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Spiro Mounds (Oklahoma)

A Ceremonial Center of the Southern Cult


Copper Plate Reproductions, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma

Copper Plate Reproductions, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma


Spiro Mounds is a set of earthworks located way out at the very far western edge of the late prehistoric cultural manifestation archaeologists call the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, and associated with the Mississippian culture. During the late prehistoric period (roughly 700 to 1200 AD), groups of people from Georgia to Oklahoma and Minnesota to Texas in what is now the United States built mounds, both for burying their dead and for other ceremonial purposes.

These groups hunted and gathered for food, and raised or tended corn, squash, and beans; they had complex societies and trade networks. Catlinite stone pipes, pottery vessels, gulf coast shell gorgets, copper ear spools and the raw materials for these objects moved far and wide. East of the Mississippi, the mound-building groups are known as Mississippian; west of the Mississippi the groups are called Caddoan. Caddoan ceremonial societies were based on the Arkansas River of Oklahoma and the Red River of Louisiana and Texas.

Spiro and the Cemeteries

Spiro is located along the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. The 180 hectare (444 acre) Spiro complex includes at least 15 mounds and a village of rectangular houses. One of the largest known prehistoric cemeteries in North America is sited at Spiro, with more than 750 burials dated between AD 800-1450. Its period of greatest importance was between 1250 and 1450, when gulf coast shell, native copper and other exotics were interred with the dead in three of the mounds.

The most complex mound at Spiro is called the Craig Mound. The Craig Mound is 35 meters (112 feet) in diameter and 10 m (33 ft) high, with a connected platform of three smaller mounds extending another 57 m (188 ft) to the south. Spiro was first brought to the attention of archaeologists after two years of mining by a team of private pot hunters. Collections from the mounds were scattered into an unknown number of collectors before the private digging ceased in 1935. Since that time, a considerable number of artifacts have made their way into several small museum collections.

Grave goods found at Spiro during the Works Progress Administration excavations of the 1930s and the Oklahoma Archeological Survey work of the 1960s-1980s are of a quality and quantity not found anywhere else within the southern cult sites. Conchs from Florida, copper from the southeast, lead from northern Illinois and Iowa, pottery from Tennessee, stone tool sources from Kansas, Texas, and southern Illinois, an obsidian scraper from the Pachuca quarries in central Mexico; all of these things made their way into the hands of Spiro's leaders.

Slowly over time, as these things happen, the village around Spiro's mound center grew, but the center did not, and by 1450, the center did not hold and the population moved on.

Visiting Spiro Mounds

The Spiro Mounds site and museum are managed by the Oklahoma Historical Society, and they are open to the public several days a week throughout the year. A winter solstice walk is scheduled every year to see this amazing Mississippian site.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Mississippian Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Brown JA. 1966. Spiro Mound: Description of the mound group. Norman: Stovall Museum, University of Oklahoma.

Brown JA. 1971. Spiro Mound: Pottery Vessels. Norman: Stovall Museum, University of Oklahoma.

Brown JA, editor. 1976. Spiro Mound: The artifacts. Norman: Stovall Museum, University of Oklahoma.

Brown JA. 1983. Spiro Exchange Connections Revealed by Sources of Imported Raw Materials. In: Wyckoff DG, and Hofman J, editors. Studies in Oklahoma's Past Volume 11: Southeastern natives and their pasts. Norman: Oklahoma Archaeological Survey. p 129-162.

Brown JA, and Rogers JD. 1989. Linking Spiro's artistic styles: The copper connection. Southeastern Archaeology 8(1):1-8.

Bruseth JE, Wilson DE, and Perttula TK. 1995. The Sanders site: A Spiroan entrepot in Texas? Plains Anthropologist 40(153):223-236.

Emerson TE, and Hughes RE. 2000. Figurines, flint clay sourcing, the Ozark highlands, and Cahokian acquisition. American Antiquity 65(1):79-101.

Hamilton HW, Hamilton JT, and Chapman EF. 1974. Spiro Mound Copper. Columbia: Missouri Archaeological Society.

Kozuch L. 2002. Olivella beads from Spiro and the Plains. American Antiquity 67(4):697-709.

Kuttruff JT. 1993. Mississippian period status differentiation through textile analysis: A Caddoan example. American Antiquity 58(1):125-145.

Phillips P, and Brown JA. 1978. Pre-columbian Shell Engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press.

Rogers JD, Dove CJ, Heacker M, and Graves GR. 2002. Identification of feathers in textiles from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. Southeastern Archaeology 21(2):245-251.

Schambach FF. 2000. Spiroan traders, the Sanders site, and the Plains Interaction Sphere: A reply to Bursseth, Wilson, and Perttula. Plains Anthropologist 45(171):7-33.

White NM, and Weinstein RA. 2008. The Mexican Connection and the Far West of the U.S. Southeast. American Antiquity 73(2):227-278.

Wyckoff DG, and Hofman JL. 1983. Southeastern natives and their pasts. Studies in Oklahoma's Past. Norman: Oklahoma Archaeological Survey.

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