The Spiro Mounds Site is one of the most important archeological discoveries in North America and Oklahoma’s only state archeological park. Spiro is the westernmost site of a complex cultural tradition in the Southeast called the Southern Cult or Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. The site, occupied from AD 850 to 1450, was home to powerful leaders who directed the building of the nine platform and burial mounds on the 80-acre site. These leaders governed farmers in outlying villages who probably provided labor for mound-building.
“Old Indian Burial Mounds Despoiled to Supply Demands of Curio Seekers”
This headline brought the Spiro Mounds to national attention in the 1930’s when a group of treasure hunters set off a charge of black powder in the largest mound after losing their “mining” lease. The men sold artifacts from the mounds to collectors all over the world. Fragile items like cotton cloth and feather robes were tossed aside and crushed underfoot.
After the treasure hunters lost their lease, archeologists from the University of Oklahoma led WPA workers on a controlled excavation of the site in 1936 to salvage as much knowledge as possible about this unique site.
Six mounds form a circular grouping around an oval plaza on the western side of the site. The largest of these is known as Brown mound. Steeply sloping on three sides, the mound had a walkway on the fourth, southern side which led to a building on top of the mound. This may have been a mortuary house where the dead were prepared for burial.
The eastern group of mounds, about a quarter mile from Brown mound, consisted of mounds where important leaders were buried with elaborate ceremony and grave goods. The preservation of delicate basketry, feather capes, and cloth was remarkable. Unfortunately, many of these fragile artifacts were destroyed in the plundering of the mounds by treasure hunters.
Trade goods found at the Spiro site include copper from the Great Lakes, shell beads from the Gulf of California, and conch shell from the Gulf of Mexico. They show the extensive trade networks connecting different cultures across the continent at the time.
Early looting of the site lead to laws making Oklahoma one the first states in the U.S. to preserve and scientifically research archaeological sites. The Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center opened to the public on May 9, 1978. Today the site is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center preserves 150 acres of the site, along the Arkansas River. The center offers interpretive exhibits, an introductory slide program and a small gift shop. There are nearly two miles of interpreted trails, including a one-half mile nature trail. Archaeologist and center director Dennis Peterson is on staff to answer questions and lead tours. Schools and large groups can arrange for guided tours of the site by contacting the staff by phone or email at least a week ahead of time. Special tours of the site, available to everyone, are offered during the solstices and equinoxes. The Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center features an annual Family Kite Flite Day on the third Saturday of March, Archaeology Day/Birthday Bash in May and periodic temporary exhibits sponsored by the Spiro Mounds Development Association.
The center is located three miles east of Spiro on U.S. 271 and four miles north on Spiro Mounds Road. The center is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 5 p.m. throughout the year. The site is closed for state holidays.
Information for this article was compiled from the Oklahoma Archeological Society and Oklahoma Historical Society websites.