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Spiro Mound Group
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Stone effigy pipe from Spiro Mounds known as "Grizzly Man" or the "Kneeling Rattler"
Spiro Mounds is located in Oklahoma
Nearest city: Spiro, Oklahoma
Coordinates: 35°18′43.72″N 94°34′7.89″W / 35.3121444°N 94.5688583°W / 35.3121444; -94.5688583Coordinates: 35°18′43.72″N 94°34′7.89″W / 35.3121444°N 94.5688583°W / 35.3121444; -94.5688583
Added to NRHP: September 30, 1969[1][2]
NRHP Reference#: 69000153

Spiro Mounds is one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites in the United States. Located in Eastern Oklahoma near the modern town of Spiro, it is under the protection of the Oklahoma Historical Society and open to the public. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Contents

Mounds and plaza area

Craig Mound at Spiro (southeast end)

Spiro is the western-most known outpost of the Mississippian culture that arose and spread along the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries between the 800s and 1500s CE. As in other Mississippian-culture towns, the people built a number of large, complex earthworks. These included earthen 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 hundred miles away.

Spiro was inhabited between about 950 and 1450 CE. 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 -- 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 southeast of the plaza. A cavity created within the mound, about 10 feet high and 15 feet 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, in fact, that objects made of perishable materials such as basketry, woven fabric, lace, fur, and feathers were preserved inside it.

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."

Artifact hunters looted Craig Mound between 1933 and 1935, tunneling into the mound and breaking through the Great Mortuary's log wall. They found many human burials, together with their associated grave goods. The looters discarded the human remains and the fragile artifacts made of cloth, basketry, and feathers. Most of these rare and historically priceless objects disintegrated before scholars could reach the site. The looters dynamited the burial chamber when they were finished and quickly sold the commercially valuable artifacts made of stone, pottery, and conch shell to collectors in the United States and overseas. Most of these valuable objects are probably lost, but some have been recovered 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" in 1978.

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 (S.E.C.C.), a network of ceremonial centers sharing the Mississippian culture and similar spiritual beliefs, ritual practices, and cult objects. The S.E.C.C. 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.[3] Other Mississippian centers also traded in these prized resources, but Spiro was apparently the only one that acquired obsidian from Mexico.[4] Using these valued materials, Mississippian artists created exquisite works of art reflecting their cultural identity and their complex spiritual beliefs.

When artifact hunters broke into Craig Mound, they found many beautifully crafted ritual artifacts, including stone effigy pipes, polished stone maces, finely made flint knives and arrowpoints, polished chunkey stones, copper effigy axes, repoussé copper plates, mica effigy cut outs, elaborately engraved conch shell ornaments, pearl bead necklaces, stone earspools, wood carvings inlaid with shell, and specially made mortuary pottery. The conch shells were fashioned into gorgets and drinking cups engraved with intricate designs representing costumed men, real and mythical animals, and geometric motifs, all of which undoubtedly 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, Etowah and Ocmulgee in Georgia, and Moundville in Alabama. In economic terms, Spiro seems to have been a gateway town that funneled valuable resources from the Great Plains and other regions to the west, 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.[5] 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.[5][6]

Antonio Waring and Preston Holder first defined the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex in the 1940s, according to a series of distinct cultural traits.[7] Since the late 1980s, though, archaeologists have adopted a new classification scheme based on their greatly improved understanding of Mississippian cultural development. The new scheme divides the S.E.C.C. 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.[8] Archaeologists have determined that Spiro was at the peak of its cultural importance in the 1200s and 1300s A.D.

Mississippian iconography

Engraved shell gorget from Spiro Mounds. The 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. It is difficult to reach firm conclusions about the meanings of works of art made centuries ago by people of an extinct culture, but 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 which was continued to be played 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. 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, 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 cedar tree or striped-center-pole motifs which archaeologists have interpreted as the axis mundi, the point at which the three parts of the Mississippian spiritual universe come together—the Upper World, the Under World, and the Middle World where humans dwell. The cedar tree or the striped-center-pole is often found on engraved conch shell gorgets, with human or animal figures positioned on either side. The concept of an 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.[9] 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. They believed that the Black Drink purged them of their anger and falsehoods.

Caddoan Mississippians

Map of the Caddoan Mississippian culture and some important sites

When the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto led an expedition into what is now the Southeastern United States in the 1540s, he encountered a Native American group known as the Caddo. Composed of many tribes, the Caddo were organized into three confederacies—the Hasinai, Kadohadacho, and Natchitoches -- which were all linked together by a common language.

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, though, have revealed more cultural diversity within that region than scholars had expected. The sites along the Arkansas River, in particular, seem to have their own distinctive characteristics. Nonetheless, scholars classify the Mississippian sites found in the entire Caddo area—including Spiro Mounds—as "Caddoan Mississipian".[10]

The Caddoan Mississippian region contained many towns in addition to Spiro, including the Battle Mound Site. Lying along the Great Bend of the Red River in Southwest Arkansas, scholars have determined Battle Mound 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.[11] 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

References

  1. ^ "OKLAHOMA - Le Flore County". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/ok/Le+Flore/state.html. 
  2. ^ "National Register Properties in Oklahoma". http://www.ocgi.okstate.edu/shpo/shpopic.asp?id=69000153. Retrieved 28 February 2009. 
  3. ^ "Spiro Mounds-A Ceremonial Center of the Southern Cult". http://archaeology.about.com/od/archaeologicals4/a/spiro.htm. 
  4. ^ Pauketat, Timothy (2004). Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521520665. 
  5. ^ a b Townsend, Richard F. (2004). Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300106017. 
  6. ^ F. Kent Reilly and James Garber, ed (2004). Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292713475. 
  7. ^ Waring, A.J. Jr. (1968). Williams, S.. ed. The Waring Papers: The Collected Work of Antonio J. Waring. Harvard University. pp. 30–69. 
  8. ^ Muller, Jon (1989). Galloway, Patricia. ed. Southern Ceremonial Complex, Artifacts and Analysis:The Cottonlandia Complex. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 11–26. 
  9. ^ Hudson, Charles M. (1979). Black Drink. University of Georgia Press. pp. 83–112. 
  10. ^ Peter N. Peregrine (1995). Archaeology of the Mississippian culture: a research guide. p. 165. ISBN 978-0815303367. 
  11. ^ "Tejas-Caddo Fundamentals-Caddoan Languages and Peoples". http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/tejas/fundamentals/languages.html. 

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

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Simple English

File:Chromesun-spiro
Part of the Craig Mound at Spiro.

Spiro Mounds is an archaeological site run by the Oklahoma Historical Society and open to the public. It is located in Eastern Oklahoma, near the modern town of Spiro. It is one of the most important pre-Columbian sites in the United States.

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