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Discovering the Central Chamber at The Spiro Mound
By Larry Merriam and Christopher Merriam

One of the diggers thrust his shovel into the hard dirt wall ahead of him at the end of the tunnel. The earth gave way and a hole in the wall suddenly appeared. Out rushed the dead air from five hundred years in the past. The diggers were taken aback at first by this unexpected event, but they quickly shined the light from their miner's lamps forward and looked beyond the hole in the earthen wall to the strange open chamber beyond. No, this is not Howard Carter opening the vault to King Tut-ankh-Amen's tomb along the Nile River in Egypt in 1922, but John Hobbs revealing the secret Central Chamber in the "Great Temple" mound at the Spiro site along the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma in 1935. One can only imagine the excitement the diggers must have shared at this moment of discovery. Nothing like this had ever been found in the history of American archaeology.

(John Hobbs was a member of the Pocola Mining Company, a Depression-era venture created by six men who obtained a two-year lease to explore the mound for artifacts, which they could sell to earn a living. The "Great Temple" mound or The Spiro Mound, as it was commonly called back then, was 350 feet long, 115 feet wide and consisted of four co-joined cones. This created a saddle-shaped mound with a large 34-foot cone at the northwest end with three lesser cones just over 20 feet high trailing off to the southeast. During the first year and a half of their lease they dug the lesser cones, discovering spectacular artifacts which were being sold to collectors around the world. As the lease was running out they decided to attack the large cone by tunneling into it, something that had never been done at an earthen mound. In the middle of the large cone they discovered the open chamber that is described in this article.)

Hobbs broke down the rest of the dirt separating the members of the Pocola Mining Company from the treasures that might await them beyond the wall. As John crawled into the chamber on all fours he ran into a large rock about a foot tall. It was covered with dirt and he couldn't identify what it was, so he stuck it in his pouch and proceeded to stand up in the chamber. The others followed him into the earthen cavern with only their miner's lamps for illumination. They were amazed. Through the dim flickering light they could make out a room roughly 16 feet in diameter and maybe up to maximum height of 16 feet. They could distinguish four raised areas evenly spaced around the room, which looked like altars to them. Around the room were bundles and baskets that might contain the unknown riches of some Indian King from the past. The greatest discoveries of their two years of digging at the site were about to be revealed.

On top of each "altar" were blankets covered with roughly a hundred pounds of shell beads. All around the outside edge of the chamber, evenly distributed around the walls, were large engraved conch shells. These would represent one of the great treasures of the mound, because the engraving would show us how the Spiro people lived and celebrated. They would give us clues into their beliefs and legends. Some of the shells were filled with mineral pigments that were probably sacred and ceremonial in use. The floor of the chamber was covered with blankets that rested on top of two layers of cedar poles laid at right angles to each other. In the middle of the room was a pile of dirt maybe three feet high that had fallen from the ceiling. The diggers felt the collapse had been caused by water seeping into the mound via a pothole dug several years earlier into the apex of the large cone.

Just to the left of the tunnel entrance where the diggers came into the chamber from the northeast, they discovered a cache of 30 copper axes hafted in wooden handles lying upon matting. The axes took the form of a Pileated woodpecker effigy with shell inlay eyes. The handles were up to 17" long while the copper heads were approximately 9" long. These were carried out of the mound just as they were found by John Hobbs and another member of the Pocola Mining Company, K. A. McKenzie. These copper axes are depicted in designs shown on a few engraved conch shells where the axes are being carried in the belts of the figures or being held in their hands.

To the right of the tunnel entrance near one of the "altars" Hobbs found a cache of seven large stone maces. (Shown in Braecklein Photograph.) These represented the authority and prestige of the individuals buried in the chamber. They are the most outstanding of the chipped stone items found at the mound. Four of the maces are made of Kaolin Chert from Illinois and have been polished until the evidence of being chipped was obscured. The longest is 15 3/4 inches in length. Some show the remnants of having been decorated with different color paint.

Proceeding to the center of the room, the diggers encountered a pile of blankets upon which an estimated eight hundred pounds of shell beads had been placed. These beads were placed in fourteen gunnysacks to remove them from the mound. They would sell the sacks for $100 each, a lot of money during the Depression.

Just to the east of the blankets were two stone effigy pipes. One portrays an eagle and a woman in a sexual embrace that may represent part of an "origin legend." The second pipe shows a woman with mortar and ear of corn. Further east from the center was a basket of pearl beads and ten baskets filled with copper items. It is estimated that there were two gallons of fresh water pearl beads in this cache. Most were well-formed and quite round, but many had lost their luster.

Back to the west, at the edge of the chamber, was a straw or reed basket containing thirty human head masks made of red cedar and covered with copper. The eyes and teeth were made with inlaid shell. At the south end of the chamber was a cache of about 20 stone pipes and caches of projectile points and spears.

