Welcome to SpiroMound.com

Below is an introduction to the Spiro Mound, it's history and legacy.
The information is taken from our book,
The Spiro Mound: A Photo Essay

If you are planning a trip, visit their webpage, Spiro Mound State Park, for more information.

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History of the Spiro Mound

The Spiro Mounds group was the focal point of the Northern Caddoan Culture in the Upper Arkansas River drainage area. It was an extension of the Southern Ceremonial Complex which covered the entire southeast portion of the United States, from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to as far north as Cahokia. Spiro was the center of the western outpost of this cultural manifestation.

The Spiro Mound was part of the greater Spiro Mounds site located in Eastern Oklahoma on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The site occupied an area of 80 acres on an old high terrace overlooking the flood plain of the river. From the mounds you can see the buildings of south Fort Smith, Arkansas, some ten miles east. Five miles to the west is the small town of Spiro, Oklahoma. The most distinctive feature of the site was the saddle-shaped mound known as The Spiro Mound or the Great Temple Mound. (It has been renamed the Craig Mound, but the old historic Spiro Mound name will be used below.)

This mound was located on the east side of the site on the edge of the terrace overlooking a slough that was an old channel of the Arkansas River and probably served as the source of the dirt used to build the mound. To the south of this mound were the two small Ward mounds. To the west of The Spiro Mound and on the same elevation was a habitation area that was used during the earlier phases of the history of the site. Further to the west, on an elevated area, was a complex of 8 mounds surrounding a Plaza. The large Brown platform mound and the smaller Copple platform mound were the most distinctive features of this westernmost area.

Spiro was a ceremonial center and mortuary location. The complex was in use from approximately 950 A.D. until 1450 A.D. The Brown mound and the Plaza were the location of the ceremonial activities, at least for the first phases of the site’s life. The ceremonies were connected with the celebration of the lives of the dead elite and their ultimate interment in The Spiro Mound mortuary area. In the later stages of its life, the site became a vacant ceremonial center with few or no permanent living facilities. It should be noted that the Spiro people did not depend on agriculture and that maize was a minor part of their diet.

The Spiro Mound (Craig Mound) ran northwest to southeast for a distance of 350 feet along the edge of the terrace. It was composed of four co-joined cones, separated by “saddles” between the mounds, which gave it its unusual profile. The northernmost cone, which contained the Great Mortuary, rose 33 feet above the ground level and was 115 feet in diameter. The lesser cones were estimated from photos taken around 1913-1914 to be just over twenty feet high and eighty feet wide. The fourth cone to the southeast was separated from the rest of the cones by a lower saddle. This final configuration was the culmination of 500 years of evolution, divided into four phases.

Spiro I (950-1100A.D.)

The North Primary Mound occupied the extreme northwest edge of the northernmost and largest cone of The Spiro Mound. The second mound, the Middle Primary Mound, was roughly under the second cone from the north, the first of the three lesser cones. Between the North and Middle Primary Mounds, the Pre-mound Cemetery occupied the central area under the large cone. To the southeast, in the vicinity of the third cone from the north, was the South Primary mound. These were the only mounds we can be sure were in existence during this time period. However, there was probably an initial feature of some sort under the location of the fourth and final cone, the Percy Brewer Mound.

Spiro II (1100-1250 A.D.)

During this time, there was limited activity at the North Primary Mound. The Pre-mound cemetery continued to be in use but migrated slightly east. The Middle Primary mound was pretty much destroyed by the creation of a new feature, a large crematory basin and the Southwest Flank Unit. The South Primary Mound was probably at its peak usage with many of the artifacts uncovered from this area dating to this time period. The fourth mound unit, the Percy Brewer Mound, was certainly in use during this time. By the end of Spiro II, the three surviving Primary mounds, the North, South and Percy Brewer, were probably closed by being covered with a hard layer of earth to seal the mounds. Although this marked the end of their most significant activity, they would continue to be used.

Spiro III (1250- 1350 A.D.)

