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History of The Spiro Mound - The Ohio Connection

By Larry and Christopher Merriam

The Spiro Mound site is located in eastern Oklahoma along the Arkansas River. Since it is located 600 miles from Ohio, as a crow flies, it might seem odd that there would be a strong connection between Ohioans and this archaeological site so far away. But there are many links between Ohioans and the site. However, before we get into these connections we should first answer the question: “Why is The Spiro Mound so important to archaeology?”

The Spiro Mound is not that spectacular, being 350 feet long and 110 feet wide at its maximum. It consists of four co-joined cones in an overall saddle shape (Figure 1). The largest cone, at the northwest end of the group, is 34 feet high. The other three cones are each approximately 24 feet high and trail off to the southeast. What makes this mound significant is the spectacular assemblage of prestigious cultural artifacts found in a hollow “treasure chamber” in the center of the large cone (Figure 2). Described as the largest concentration of such goods north of Mexico, this gave the mound its fame as “A King Tut Tomb” in the Arkansas River Valley (MacDonald 1935). In 1935, a group of individuals calling themselves the Pocola Mining Company had tunneled into the mound and encountered the “room” roughly 16 feet across and 12 feet high. Within this central chamber they had discovered seven large stone maces, 30 copper axes hafted on woodpecker-shaped cedar handles, huge effigy pipes, over 100 large engraved conch shell cups, a couple of gallons of pearl beads, 1200 pounds of shell beads, baskets full of copper artifacts, robes, blankets, earspools and long flint blades. Truly, it was a storehouse of archaeological treasure!

Although many Ohioans have been connected with The Spiro Mound during historic times, during the time the mound site was being used by the Spiroan people, from 950 to 1450 A.D., there appears to have been no connection to the Fort Ancient Culture which was living in Ohio at that time. Despite a large trade network for the Spiro people from Florida through the southern Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River at Cahokia and into the High Plains, the Upper Ohio River Valley was not represented in this network. Basically, there are no significant trade goods from either culture found in sites of the other culture. One exception may be the Diamond Gorget from the Schisler site in Scioto County that has an engraved image of a corn dancer similar to Spiro shell engravings, right down to the woodpecker-shaped cedar handled copper axe in the figure’s belt (Converse 2003:356). These are the same copper axes found in the central chamber at The Spiro Mound.

During the early historic time period, The Spiro Mound went without public notice despite numerous explorations in the area. Around 1830 the Choctaw Indians were removed to the area as part of the “Trail of Tears” displacement. Several old Choctaw graves were found near the mound but none were intrusive to it. No one bothered to mention the mound until Joseph B. Thoburn published a picture of the mound in his 1916 version of History of Oklahoma. Thoburn was fifty years old at the time, having been born in Bellaire, Ohio, on August 8, 1866. Our first Ohio connection, his family moved to Kansas where he found his first arrowhead at age seven. This sparked his interest in archaeology and history that would lead him to a position on the faculty of the history department of the University of Oklahoma in 1913. He visited the mound around 1914 and took the only photographs of the mound before it was disturbed by digging. In the winter of 1916-17, he became the first professional to dig at the site when he dug the Ward I mound south of The Spiro Mound. He had been unable to get permission to dig in The Spiro Mound itself but his excavations would provide a preview of what would be found there.

The first serious digging into The Spiro Mound began in the spring of 1933 when Arkansas dealer Joe Balloun leased land containing the southeast cone of the mound on the Percy Brewer property. Two young men from Ohio visited the mound during that time. They were Robert E. Bell and his friend Chuck Aronhalt. Robert E. Bell was born in Marion, Ohio on June 16, 1914 to Harry T. and Clara Bell. His dad was an Indian artifact collector and young Robert followed in his father’s footsteps, hunting the fields around Marion, Caledonia and Morral, Ohio. When he graduated from Harding High School in 1932, his graduation gift from his father was a trip to archaeological sites throughout the Midwest that ended up in Dardanelle, Arkansas. Here they met dealers Joe Balloun, G. E. Pilquist, Lear Howell, and H. T. Daniel. When Robert returned to Dardanelle in 1933 with his high school friend Chuck, they heard about Joe Balloun’s digging at an interesting mound in Oklahoma and were persuaded to go visit the site. That trip began Bell’s association with Spiro that has lasted over 70 years and ultimately determined his life’s work in archaeology.