After exploring the chamber for awhile, John Hobbs would make his way roughly 40 feet through the tunnel to the daylight outside the mound. While resting in the fresh air, he remembered the rock he picked up as he entered the chamber. He removed the dirt-covered piece from his pouch and began to clean it. As the Oklahoma dirt washed away he could distinguish the figure of a seated warrior carved from red rock. It was a statue! As he could see more of the piece it was an effigy that had been made into the form of a large pipe. As the mud melted away, the absolute beauty of the sculpture became apparent. (Shown in Braecklein Photograph.)

The warrior is sitting cross-legged on his feet with a hand on each knee and he is leaning slightly forward. Around his neck are several strands of large beads, which would have been made from conch shells. Each ear is adorned with a human face effigy mask that would have been made of shell. (These masks are known as long-nosed god masketts and were commonly found at the Cahokia site along the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, but were rarely seen at Spiro.) The figure is wearing an unusual circular headdress cap with a vertical almond shaped eye (ogival design) in the middle of the flat top. The cap is held in place by an occipital hair knot. A long straight hair braid secured at his left ear hangs over his shoulder and down his front. The only clothing worn by the figure is an elaborately decorated robe of feathers draped down his back. The feather features of the robe stick out in relief and have been described by others as "spades" or spear points. The remaining details of the figure are faithfully modeled and are anatomically correct for a male individual.

The representation of this figure in stone is realistically and skillfully sculptured. It is truly a world class work of art. It is made of Missouri Flint Clay from quarries near St. Louis and almost certainly was made at Cahokia. Originally, it was just a statue. How and when it became a pipe and was moved to Spiro is a mystery, subject to speculation. To some the dress of the figure makes it appear to represent a falcon impersonator seen at other Southeast Ceremonial culture sites. Others have referred to the figure as representing the legendary "Red Horn" character. It is the most spectacular piece found at the site and certainly one of the most import Indian artifacts ever discovered.

In the coming weeks they would explore and enlarge the chamber finding many other unusual materials. The large quantity of textiles, robes and blankets found represented a very important discovery. Normally these perishable materials are not preserved. However, in this case, because they were located in the airtight chamber, they had survived. Glen Groves wrote the following description for the "North American Indian Relic Collectors Association Bulletin" of March 1936: "In the room were also many pieces of finely woven cloth and rope made from animal hair, and plant fiber. Pieces of large robes woven wholly of red feathers, and in one case, part of a magnificent headdress with bear's teeth set in the head band. It was noticeable that some of the bear's teeth in this headdress were imitations made of wood."

Glen went on to describe how, as the diggers proceeded to explore the chamber, "one great find followed another, satisfying the most fantastic dream of any collector...large spears, larger spears, monolithic axes, effigy pipes of unbelievable size, double bowl peace pipes and effigies in galena lead." A large number of copper items were uncovered in woven baskets and around the room. Copper breastplates were found in many places around the room, often ceremonially killed. Also scattered about the room were many fine earspools of various sizes and shapes. The finest were made of the greenish stone peculiar to the mound, with no two pair alike. The earspools were also made of limestone, copper and wood, and in many cases had been covered with copper.

The Central Chamber still holds many secrets. One significant unknown is how many elite burials were entombed contemporary with the creation of the Central Chamber.
A. B. MacDonald's article of December 14, 1935 appearing in "The Kansas City Star" entitled "A 'King Tut" tomb in the Arkansas Valley," describes the "Chief's Chamber" as the burial place of a king, one central figure in the middle of the room. The figure was said to be resting on its back with a copper breast plate upon which rested 32 flint spear points measuring up to 27" long. On the ground around him were nine pottery bowls and fifteen long knives. Other accounts describe between two and four prestige interment placed between the four altars containing baskets of offerings to the leaders.

The main source of information on what was found in the Central Chamber comes from Henry Hamilton's interviews with four members of the Pocola Mining Company: John Hobbs, K. A. and William McKenzie and Jim Vandagriff, which were conducted around 1936 and published in 1952 in "The Missouri Archaeologists" Volume 14. For Hamilton's book, John Hobbs had provided a map showing the locations of many of the more important artifacts found there. This map is the basis for the location of where the artifacts were discovered as described in this account.

A summary of the history of the construction of The Spiro Mound (later named the Craig Mound) is given in the Introduction to the author's book The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay. This account relies on James Brown's two-volume work The Spiro Ceremonial Center, as well as contemporary accounts from people directly associated with the excavations of the mound.

Photograph Caption

Braecklein Photograph. This picture was taken December 8, 1935, in J. G. Braecklein’s Indian Store in Kansas City, Missouri. It was featured in an article by A. B. MacDonald in the Kansas City Star, dateline Spiro, Oklahoma, appearing on December 15, 1935, under the headline, “A ‘King Tut’ Tomb in the Arkansas Valley.” 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 shell beads, and a piece of matting or fabric.


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