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Spiro Mounds

Spiro Mound Group
Stone effigy pipe from Spiro Mounds known as "Grizzly Man" or the "Kneeling Rattler"
Spiro Mounds is located in Oklahoma
Spiro Mounds
Nearest city Spiro, Oklahoma
Area Le Flore County
Architectural style Mississippian
NRHP Reference # 69000153
Added to NRHP September 30, 1969[1][2]

Spiro Mounds (34 LF 40)[3] is an important Mississippian archaeological site located in what is now Eastern Oklahoma. It lies near the Arkansas River seven miles north of the town of Spiro. Between the 800s and 1400s CE, the Spiro people created a powerful religious and political center based on the model of Mississippian Culture that thrived along the Mississippi River and its tributaries at that period. Spiro is considered the western-most outpost of Mississippian culture. Spiro Mounds is under the protection of the Oklahoma Historical Society, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [4]

In the 1930s, treasure hunters/speculators bought the rights to tunnel into Craig Mound -- the second-largest mound on the site -- to mine it for artifacts, exposing a hollow burial chamber inside, a unique feature containing some of the most extraordinary pre-Columbian artifacts ever found in North America. These speculators sold the artifacts they recovered to art collectors, some as far away as Europe. Some of these artifacts were later donated back, though some have never been accounted for. This site has been significant for North American archaeology since the 1930s, especially for defining the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, a significant feature of the Mississippian tradition.


  • Mounds and plaza area 1
  • The Great Mortuary 2
  • Southeastern Ceremonial Complex 3
  • Mississippian iconography 4
  • Decline 5
  • Caddoan Mississippians 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Mounds and plaza area

A reconstructed house. Grass-thatched roofs were typical of the later, historic Wichita and Caddo although their houses were round with high-pitched roofs.

Mississippian culture spread along the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries between the 9th century and 16th century CE. The largest Mississippian settlement was Cahokia, the capital of a major chiefdom that built a six-mile-square city east of what is now St. Louis, Missouri in present-day Southern Illinois. Mississippian culture ranged from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast, and along the Ohio River and into both the lowland and mountain areas of the Southeast. Mississippian settlements had large platform mounds (usually truncated pyramids) surmounted by temples, the houses of warrior kings and priests, and the burial houses of the elite. Archaeological research has shown that Mississippian settlements like Cahokia and Spiro took part in a vast trading network that covered the eastern half of what is now the U.S. and parts of what is now the Western U.S. as well.

The Spiro site includes twelve earthen mounds and 150 acres of land.[4] As in other Mississippian-culture towns, the people built a number of large, complex earthworks. These included mounds surrounding a large, planned and leveled central plaza, where important religious rituals, the politically and culturally significant game of chunkey, and other important community activities were carried out. The population lived in a village that bordered the plaza. In addition, archaeologists have found more than twenty other related village sites within five miles of the main town. Other village sites linked to Spiro through culture and trade have been found up to a 100 miles (160 km) away.

Spiro has been the site of human activity for at least 8000 years, but was a major settlement from 800 to 1450 CE.[4] The cultivation of maize allowed accumulation of crop surpluses and the gathering of more dense populations. It was the headquarters town of a regional chiefdom, whose powerful leaders directed the building of eleven platform mounds and one burial mound in an 80-acre (0.32 km2) area on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The heart of the site is a group of nine mounds surrounding an oval plaza. These mounds elevated the homes of important leaders or formed the foundations for religious structures that focused the attention of the community. Brown Mound, the largest platform mound, is located on the eastern side of the plaza. It had an earthen ramp that gave access to the summit from the north side. Here, atop Brown Mound and the other mounds, the town's inhabitants carried out complex rituals, centered especially on the deaths and burials of Spiro's powerful rulers.

Archaeologists have shown that Spiro had a large resident population until about 1250 CE. After that, most of the population moved to other towns nearby. Spiro continued to be used as a regional ceremonial center and burial ground until about 1450 CE. Its ceremonial and mortuary functions continued and seem to have grown after the main population moved away.

The Great Mortuary

Craig Mound

Craig Mound – also called "The Spiro Mound" – is the second-largest mound on the site and the only burial mound. It is located about 1,500 feet (460 m) southeast of the plaza. A cavity created within the mound, about 10 feet (3.0 m) high and 15 feet (4.6 m) wide, allowed for almost perfect preservation of fragile artifacts made of wood, conch shell, and copper. The conditions in this hollow space were so favorable that objects made of perishable materials such as basketry, woven fabric of vegetal and animal fibers, lace, fur, and feathers were preserved inside it. Such objects have traditionally been created by women in historic tribes. Also found inside were several examples of Mississippian stone statuary made from Missouri flint clay and Mill Creek chert bifaces, all thought to have originally come from the Cahokia site in Illinois.