Joe Balloun found nothing of commercial value in his digging and abandoned the project. By November 1933, a new group called the Pocola Mining Company leased the major portion of the mound from the Craig family heirs. (The Spiro Mound is today officially known as the Craig Mound from the family that owned most of the mound in the 1930s.) This began two years of commercial digging that ultimately led to the tunneling into the main cone in 1935. Robert Bell and Chuck Aronhalt paid several return visits to the mound during the spring of 1934 and 1935. During these visits Bell developed a good relationship with the diggers. Because of this relationship, the diggers, who did not trust most outsiders, trusted Bell and allowed him to photograph their operation. These pictures became the only extensive record of this important period at the beginning of what would ultimately be the destruction of the mound. (Robert Bell and Chuck Aronhalt are shown in Figure 3.)

Graduating from high school during the Great Depression, Robert Bell found work in the antique trade. Going to The Spiro Mound, he bought artifacts for his father’s collection and arranged for others to obtain artifacts from the mound. In one instance he showed a picture he had taken of a frame of Spiro points to Mr. Schwem who managed the local S. S. Kresge’s Five & Dime store in Marion, Ohio. Mr. Schwem was so taken with the frame that he had Bell arrange the purchase of it. The price was $100, a large amount of money at that time. These 205 points made up what collectors now call the Tribute Point frame, named after the twenty specimens of the unique Tribute Point type that make up the center of this frame (Figure 4). The frame was later sold to the Bondley brothers and three other men. Dr. C. J. Bondley was from Bell Center, Ohio. He and his brother Elmer R. Bondley, a postal worker in Marion, were friends of Bell and had obtained other Spiro material through him. The group sold the frame to Irvin Dougherty of Fremont, Indiana, who valued the frame at $1200 when he sold it to Richard K. Meyer of Peoria, Illinois. The frame was still intact when it sold to Tony Stein of Kansas City, Missouri in 2000.

Another outstanding Spiro artifact obtained by a friend of Robert Bell is an unusual human face effigy T-pipe with cameo faces on both sides of the bowl. Tom Jevas of Marion, Ohio was the first collector to own this piece. Upon his death, the piece was inherited by an individual who took it to the Kentucky Lake artifact show. There, it was purchased by Ensil Chadwick of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, who brought the piece back to Ohio. The pipe is currently in the collection of D. R. Gehlbach of Columbus, Ohio. (Figures 5a & 5b show both sides of the pipe.)

One of the more unusual stories about Spiro artifacts concerns a cache of 17 long blades and three chipped stone maces made of Mill Creek chert. These were found at the mound around August 1935. A letter from Dr. Gordon Meuser of Columbus, Ohio, to B. W. Stephens of Quincy, Illinois, reports, “Incidentally, just after the Temple was opened, a man came to see me who had a large number of pieces from it for sale. I remember distinctly seeing several of the maces, as well as some long lancelot types of flint up to eighteen inches long. He wanted to sell them badly, but I wasn’t interested since they were not from Ohio. I sent him up to Marion to a friend of mine...He is Robert Bell.... He is a fine fellow and an old friend of mine.” (Hart 1998:64) The man with the pieces was Lear Howell of Glenwood, Arkansas. He proceeded on to Marion to visit Harry T. and Robert E. Bell. The Bells had met Mr. Howell in Dardanelle, Arkansas, so they knew him. However, they were not interested in purchasing the pieces. They did throw a sheet over a couch and propped up the pieces in order to photograph the cache. (Figures 6 & 7) They suggested that A. T. Wehrle of Newark, Ohio might be interested in the cache. So, Lear Howell continued on to Newark where he sold the cache to Mr. Wehrle.

The pieces were fire-blackened and dirty, with green copper stain. Mr. Wehrle decided to clean some of them. As he soaked them in water, they began to fall apart. To Mr. Wehrle’s dismay, they had been restored! Many of the pieces had fit together nicely but some did not. The restorer had decided to chip off the outer edge along the face at the breaks to provide a space to glue the pieces back together. The restorer then covered up this space with a mixture of plaster of Paris, plastic wood and crushed flint chippings. This was then painted to complete the cover up. Green paint was added to simulate the copper staining present on many Spiro artifacts. An unhappy Mr. Wehrle called the Bells to see if they had known the pieces were restored. Of course, the Bells had not known. Despite the amount of work that had been done to the pieces, the restoration was not obvious.

