practiced. There is a proto-Spiro candidate known as the Gober complex. The Gober complex is a collection of 8 sites that are located 70 kilometers from the Spiro Mound settlement in the Ozark Reservoir. The Gober complex is thought to have lasted from 300 CE to the later portion of the Woodland Period (right around the time that Spiro was settled) and unlike the Fourche Maline, the Gober complex people occupied an Osage Savannah floodplain which is nearly the exact same environment as Spiro. Unfortunately, accepting this view would mean that the people who settled Spiro may not have been Caddo but would instead be Tunica as Fourche Maline is widely regarded as the progenitor of the Caddo culture and Gober complex, Tunica. This seems radical to me right now so I think I will stop dreaming about the origins until there is a more defined and compelling case.

Okay, I know that was a bit murky and you may not be satisfied but I can’t lie to you just to make our knowledge of prehistory look clean and neat. We’ve established, as best we can, what was happening around Spiro at the end of the Woodland period and now we can safely move in to a clearer time frame, the Mississippian Period. This period extends from 800 CE to 1500 CE which envelopes all of the major action happening around Spiro.

And I will delve in to that deeper in the next post.

Spiro Mounds Excavation

Posted: January 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

Today’s post is by guest writer Chas Stewart. Chas is doing several of these posts on interesting archeological sites around Oklahoma. Chas is a graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a BA in Anthropology, so that makes him imminently more qualified to write on this subject than me. Enjoy!

The picture above never fails to elicit an ache in my heart so deep, my heart begins to represent the deep cavernous hole of this particular dig site. This is a photo of the Pocola Mining Company; treasure seekers using dynamite instead of shovels because they needed to ransack as much wealth as possible before their mining lease ended. These deeply unscrupulous men sold the pretty artifacts while “Fragile items like cotton cloth and feather robes were tossed aside and crushed underfoot” . This may be a shock to some but the pretty items don’t always tell us what we most need to know in order to understand the ancient occupiers. Also, provenance is most important. The way to understand the chronology of the site is to slowly unearth the sites and make detailed observations of the soil changes and establish what was found between soil differences. None of this process entails dynamite.

These antiquities uncovered cause a stir around the world markets as they spread to museums and private collections. I can’t blame the people for loving these items as I have the same attraction. Many intricately designed “tribute points” were found and sold and I think you’ll find yourself marveling at the attention to detail.

Below is an arrangement of artifacts that were found in Craig Mound. All of those points are incredibly intricate and would most probably not be used for anything other than ceremonies. The shell carved in to a face at the center of this picture is typical of many carved shells uncovered at Craig Mound which helps explain the sheer bounty of antiquities that were extracted from this site.

I feel as though I’m getting too wrapped up in the stuff that was looted from Craig Mound and have left out the most egregious act perpetrated by these miners and that’s their treatment of human remains. About 7 feet down in to their dig they began to encounter many, many burials. They reported that they found “hundreds of these skeletons, lying in pockets sometimes three and four deep.” Today there are, justifiably, strong regulations dealing with human remains both in archaeology and elsewhere. These are so strong that whenever human remains our found, all excavations must stop until these are investigated by professionals and then safely removed. This is all due to NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) but it’s also very important that archaeologists respect the relics of ancient Americans because they must maintain a positive relationship with present day American Indians or else the past will never be fully understood because of the insight they can provide. Another reason that archaeologists must stop everything once human remains are found is to make sure that there is nothing criminal involved.

Just before the lease ran out for the Pocola Mining Co., they decided to make a last desperate move and set off dynamite on Craig Mound in order to plunder as much treasure as possible. Because of Pocola’s actions, this site is known as the greatest archaeological disaster in all of North America. Proving that even in the early days of Oklahoma’s history, we were founding a heritage of moral depravity that is upheld even today by local politicians.

Thankfully, Robert E. Bell (an archaeological legend), the University of Oklahoma and the people of the Works Project Administration stepped up in 1936 to began the work to discover the history of the entire community that created this system of mounds. I promise, the Spiroans were far more interesting than the things they accumulated.

Spiro Mounds

Posted: January 4, 2020 in Uncategorized

Today’s post is by guest writer Chas Stewart. Chas will be doing several of these posts on interesting archeological sites around Oklahoma. Chas is a graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a BA in Anthropology, so that makes him imminently more qualified to write on this subject than me. Enjoy!

In a part of this odd state that I don’t usually visit, is an archaeological treasure. Spiro mounds is one of the most important archaeological sites in North America and it is located on just this side of the Oklahoma-Arkansas border by Ft. Smith, AR. Spiro Mounds represents the western boundary of the Mississippian culture which was the dominant complex culture in the east region of North America between the 9th and 16th centuries. The picture above is of Craig Mound and that is the largest bunch of mounds at this site. Mounds were used for a variety of purposes and sometimes their purpose is not at all obvious. The Spiro Mounds were used for different purposes at different stages as it was built up throughout the years.

The people that resided and loved this land were a tribe of a Caddoan speaking people though the Spiroans distinct identity has yet to be definitively decided. Caddo is a language family that is made up of 5 languages that span the plains from east central Texas to North Dakota: Arikara, Pawnee, Wichita, Kichai and Caddo (did that by memory folks!)i. And there are dialects within those languages so we can be assured that just before los conquistadores were “founding” the plains and southwest, they were meeting the yells of Caddoans. It seems most likely at this point that the Spiroans were speaking a form of Caddo as well. Spiro is by no means the largest mound complex in North America but it is one of the richest sites as these people were prolific traders.

The above artifacts are just a portion of the trade goods that represent what has been unearthed at Spiro Mounds. The decorative gorgets on the left are most likely made out of conch shell (a highly prized marine shell) that originates in the north Gulf Coast. The wooden mask on the right was made from Red Cedar, was covered with copper sheet and decorated with marine shells in the eyes and ears. The effigy pipe on the right is, first of all, super meta as it is a pipe representing a man smoking a frog pipe. Must increase the buzz is what I’m thinking. This pipe is made from red flint clay that is found near Cahokia Mounds (the largest site attributed to the Mississippian culture) which is in south east Illinois. This was a major trading outpost and is seen as the trade link between the plains Indians/Pueblo Indians and Mississippians. It is believed that the western Indians were trading perishable items (bison hides and Osage wood for bow construction) while the Mississippians were trading artistic goods made from durable materials.

For my next post in this series I will detail the history of the site excavation and what we learned from its history and the last post explain what we believe to be the purpose of Spiro Mounds and what we know about the people here.