The "Great Mortuary," as archaeologists called this hollow chamber, appears to have begun as a burial structure for Spiro's rulers. It was created as a circle of sacred cedar posts sunk in the ground and angled together at the top like a tipi. The cone-shaped chamber was covered with layers of earth to create the mound, and it never collapsed. Some scholars believe that minerals percolating through the mound hardened the chamber's log walls, making them resistant to decay and shielding the perishable artifacts inside from direct contact with the earth. No other Mississippian mound has been found with such a hollow space inside it and with such spectacular preservation of artifacts. Craig Mound has been called "an American King Tut's Tomb."

Between 1933 and 1935, Craig Mound was excavated by an enterprise who had bought the rights to excavate and keep or sell the artifacts they recovered. Tunneling into the mound and breaking through the Great Mortuary's log wall. They found many human burials, together with their associated grave goods. They discarded the human remains and the fragile artifacts—made of textile, basketry, and even feathers—that were preserved in these extremely unusual conditions. Most of these rare and historically priceless objects disintegrated before scholars could reach the site, although some were sold to collectors.[5] When the commercial excavaters finished, the dynamited the burial chamber and sold the commercially valuable artifacts, made of stone, pottery, copper, and conch shell, to collectors in the United States and overseas. Most of these valuable objects are probably lost, but some have been returned through donation and documented by scholars.

Archaeologists from the University of Oklahoma excavated parts of the site between 1936 and 1941. The Oklahoma Historical Society established the "Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center opened in 1978.[4]

Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

Birdman design based on an engraved conch shell found in Craig Mound at Spiro.

Spiro Mounds people participated in what archaeologists call the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), a network of ceremonial centers sharing the Mississippian culture and similar spiritual beliefs, cosmology, ritual practices, and cult objects. The SECC was a vast trading network that brought exotic materials for making ritual objects from all across North America. These included colored flint from New Mexico, copper from the Great Lakes, conch (or lightning whelk) shells from the Gulf Coast, and mica from the Carolinas.[6] Other Mississippian centers also traded in these prized resources, but Spiro was apparently the only one that acquired obsidian from Mexico.[7] Using these valued materials, Mississippian artists created exquisite works of art reflecting their cultural identity and their complex spiritual beliefs.

When commercial excavaters doug into Craig Mound, they found many beautifully crafted ritual artifacts, including engraved with intricate designs representing costumed men, real and mythical animals, and geometric motifs, all of which had profound symbolic significance. Spiro Mounds' ceremonial objects are among the finest examples of pre-Columbian art in North America.

Later, archaeologists identified artifacts at Spiro that appeared to have come from other powerful Mississippian towns far from present-day Oklahoma that also participated in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. These include Cahokia in Illinois, Moundville in Alabama. In economic terms, Spiro seems to have been a gateway town that funneled valuable resources from the Great Plains and other western regions to the main Mississippian ceremonial centers farther east. In return, it received valuable goods back from those other centers. Spiro's location on the Arkansas River, one of the Mississippi's principal tributaries, gave it access to the Mississippian heartland hundreds of miles away.

Spiro and other Mississippian towns clearly looked to the great city of Cahokia, in what is now southern Illinois, as a cultural model to be emulated. Located about 400 miles northeast of Spiro near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, Cahokia was the largest and most impressive of all the Mississippian towns. Mineralogical analysis of some of the most beautiful stone effigy pipes found at Spiro, including the famous "Grizzly Man" or "Kneeling Rattler" pipe, have shown they came from Cahokia, based on the material from which they were made.[8] Cahokia also influenced the styles of the artifacts made at Spiro. Archaeologists have identified four distinct styles: the Braden Style characteristic of artifacts brought from Cahokia; and the Craig A, B, and C styles, which are local derivatives of the Braden Style.[8][9]

Antonio Waring and Preston Holder first defined the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex in the 1940s, according to a series of distinct cultural traits.[10] Since the late 1980s, archaeologists have adopted a new classification scheme based on their greatly improved understanding of Mississippian cultural development. The new scheme divides the SECC into five periods, or horizons, each defined by the appearance of new ritual objects and cultural motifs connected with new developments in politics and long-distance trade.[11] Archaeologists have determined that Spiro was at the peak of its cultural importance in the 13th century and 14th century CE

Mississippian iconography

Engraved striped-center-pole, or axis mundi, divides the image in half. The cross and circle motifs also have symbolic meanings.