Mr. Wehrle kept the pieces until his death in 1954 when he left his entire collection to St. Josephinum College near Columbus to be sold for the benefit of the school. School officials contacted Mr. Ray Baby of the Ohio Historical Society for assistance in auctioning off the collection. In return for his help, the society received a donation of well-documented pieces from the collection, including, “a small group of artifacts from The Spiro Mound....” That collection included twelve blades and three maces from the cache. (It is possible that the five missing blades were the ones that fell apart during cleaning and that they may exist as a group of twenty to twenty-five fragmented pieces 1 1/2” to 2” wide and 3” to 4” long pieces and may be out there in someone’s collection.) Pieces from this cache and other pieces from the Wehrle Spiro material are on display at Ohio Historical Society museums in Columbus and Newark, Ohio.

Other important Spiro pieces from the A. T. Wehrle collection include an interesting class of artifacts found at the mound. This class consists of 62 copper-covered wooden knives, of which 54 are in the Society’s collection. These red-cedar knives were carved into a bi-pointed ovate shape and are up to 17” long. They were covered with thin sheets of embossed copper. The copper stretched around the edges and was bent onto the back of the wood to hold the copper in place. The design on the copper sheet normally simulated flaking on a flint blade. Slightly above the middle of the blade is a groove about 1” wide that goes across the blade and serves like a hafting area. It was not covered with copper but was cord-wrapped all the way around the blade. These wooden blades were usually in matched pairs, which, if held together back to back, would give the appearance of a bi-faced knife. The example shown (Figure 8) is not part of the Ohio Historical Society collection.

The most important group of Spiro artifacts in the Ohio Historical Society collection is a large group of copper artifacts attributed to A. T. Wehrle, Robert Bell, and Robert Phelps. Museum records show, “Robert Bell and Robert Phelps, Marion, Ohio, exchanged specimens of prehistoric copper ornaments taken from a mound in LeFlore County, Oklahoma...” Other pieces are listed on the Wehrle Collection inventory. This group includes part of a cache of eight large copper feathers and a human head effigy copper plate cutout. Five of the feathers and the human head effigy are in of the Ohio Historical Society collection. The human head effigy is the most significant Spiro piece in the collection. The copper profile (Figure 9) is 11” high, cut from a thin sheet of copper with repousse designs. The figure is wearing an earspool and has an occipital hair knot. Sticking in the hair knot is a copper feather that curves up over the head in a crescent shape. This clearly represents one of the copper feathers rather than a real feather. The eyes are almond-shaped within a forked or weeping eye design, which is based on the eye markings of the peregrine falcon. The copper feathers in the collection include the crescent design shown on the head as well as a serpentine form that is shaped like a snake but represents a feather (Figure 10). An example of the serpentine form is pictured in the April 1936, issue of “Hobbies” magazine. It is described as “Hammered copper snake. Approximately 1/16 inch thick, approximately 13 1/2 inches long. Adam Bauer, Marion” (Ohio). This appears to be one of the pieces in the Ohio Historical Society collection.

Other Spiro items in the Wehrle donation to the Ohio Historical Society included twenty pairs of earspools, incised conch shells, shell and stone beads, miscellaneous copper artifacts, arrowpoints and more. Most important of the other items are two large embossed copper plates, one with a geometric design and another with a warrior head profile which is very similar to the cutout profile.

But who is Robert Phelps who is mentioned as exchanging items along with Robert Bell? (Shown shirtless at the mound in Figure 3) He is an acquaintance of Robert Bell from Marion who actually dug at The Spiro Mound. Although Robert Bell had visited the mound many times, he never dug there. The Pocola Mining Company did not allow anyone else to dig on the lands they had leased. Robert Phelps was able to dig because he obtained permission to dig on the Percy Brewer property, which contained the last of the four cones in the mound. This was the same area that was first dug by Joe Balloun’s people, who reported they found nothing of value. Phelps and his cousin arrived at Spiro around April 28, 1935. He was apparently sponsored by A. T. Wehrle, the industrialist from Newark who manufactured stoves sold by Sears, Roebuck, and Company. During the Depression when sales were down, Wehrle provided paychecks for some of his laid-off workers by paying them to excavate sites around Licking County, Ohio. In return, he was to receive the artifacts found and the dig was to be documented. (These artifacts were included in the donation from the Wehrle Foundation to the Ohio Historical Society.) Phelps was no more successful than Joe Balloun in his digging, so Phelps purchased artifacts from the Pocola Mining Company diggers which he then sent to Wehrle to justify his expenses.

Another collector who was obtaining Spiro materials through Robert Bell was Gilbert Dilley of Akron, Ohio. His collection contains a large number of earspools, which may include some of the pieces shown in Figure 11.