During this time, the upper layers of the Brown platform mound to the west were completed and by the end of this period that area of the site ceased to be used. The occupation area was also abandoned and Spiro became a vacant ceremonial center. All activities shifted to the east side of the site and The Spiro Mound itself.

The activity at The Spiro Mound became centered to the north in the area of the large cone. The large crematory basin was abandoned, and the Southwest Flank Unit was replaced by a new rectangular feature to its north called the Central Flank Unit. There had been similar mounds structures located south of the Spiro Mound at the Ward Mound locations. These had been actively used during Spiro I and II but were being phased out during Spiro III.

The burials outlining the Central Flank Unit were concentrated to the south and east of it in the area that would become the Great Mortuary. The Pre-mound cemetery area continued in use to the east of the Great Mortuary. Burials were also occurring on the flank areas of the lesser mounds. There was a line of burials to the north called the Northeast Cluster that defined the northern edge of The Spiro Mound.

At this time, the three lesser cones were growing in height and diameter. Possibly, they had begun to overlap, forming a saddle-shaped group of three co-joined mounds.

Spiro IV (1350- 1450 A.D.)

 This period would witness the dedication and construction of the large cone at the north end of the mound unit. The basis for this development centered on the Great Mortuary. It rested on a layer of bone and burial items from disinterred graves from other parts of the mound which had been covered with a layer of split cane over which a layer of dirt was placed. On top of this layer were cedar pole litter burials, cane box burials, and extended burials. The litter and cane box burials were recycled skeletal remains and grave goods from other areas of The Spiro Mound. 

Among the litter burials were the basket burials containing human remains covered with copper plates and other artifacts. The extended burials were contemporary with the creation of the Great Mortuary. These extended burials had the greatest amount of grave wealth associated with them and represented the new elite leadership. They were placed on top of the old leadership burials in a superior position. There were additional baskets containing copper-headed axes, all sorts of beads, copper plates, and other caches of artifacts. There were piles of textiles covered with beads, marine shell cups full of shell beads, cedar human effigies, large human effigy pipes, a cache of stone maces and an extremely large number of engraved conch shells. It is this concentration of material wealth in one place that gives The Spiro Mound its reputation as the Great Temple Mound and assures its place in archaeological history.

After the creation of the Great Mortuary, the offerings were sealed by a series of upright cedar poles spaced out in an irregular circular pattern leaning inward, like a teepee structure. The sides of this structure were then packed with dirt and the Great Mortuary was rapidly covered. As a result of this construction, a hollow chamber was left behind, roughly fifteen to twenty feet in diameter and eight to ten feet high. It was this sealed chamber that preserved much of the unusual material which provides us with a more complete record of this culture.

Into the rising level of the large cone unit a large number of burials were placed into five or more level surfaces. There was a total lack of grave goods with those burials. The large cone was closed out with a hemispherical cap of earth. The level of the lesser cone also rose to new heights until the mound reached its final configuration around 1450 A.D.

After that, The Spiro Mound site was abandoned until its destruction began in 1933-1935 with the digging of the Pocola Mining Company. The Spiro Mound was ultimately leveled during excavations by the University of Oklahoma from 1936-1941. The mound was reconstructed in the 1970s and is currently the focal point of The Spiro Mounds State Park.

Timeline of Excavations

1913 - 1914 Joseph B. Thoburn takes the first photographs of The Spiro Mound.
1916 - 1917 Joseph B. Thoburn excavates the adjacent Ward Mounds.
Summer 1933 Joe Balloun and associates begin digging at the Percy Brewer property.
November 28, 1933 Pocola Mining Company obtains two-year lease on the Craig property; digging begins.
July 1935 Commercial digging is halted when new archaeological license law is enforced.
Summer 1935 Digging resumes, main cone is tunneled into and "Central Chamber" discovered. 
November 27, 1935 Commercial digging closes with the expiration of the Pocola Mining Company lease.
June 1936 WPA excavations begin on the Craig property. 
Mid-December 1936 The first WPA field season ends.
January 1937 The second WPA field season begins. 
November 1937 The second WPA field season ends. The Spiro Mound has been leveled.
April 8, 1941 The third WPA field season begins with Phil J. Newkumet as supervisor.
October 6, 1941 The third field season ends. This is the end of the WPA excavations.
1966 Robert Black of the Corps of Engineers recognized Spiro's value and it was conserved. 
1978 The Spiro Mounds State Park was opened.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