Archaeologists have tried in recent years to interpret the meaning of the ritual artifacts and artistic imagery found at Spiro and other Mississippian sites. While reaching firm conclusions about the meanings of works of art made centuries ago by people of an extinct culture is difficult, archaeologists have made some compelling interpretations by comparing Mississippian artistic imagery with the myths, religious rituals, art, and iconography of historic Native American groups.

One of the most prominent symbols at Spiro is the "Birdman," a winged human figure representing a warrior or chunkey player. Chunkey was a game played in the Mississippian period, but also in historic times by Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other Southeastern tribes. Men played the game by rolling a stone disk for a considerable distance and then hurling spears as close as they could to the point where the stone stopped. The players placed heavy bets on the game — sometimes all their possessions — and some committed suicide when they lost. The Birdman seems to be a supernatural being connected with the Upper World, the sky, and the male virtues of warfare and high-stakes competition. Archaeologists believe it may be related to Red Horn, a mythic culture hero among the historic Winnebago and other Siouan tribes. Red Horn was often identified as a bright star in the sky.

Another Spiro icon is the "Great Serpent," a being said to inhabit the Under World, the spiritual domain on the opposite side of the Mississippian universe. The Great Serpent is portrayed in Mississippian art with a serpent's body but also with wings or horns. Similar beings were the subject of myth in historic times among the Micmac, Huron, Kickapoo, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Caddo, and other Native American tribes. The spiritual beings of the Under World were thought to be in constant opposition to those in the Upper World. Men had to fear these beings, according to Native American mythology, but they could also gain great power from them in certain circumstances.

Mississippian art also features the axis mundi — the point where different cosmic domains converge — is found in many cultures around the world. It is frequently represented as a tree (including the Tree of Life), since trees pass through the surface of the earth to link the subsurface and the sky. The fact that the Great Mortuary at Spiro was built with cedar (or cedar elm) posts suggests that the burial chamber was meant to be a point of departure from one spiritual domain to another, as cedar was a sacred wood.

Archaeologists found that one of the conch shell cups from Craig Mound had a black residue in the bottom. This suggests that the Spiro people may have practiced a version of the Black Drink Ceremony, a purification ritual performed in historic times by Southeastern tribes. Participants drank a tea made from the Yaupon Holly from conch shell cups.[12] The Black Drink Ceremony was performed by men only, and the participants of the highest rank in society drank first, followed in turn by those of lesser rank. The men often drank until they vomited this powerful caffeine-rich brew for spiritual cleansing and renewal.


Spiro’s decline as a population center began about 1250, although it continued to be a ceremonial and mortuary center until 1450.[13] The mound area was abandoned about 1450, although nearby communities persisted until 1600.[4] The cultures following in the wake of Spiro, however, were less complex and hierarchical.[14]

The gradual decline of Spiro as a population and ceremonial center may have been due to the exhaustion of local resources, forcing its inhabitants to move elsewhere in search of better soil and timber. Spiro may also have lost its position as a trade center due to population movements or shifts in major trade routes to other locations. One possibility is that the people of Spiro came to depend less on agriculture for subsistence and more upon bison for their livelihood. Bison populations on the southern Great Plains are believed to have increased after 1250. The inhabitants of Spiro and other cultures in Oklahoma may have found bison-hunting more productive than agriculture and adapted their culture accordingly. A hunting society would have been more mobile, less hierarchical, and less likely to undertake major construction projects than the settled farmers of Spiro’s golden age.[15]

Most authorities agree that the people of Spiro were Caddoan, but their descendants in historic times are difficult to identify. Archaeologists speculate that the Caddo Confederacy, Wichita, Kichai, or non-Caddoan Tunica are their descendants. However, the cultures of all these peoples when encountered by the Spanish and French in the 16th and 17th centuries were substantially different from that of Spiro.[16]

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes (Wichita, Keechi, Waco and Tawakonie) are recognized by the US Federal government and archaeologists as the cultural descendents of the builders of Spiro Mounds.[17]

Caddoan Mississippians

Map of the Caddoan Mississippian culture and some important sites

When the Spanish Hasinai, Kadohadacho, and Natchitoches, which were all linked by similar languages.

At the time of de Soto's visit, the Caddo controlled a large territory. It included what is now Eastern Oklahoma, Western Arkansas, Northeast Texas, and Northwest Louisiana. Archaeologists have thought that the Caddo and related peoples had been living in the region for centuries and that they had their own local variant of Mississippian culture.