During his visits to Spiro Robert Bell purchased artifacts for his father’s collection. However, those were hard Depression times and many items were out of reach for the family. One such item was a cache of 3000 arrowpoints. The diggers wanted $100 for the group; for Bell, “it might as well have been a million dollars.” However, he could afford $15 for a colorful blade that had been broken by the diggers. This is the famous Bell-Townsend-Onken blade featured in the Hero, Hawk and Open Hand exhibit. (Figure 12.)

It was during these visits that Robert Bell became concerned about the archaeological information being lost by the haphazard nature of the commercial diggers. This led him to choose a career in archaeology and so, in 1936, he enrolled in Ohio State University. He received his BA from the University of New Mexico and enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Chicago. The Spiro Mound was still on his mind and while at Chicago he undertook a project to document as many of the artifacts as he could. He knew that Spiro materials had been sold throughout the United States and Europe. He felt it was important to establish the provenance of the pieces before time obscured their true history.

One of the collections he documented belonged to Jacob S. Royer of Dayton, Ohio, an avid collector. Spiro artifacts appear to have been among his favorites. All but two Spiro pieces in his collection came from G. E. Pilquist, an honest dealer. Pilquist was a friend of Bell and Bell knew his materials could be trusted. Also, Royer had maintained detailed inventory notes on his collection, including excellent detailed drawings of each piece. Royer and Bell traded correspondence with Royer providing photographs and a detailed letter with his classic trademark drawings. Royer wrote about his collection in three articles in the Ohio Archaeologist, Vol. 8, numbers 1 and 4 and Vol. 9, number 1. Royer was proud of his Spiro material. In the articles he states, “.... the most interesting group of relics from an archaeological standpoint, over 250 relics from The Spiro Mound of Oklahoma....” Further, he says, “Probably no mound in the United States...has yielded as much archaeological material.... as has The Spiro Mound...Spiro Mound surpasses (all others) in the quality and quantity of the carven (sic) shell pieces.” Royer’s collection passed to Hubert C. Wachtel of Dayton, Ohio, who, in turn, sold the Spiro material to Thomas Gilcrease of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This material now represents a significant portion of the Spiro artifacts available for viewing at the Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

After obtaining his PhD in 1947, Dr. Bell accepted a position at the University of Oklahoma where he continued his relationship with The Spiro Mound. In 1963, Dr. Bell obtained a National Science Foundation grant to do a comprehensive study of the artifacts from the mound. An archaeological dig by the University of Oklahoma, using WPA labor from 1936 until 1941, after the end of the Pocola Mining Company activities, had never been properly written up. Dr. Bell hired James A. Brown as research assistant. Four volumes would follow through 1976. From 1986 until 1996 Dr. Brown extensively reworked the data and ultimately published his detailed, comprehensive work, The Spiro Ceremonial Center (Brown 1996).

During the 1960s the site itself became endangered when the Corps of Engineers wanted to use the site as a borrow pit for a dam and lock project. Fortunately, a foresighted regional planner, Robert Black, recognized its value and the site was conserved. In January 1968, Oklahoma Governor Dewey Bartlett formed a committee with the task of creating a state park. Of course, Dr. Bell was on that committee. Governor Bartlett was a native of Marietta, Ohio. His family was closely associated with Marietta College and, in 1972, Governor Bartlett received an honorary degree from the college. The senior author, Larry Merriam, a native of Zanesville, Ohio, was on the faculty of Marietta College at that time. Christopher Merriam, his son and the junior author, had been born in Marietta the previous year.

The Merriam family left Marietta and moved to Oklahoma in 1972. Here they met Dr. Bell at a presentation before a local chapter of the Oklahoma Anthropological Society. The talk was on The Spiro Mound as Dr. Bell related his experiences and told interesting stories about the digging there. Many years later, in 2001, Dr. Bell shared his Spiro Mound “family album” of photographs with the authors. Remembering Dr. Bell’s stories, Larry and Christopher Merriam undertook a project to document Dr. Bell’s photographic and verbal history of the digging of the mound. This history was published in 2004 as The Spiro Mound: A Photo Essay (Merriam 2004), the latest in a long line of Ohio connections to The Spiro Mound.

Footnote: In 2004 Dr. Bell turned 90 years old. In addition to being the main collaborator on The Spiro Mound: A Photo Essay, he was the author of another book published that year. That book, Ferdinandina, deals with the first European contact site in Oklahoma and the man who did the initial archaeological investigation of that site. That man was Joseph B. Thoburn, born in Bellaire, Ohio, in 1866.

All photographs are from the collection of Robert E. Bell and appear in The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay in full-page versions.


