OKLAHOMA CITY – The new exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum – “Spiro and the Art of the Mississippian World” – highlights a site that is considered one of the most important, ancient Native American sites as well as an archaeological find unmatched in modern times.
This one-time exhibit opened on February 12 and concludes on May 9.
Dr. Eric Singleton, Curator of Ethnology at the museum, told the Ledger that the idea for an exhibit on Spiro Mounds and culture came to him in 2012, when he was working at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
Singleton said he worked on the Spiro project for a few years but it never came to fruition while he was in Tulsa. This changed once he was in Oklahoma City and there was a positive reception to bringing such a unique and state-centric exhibit to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Spiro, Singleton said, “is one of the most unique sites in North America, yet no one knows anything about it.” Additionally, he said, the Spiro site – located south of the Arkansas River near the town of Spiro in LeFlore County – is “one of the most object-laden” mound sites in this part of the United States, with decorative shells found at Spiro coming from as far away as the Sea of Cortez in present-day Mexico.
That includes noted and protected pre-Columbian mound sites such as Moundville in Alabama and Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, which is also a World Heritage Site just east of St. Louis, Missouri, near the Mississippi River.
While at the Gilcrease, Singleton said he worked on preparing for a Spiro exhibit there, but opportunities changed and more recently he took the curating job at NCWHM.
Working primarily with the Caddo and Wichita tribes, Singleton said the tribes were supportive of their exhibit efforts. This exhibition will highlight 200 objects, alongside educational programming and a companion publication featuring information from scholars from more than a dozen universities and museums across America.
Shells, pipes, necklaces, bowls, pendants, effigies and more will be exhibited at the museum.
The Spiro culture thrived primarily from 800 A.D. to 1450 A.D., although various peoples had lived and/ or camped at the Spiro site for the previous 8,000 years. The Spiro culture, Singleton said, is believed to have disappeared due to the Little Ice Age that spanned a period roughly from 1350 to 1650 A.D. Much of the history of the Spiro site remains shrouded in mystery.
In those centuries, the Spiro peoples spread out into smaller bands and became parts of Wichita, Kichai, Caddo, Pawnee, Arikara and others over the subsequent centuries.
“We’ve had a great response,” Singleton said of both the tribes and the broader public.
As noted in The Mound Builders, a 1970 book by author and researcher Robert Silverberg, “There are at Spiro eight mounds of varying sizes; the largest one had been used both as a temple mound and as a burial site and contained a rich collection of artifacts.” But it was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that pot and relic hunters, seeking treasure to sell, looted the mounds at Spiro and that “within two years the site was all but destroyed.” But fortunately, Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center was set up through the Oklahoma Historical Society at the site by the state of Oklahoma to protect the site from vandalism and looting.
And in Prof. David La Vere’s Looting Spiro Mounds, the Oklahoma Legislature was able to protect the site after it was highlighted in regional newspapers at that time. With efforts by Forrest Clements and others, Spiro Mounds was preserved and highlighted Oklahoma as a leader in the nation when it came to preserving ancient, archaeological sites.
After the exhibit concludes in May, it will then be moved to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama, appearing from October 9, 2021 to February 6, 2022 and then to the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas from March 13 to August 7, 2022.
For more information go to spiromounds.com.