Recent excavations have revealed within that region more cultural diversity than scholars had expected. The sites along the Arkansas River, in particular, seem to have their own distinctive characteristics. Scholars still classify the Mississippian sites found in the entire Caddo area, including Spiro Mounds, as "Caddoan Mississippian".[18]

The Caddoan Mississippian region contained many towns in addition to Spiro, including the Battle Mound Site. Scholars have determined that Battle Mound, lying along the Great Bend of the Red River in Southwest Arkansas, was a larger site than Spiro. Little excavation has been done there to date. The Caddoan Mississippian towns had a more irregular layout of earthen mounds and associated villages than did towns in the Middle Mississippian heartland to the east. They also lacked the wooden palisade fortifications often found in the major Middle Mississippian towns. Living on the western edge of the Mississippian world, the Caddoans may have faced fewer military threats from their neighbors. Their societies may also have had a somewhat lower level of social stratification.

The Spiro people were probably speakers of one of the many Caddoan languages.[19] The Caddoan languages once had a broad geographic distribution, but many are now extinct. The modern languages in the Caddoan family include Caddo and Pawnee. Both are now spoken mainly by elderly people.

See also


  1. ^ "OKLAHOMA - Le Flore County". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ "National Register Properties in Oklahoma". Retrieved 28 February 2009. 
  3. ^ Brown, James A.; Rogers, J. Daniel (Summer 1989). "Linking Spiro's artistic styles: The Copper Connection". Southeastern Archaeology (Allen Press) 8 (1): 1–8. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Spiro Mounds." Oklahoma Historical Society. (retrieved 30 May 2011)
  5. ^  
  6. ^ "Spiro Mounds-A Ceremonial Center of the Southern Cult". Retrieved 09-08-13. 
  7. ^  
  8. ^ a b Townsend, Richard F. (2004).  
  9. ^ F. Kent Reilly and James Garber, ed. (2004).  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ Muller, Jon (1989). "The Southern Cult". In Galloway, Patricia. Southern Ceremonial Complex, Artifacts and Analysis:The Cottonlandia Complex. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 11–26. 
  12. ^  
  13. ^ ”Caddo Fundamentals: Spiro and the Arkansas Basin.” accessed 30 May 2011
  14. ^ Rogers, J. Daniel “Chronology and the Demise of Chiefdoms: Eastern Oklahoma in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." Southeastern Archaeology, 25 (1), Retrieved 2 Sep 2008 from Research Library database. (Doocument ID: 1158326791)
  15. ^ Rogers
  16. ^ "Caddo Fundamentals: Spiro and the Arkansas Basin." accessed 30 May 2011
  17. ^ "Notice of Inventory Completion: Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX." Federal Registrar. 29 May 2008 (retrieved 30 May 2011)
  18. ^  
  19. ^ "Tejas-Caddo Fundamentals-Caddoan Languages and Peoples". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 

Further reading

  • Brown, James Allison & Alice Brues. The Spiro Ceremonial Center: The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma, Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1996.
  • Hamilton, Henry, Jean Tyree Hamilton, & Eleanor Chapman. Spiro Mound Copper, Columbia, MO: Missouri Archaeological Society, 1974.
  • Hudson, Charles M. (ed.). Black Drink: A Native American Tea, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
  • La Vere, David. Looting Spiro Mounds: An American King Tut's Tomb, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
  • Merriam, Larry & Christopher Meriam. The Spiro Mound, A Photo Essay: Photographs from the Collection of Dr. Robert E. Bell, Oklahoma City: Merriam Station Books, 2004.
  • Pauketat, Timothy R. The Ascent of Chiefs: Cahokia and Mississippian Politics in Native North America, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 1994.
  • Pauketat, Timothy R. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, London: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Pauketat, Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson (eds.). Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: 1997.
  • Phillips, Philip & James Allison Brown. Pre-Columbian Shell Engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma, Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press, 1984.
  • Reilly, F. Kent and James F. Garber (eds.). Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.
  • Townsend, Richard F. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.

External links

  • Spiro Mounds Archaeological Park
  • Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center on Official travel and tourism website for the State of Oklahoma
  • Spiro Mounds Information & Videos - Chickasaw.TV
  • Arkansas Antiquities
  • Spiro and the Arkansas Basin
  • Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
  • Oklahoma Archeological Survey
  • Destruction of Craig Mound
  • Spiro Mounds Bibliography
  • Caddoan Mississippian Culture
  • "Towns and Temples of the Mississippian Culture" (animation video)
  • Spiro Mounds on Oklahoma Historical Society
  • The Spiro Mounds Site
  • Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) No. OK-37, "Spiro Mounds Site, 18154 First Street, Spiro, Le Flore, OK"
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