Figure 1

This watercolor by Patrick Foster shows The Spiro Mound as it would have looked around 1450 A.D. shortly after the site was abandoned and the Spiro Culture ceased to exist. The mound is made up of four co-joined cones, which gives it its unusual saddle shape.



Figure 2

The Braecklein Photograph was taken on December 8, 1935 in Kansas City after the end of the Pocola Mining Company digging at The Spiro mound. The “Big Boy” Pipe is one of the finest sculptures of the Southeast Ceremonial Complex. The seven maces represent the power and prestige of the leaders interred in the mound.




Figure 3

These three players in the history of The Spiro Mound are all natives of Marion, Ohio. Left to right they are: Chuck Aronhalt who visited the mound with Robert Bell numerous times between 1933 and 1935. He is shown modeling beads and earspools from the mound. Next is Robert Bell holding his walking stick while looking for evidence of stratigraphy in one of Robert Phelps’ trenches. Lastly, Robert Phelps the only one of the three who actually dug at the mound. He had obtained a lease on the last cone in the mound and dug where Joe Balloun first excavated at the mound.


Figure 4

The Tribute Point Frame was assembled by William Schallenberg of Dardanelle, Arkansas, using arrowheads uncovered during the first few months of digging at the mound. The Tribute point (also called a Craig point after the archaeological name for The Spiro Mound) is a unique Cahokia-like point found only at The Spiro Mound. This frame contains 21 of the 23 known examples of this very rare point.


Figure 5a

One side of the unusual Dual Cameo Human Face Effigy T-pipe found at The Spiro Mound. The pipe is currently in the collection of D. R. Gehlbach of Columbus, Ohio. This pipe is the only one of its kind known from Spiro. Robert Bell says it is without question from Spiro and that he may have been the one that brought the piece to Ohio. The pipe is ex-collections Tom Jevas and Ensil Chadwick.

Figure 5b

The reverse side of the Human Face Effigy T-Pipe from The Spiro Mound shown in Figure 5a. The pipe is 6 1/2 inches long with some restoration. It is 3 3/8 inches high and the bowl is 2 1/4 inch in diameter. It is made from a fine grained, reddish brown, compact material.


Figure 6

Part of the Wehrle Cache of Spiro blades and maces. This photo shows 10 of the long flint blades. All of the pieces were killed and had been restored. Figures 6 and 7 are the only pictures showing the entire original cache. These photographs were taken at the Bell residence in Marion, Ohio.

Figure 7

This photo shows the remaining 7 blades and the three maces of the Wehrle Cache; the rest of the pieces are shown in Figure 6. There is other material that was probably part of the cache as it was brought from the mound. This included at least four restored blades and one other restored mace, which were not included in the Wehrle Cache. These blades and maces are the only group of artifacts at Spiro that were systematically killed.

Figure 8

An example of a unique artifact type found at The Spiro Mound, the large copper-covered cedar knives. Fifty-four of the sixty-two examples known are in the Ohio Historical Society’s collection. This example is not in the society collection.




Figure 9

Copper Cutout Human Head Effigy from The Spiro Mound. This artifact is on display at the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. The profile is 11” high. The two earspools are similar to the one shown being worn by the effigy figure.



Figure 10

This picture shows one of the copper feathers found with the effigy cutout shown in Figure 9. This feather is of the serpentine form and shows evidence of having been attached to a wooden quill. This artifact would have been worn as a hair ornament.





Figure 11

Eight pairs of earspools from The Spiro Mound are shown. Examples of this artifact type from the Wehrle Collection are in the Ohio Historical Society. Other examples are known that were in the collections of Gilbert Dilley and Jacob Royer. At this time the location of the examples shown in this photograph is unknown.



Figure 12

The outstanding blade from The Spiro Mound shown here is 13 1/8” long and only 3/8” thick. It was originally in the Collection of Harry T. Bell. This piece is a colorful red and tan color, made from either Kay County (Florence “B”) or Kaolin Chert.

References

Brown, James A.
1996 The Spiro Ceremonial Center. The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma. Memoir Number 29, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Converse, Robert N.
2003 The Archaeology of Ohio, Archaeological Society of Ohio, Columbus, Ohio

Hart, Gordon
1998 Hart’s Prehistoric Pipe Rack Volume 2, Hart Publications, Bluffton, Indiana

MacDonald, A. B.
1935 A “King Tut” tomb in the Arkansas Valley, The Kansas City Star, December 14

Merriam, Larry and Christopher Merriam
2004 The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay, Merriam Station Books, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


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