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Artifacts uncovered through archaeology fills in clues of state's history

Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, among the places that help tell Oklahoma's prehistoric story.
BY MAX NICHOLS Published: February 26, 2012

Archaeology is a study of people of the past, the ways they lived, how they thought and how that changed through time.

“When combined with historical sources, such as first-person accounts, written records and government documents,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, “artifacts help historians understand what happened, how it happened, when it happened and who did it.

“If a person relied solely on popular culture, especially movies, archaeology would be the search for lost treasure. At the Oklahoma Historical Society, archaeology is defined as a search for lost pieces of the puzzle.”

Archaeological pieces of the puzzle can be found at numerous sites and museums across the state. The largest collection accessible to the public is at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman. The museum's vast collection traces the human occupation of this region going back 10,000 years or more.

Good examples of how archaeology has filled in details of Oklahoma's history can also be found at the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, the Honey Springs Battlefield and Fort Towson. All are operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society, which works with the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, the Institute for Nautical Archaeology and the National Park Service.

“In Oklahoma, about 20,000 prehistoric Native American sites have been recorded,” said Dennis Peterson, director of the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, three miles east of Spiro on Highway 271 and four miles north on Spiro Mounds Road. “Spiro Mounds is the only prehistoric site in the state open to the public.”

Although various groups camped on or near the Spiro area over the previous 8,000 years, the location became a permanent settlement around A.D. 800 and was used until about A.D. 1450, Peterson said. The prehistoric Spiro people developed a sophisticated culture that influenced the entire southeast, he said.

“Artifacts indicate that Spiro leaders developed political and religious ties with people from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico and from the coast of Virginia to the Great Lakes,” Peterson said. “They shared horticulture, elaborate mound building and a picture-writing system with more than 60 tribes.”

The first recorded excavations were led in 1916-17 by Joseph Thoburn, who worked for the Oklahoma Historical Society. He photographed the 12 mounds in 1914 and returned to understand why they were developed and by whom. Commercial diggers dug into the Craig Mound, a burial site, and started selling unique and exotic artifacts all over the world.

From 1936 through 1941, the University of Oklahoma conducted scientific excavations of the Craig Mound with help from the Oklahoma Historical Society, the University of Tulsa and private donors. The Oklahoma Archeological Survey researched the site from 1971 to 1982.

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