March 02, 2021
When Melissa and I were driving in southeastern Oklahoma last week we came across the town of Spiro. Spiro Mounds is a major Northern Caddoan Mississippian archaeological site. The 80-acre site is located within the floodplain on the south side of the Arkansas River. The modern town of Spiro developed about seven miles south of the site and is named for the mounds. Between the 9th and 15th centuries, the Indigenous people created a powerful religious and political center, culturally linked to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, also called the Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere (MIIS). Spiro was a major western outpost of Mississippian culture.
My senior paper as an undergrad in North American Archeology was a 150-page descriptive analysis of the Middle Mississippian complex of sites. The Mississippian culture reached its greatest extent during the Middle period (1200 to 1350 CE), stretching throughout the Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi River valleys. Although there were regional variations, the cities, villages, and ceremonial centers were all linked together by trade. The main complexes are known for building large, earthen platform mounds for temples and burial sites, along with other animal and geometric shaped mounds. The largest city was Cahokia, located in present-day southern Illinois. Almost all Mississippian sites predate the Spanish expedition by Hernando de DeSoto (1539 to 1543 CE) but few lasted far beyond these devastating intrusions. The notable exceptions were the Natchez communities which maintained Mississippian cultural practices into the 18th century.
During the 1930’s treasure hunters bought the rights to tunnel into the second-largest mound on the Spiro Mounds site (Craig Mound) to mine it for artifacts. They exposed a hollow burial chamber inside the mound. This unique feature contained some of the most extraordinary pre-Columbian artifacts ever found in the United States. These included fragile, perishable works of textiles and feathers that had been preserved in the conditions of the closed chamber. The treasure hunters sold the artifacts they recovered to art collectors, some as far away as Europe. Some of these artifacts were later returned to regional museums and the Caddo Nation, but other artifacts have never been accounted for. Since the late 20th century, Spiro Mounds has been protected by the Oklahoma Historical Society and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thoughts: Laura Croft and Indiana Jones popularized the romantic idea of locating lost artifacts and bringing them back for display in local museums. Their movie titles illustrate the problem with early forms of “Archeology”, Tomb Raider and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rather than conducting scientific research, they were grave robbers. That is what happened at Spiro Mounds during the 1930’s as well. For modern archeology, provenience, or where the artifact is found and its association to other aspects of the site, is what makes it valuable. It adds to the story of the culture. For collectors, it is the rarity of the artifact that makes it valuable, regardless of where it is found. The lack of provenience is often seen as a good thing, as most privately collected artifacts are stolen from public lands. That is why Spiro Mounds and most other sites are now protected. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.