For the first time since 1982, major excavations at the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center in eastern Oklahoma will begin May 19 and continue each weekday through June 20, and the public is invited.
“We will welcome the public to visit the excavations, and archaeologists will be willing to answer questions,” said Dennis Peterson, Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center historic property manager for the Oklahoma Historical Society. Archaeologist Scott Hammerstedt of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey and the University of Oklahoma will lead the excavations.
This will be a rare opportunity for Oklahomans to see archaeology in action, said Bob Blackburn, OHS executive director. The excavation will follow Phase One preliminary excavations that were conducted in October.
“The focus of the work will be several remote sensing anomalies that may be possible structures,” Blackburn said. “One of the anomalies was revealed during the short excavation in October 2013, and researchers uncovered the first round structure ever seen at the site. The 2014 work will be focused on three other anomalies, which are being eroded by a stream in the area of the October dig.
“The Spiro Mounds culture goes back to about A.D. 850 near what is now the town of Spiro. More than 25,000 prehistoric sites have been recorded in Oklahoma, but the Spiro Mounts Archaeological Center is the only one open to the public.”
Seeking more artifacts
In 2012 and 2013, Phase One of a remote sensing survey was conducted by researchers from the Oklahoma Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Archeological Survey in association with researchers from OU, the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
Remote sensing, Peterson said, uses various technologies, such as ground penetrating radar, gradiometer and magnetometers, that allow for patterns beneath the soil to be seen before any digging.
“Preliminary data shows at least 50 possible house patterns,” Peterson said, “and a lot of patterns that archaeologists are not sure what they are yet. There are several of these house patterns that are being impacted by a drainage ditch. The excavations during October were focusing on one of those possible house patterns.
“The October excavations included very few artifacts and almost nothing that tells researchers about the time of use. It is hoped that more artifacts will be found in the 2014 research, and a better understanding of the structures will be gleaned.”
While there are some very old sites in Oklahoma, the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center mainly focuses on the Mississippian period of A.D. 850-1450. During that time, more than 60 tribes and 6 million people were building earthen mounds and art and trading items from coast to coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.
Traders and leaders from the Spiro Mounds traveled in dugout canoes, which were up to 60 feet long with sails. These canoes could hold up to 80 people. They traded bois d'arc wood for bows and some types of stone from the West for Eastern goods such as flint clay for effigy pipes from Missouri, copper from the Great Lakes, pearls and pottery from the southern Mississippi area and conch shells from Florida.
A central fixture is the Craig Mound, where about 1,100 leaders were buried with items indicating their power and authority. These included pipes, conch shells and copper plates. Because more of these items have been found at Craig Mound than any other United States site, newspapers have nicknamed the site “King Tut's Tomb of the West.”
Activities for visitors
Visitors can learn more about this incredible past on March 20 and 21, when there will be a series of guided vernal equinox walks at the Spiro Mounds center, Peterson said. An archaeologist will lead visitors and answer questions. Each day, Peterson will lead walks at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Each walk will take about two hours and require a mile of easy walking, he said.
Peterson will describe the types of mounds, why they were created and why some of the mounds are lined up for the sunsets of the solstices and equinoxes. He also will present the history of excavations, American Indian ceremonies and tales of unusual events associated with the mounds, and he will answer questions.
Tour fees will be $3 for adults and $2 for children, in addition to the regular entrance fees of $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $1 for children. No reservations are required except for groups.
The annual Family Kite Flite Day is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 15 at the center. The Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center is three miles east of Spiro on U.S. 271 and four miles north on Spiro Mounds Road.
“This incredible historic center was opened on May 9, 1978, by the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and transferred to OHS in 1991,” Blackburn said. “Visiting this spectacular project helps Oklahomans understand the prehistoric history of our state.”