This picture was taken around March 26, 1935, after a big rain. The photographer is looking northwest down the axis of the mound complex. The water-filled holes illustrate the random nature of the Pocola Mining Company digging.
This picture was taken in the summer of 1935, looking into the main tunnel into the large or Great Mortuary Cone. The second, smaller tunnel to the left may be for ventilation. The people in the photograph are at far right, Bill Vandagriff and to his left is W. Guinn Cooper, and the McKenzies on the left. John Hobbs stated the main tunnel was on the northeast side of the large cone.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

This oblique view of the excavation profile gives a good perspective of the operation. One can see how the mound is being peeled away in ten-foot layers. Also, it can be seen how the high portions of the mound are being cut back in steps so that the front profile is of a manageable and safe height. 

Using the two people on top of the cone and the man at the base of the mound for scale, the estimated height for the main cone of about thirty-four feet above ground level seems reasonable. On the left side of the photo, halfway up from the bottom, is the old Pocola Mining Company tunnel entrance. It has been dynamited and covered over to prevent entry. 

Spiro Mound Artifacts

The Spiro Mounds had one of the largest concentrations of artifacts found north of Mexico. There were hundreds of thousands of relics discovered at the site. From common arrowpoints to two foot long maces and flint swords. There were effigy pipes and thousands of shell beads. Rare artifacts like copper plates and effigies to gallons of pearls. This wealth of relics quickly put Spiro on the map, and items from the site were highly prized. From the Smithsonian to the Louvre, museums around the world snatched up Spiro artifacts. 

With the popularity of Spiro material growing, dealers quickly started listing artifacts from other sites as Spiro relics, and not long after, modern reproductions flooded the market. Unfortunately, there are very few records of what actually came from Spiro, and most of the items identified as Spiro can not be traced back to the mounds. Dr. Bell did his best to track down and photograph material that was known to come from Spiro to provide some record of the artifacts found at the site. Below are a few photos of items known to come from Spiro, and represent some of the finest material, as well as, some common goods, that came from the mound. 

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

This picture was taken December 8, 1935, in J. G. Braecklein’s Indian Store in Kansas City, Missouri.

A list of the artifacts shown in the photograph include: the “Big Boy” pipe, a small canine effigy pipe, two large decorated conch shells, three conch shell core pendants, seven maces of both chipped and polished varieties, three strands of freshwater pearl beads, a large columella core bead, seven spherical columella beads, a strand of beads, and a piece of matting or fabric. 

These are some of the finest artifact known from Spiro, these were found in the central chamber.

Mr. Schellenberger of Dardanelle, Arkansas originally assembled this outstanding frame of 205 bird points from Spiro. Robert E. Bell took this picture in April 1935. 

The twenty Tribute (Craig) points that make up the center design of the frame are part of a cache of maybe 25 points. These are large, thin, well-made tri-notched points with serrations common around the base. They are certainly some of the finest bird points from Spiro or anywhere else. 

These were found early in the digging, and come from the lesser cones, not the central chamber.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

This picture shows an 11” cutout copper sheet human head effigy with repousse designs. Below it are shown two stone earspools with copper coverings. 

The figure in the cutout can be seen wearing such an earspool. Also, from the occipital hairknot is a copper feather that curves up over the head. It is clear that this is not simulating a real feather but that it is intended to show a sheet copper plume hair ornament. The eyes are almond-shaped and are within a forked or weeping eye design. This eye design is like the marking of the peregrine falcon.  This profile was part of a cache that included eight copper feather pieces.