Book looks at mystery, controversy surrounding Spiro Mounds

  • Spiro Mounds

Relics buried in eastern Oklahoma may have gone unnoticed had it not been for the efforts of a few outraged academics who successfully saved what was left of the Spiro people who lived there hundreds of years earlier.

Looting Spiro Mounds: An American King Tut’s Tomb, written by David La Vere, a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, both encapsulates the mystery and controversy that surrounds Spiro Mounds and offers a gripping story involving ancient peoples and artifacts left behind impacting the lives of the relic hunters and the archaeologists fighting to protect the site.

At the height of the Great Depression, Indian relic and curio dealers and artifact collectors had caught wind of the artifacts at the heart of the Spiro Mounds area of LeFlore County, north of Poteau. Twelve mounds lie on approximately 150 acres in which the Spiro lived and worked.

While it is now protected by the Oklahoma Historical Society, and is the one of the most important Native American archaeological sites in the United States, back in the 1930s the looters, “pot hunters” and others were not easily dissuaded from digging into the mounds and unearthing priceless, ancient Indian artifacts.

Writes La Vere: “The only finds that made their way onto the curio market were those made by ‘pot hunters,’ what professional archaeologists called the unlicensed, untrained folks who dug up Indian burials to get at the grave goods.” 

Not far from the Arkansas River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, this location was a more permanent settlement for the Spiro people between 800 A.D. and 1450 A.D. It is believed the Spiro people were part of the larger Caddoan-speaking culture, which today includes the Wichita, Kichai, Caddo, Pawnee and Arikara peoples.

More or less deserted for the next 400 years, the mounds and site becoming more or less a part of the wooded, hilly landscape where Choctaw people settled, following the ethnic cleansing of eastern Natives and the forced march on the Trail of Tears – later, with Choctaw Freedmen– and farmed the surrounding land, leaving the mounds largely undisturbed. This was in the area called Indian Territory, just west of Arkansas, and considered undesirable by those in the American government.

During the Civil War – in which the Spiro area, with Skullyville the main Choctaw seat of government – and the mid-1890s, not much was going on in this area. At least until the Kansas City Southern Railroad (a.k.a. “the Old Split Log,” started by Arthur E. Stilwell) was built nearby, bypassing Skullyville and leaving the town to whither and die. This gave a new town – Spiro – a chance to flourish on the rail line, bringing more people into the area, and, in three decades, the relic hunters who would devastate the mounds, named for the nearby town and the individ- ual mounds named after folks from the area.

After all, in the 1930s, desperate times call for desperate measures, and protecting old Indian artifacts was not high on the list of priorities for the out-of-work men who saw money and opportunity in those old mounds. But the travesty was lost on them. Unearthing the mounds while destroying the site in the process.

The Spiro Mounds were known for high strangeness, as La Vere notes early in the book when explaining who lived on the property where the mounds were located, primarily people of African-Choctaw descent, including Rachel Brown, who owned a tract that included Craig Mound.

La Vere writes that Brown “developed a healthy wariness about the Spiro Mounds,” adding that she was “protective” of the mound, particularly a portion of Craig Mound called ‘Great Temple Mound.’”

And then things get spooky, as LaVere writes, “From her cabin only a few hundred yards from Craig Mound,
on dark nights she reported blue flames shimmering around the mound and strange noises emanating from it. One night, a loud noise from the mound woke here. Looking out, she was frightened to see a team of ghost cats ‘harnessed tandem-fashion to a small wagon which they were pulling around and around the summit.’”

Animals, the author writes, were just as wary of the mounds as much as Brown and others were, if not more, noting that “mules could only be urged to approach the earthwork with the greatest difficulty and with increasing expressions of panic.”

But those far less superstitious about the mounds – the local “pot hunters” – kept on digging and digging, even when it was publicly stated that they were “looters, destroyers of knowledge for the sake of a quick buck.”

Some men formed the Pocola Mining Company, where “mining for gold, mining for Indian relics, it was all the same thing” was a prominent position to take. Their 1935 venture, conducted after being given permission by the property owners, began digging in Craig Mound, soon discovering skeletons and artifacts buried approximately seven feet down. 

“Amateur pot hunters broke into mounds, tossed aside skeletons, and tore up tombs to get anything of value,” writes La Vere. “And in doing so, they destroyed much.”

Fortunately, many learned men and women were ap- palled to see this taking place. Heroic archaeologists like Forrest Clements, head of the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Anthropology, were trying to change the nature and rep- utation of archaeology – a new, professional archaeol- ogy. And in 1934 and 1935, Clements and his fellow scientists squared off with the “hard-working, honest folks representing good old-fashioned free enterprise” in their looting ventures at Spiro Mounds, only seeing dollar signs in the form of primitive tools and weapons and other artifacts.

Eventually, with action taken in the Oklahoma legislature to protect the site for scientific study, newspapers in Oklahoma City and Kansas City covered the issue and, in turn, lured many visitors to the contested mound site. Now the public was fully aware of what was going on in this remote area of eastern Oklahoma. The light shining on the mounds was that of truth and, fortunately, efforts by Forrest Clements, OU and others led to the preservation of sites like Spiro Mounds. Oklahoma’s efforts were unique in the na- tion at that time and set the bar high for the future.

Study of many of the artifacts led to fascinating discoveries for the scientists. For instance, some seashells believed to have come from as far away as the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico, indicating the Spiro had a broad trade network throughout the Southeast and Southwest regions. Spiro, we are learning was a real hub for the Southern Plains and the western edge of the Ozark and Ouachita mountain regions. Why the Spiro peoples vacated the area hundreds of years ago is an ongoing mystery, notes the author.

La Vere’s writings (along with lots of historic photos included in these pages) bring the reader through the process of saving the relics and artifacts and protecting them, mainly by securing them at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, on the campus of OU and with the support and input of tribes like the Wichita and Caddo.

I found Looting Spiro Mounds to be a terrific Oklahoma-centric read. La Vere did thorough research and brought his tip-top writing skills to the fore on the 200-plus pages. A really great book to add to your history collection. And if you have the time, check out the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, which opened in May 1978. I was there a few years ago myself, doing research for my forthcoming book The Stilwell Enigma. It is remarkable getting to see Spiro Mounds in person.