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SPIRO is the name given for an ancient town site in extreme eastern Oklahoma. The site achieved fame in 1935 when an exceptional collection of artifacts was discovered by relic miners in a large communal grave. During the Mississippian Period (1000–1540), these special objects displayed wealth and status. Using these Spiro objects and comparable ones from the Etowah site in Georgia, and the Moundville site in Alabama, archaeologists were able to identify a Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, a belief system and associated symbolic language that appeared to link diverse regional cultures throughout the Southeast.

The Spiro objects included large chipped stone, engraved shell cups and gorgets, copper headdress plates, pearl beads, and well-preserved wooden sculpture and colorful textiles. From a large ossuary of human skeletons, one hundred years of grave goods and bones were collected for communal deposition in a reconstructed tomb. The approximately forty-five square-foot structure, called the Great Mortuary, was created at the base of the main cone of the Craig burial mound in the early years of the 1400s. Preservation of textiles and other perishables was made possible by a hollow cavity formed by the protective cover of clay layers in the mound itself.

The objects found in the Great Mortuary provide a rich foundation upon which to view ancient beliefs and ritual practices, not only of Caddoan-speaking peoples inhabiting the region, but those of others in the Southeast during the Mississippian Period. Extensive external connections are demonstrated through a substantial number of objects from the Cahokia area, near modern St. Louis. Marine whelk shells from the Gulf Coast of Florida were found along with a few objects of distant western sources derived from the Southwest and the Gulf of California.

The site exhibited changes in land use over its 500 years of history. Starting around 900 a.d., it was a thirty-acre village with a ring of burial mounds located on a slight rise to the west. By 1250, the town site took on the character of a large ceremonial center with ordinary habitation off-site nearby in scattered locations.


Brown, James A. The Spiro Ceremonial Center: The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma. Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology no. 29. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1996.

Phillips, Philip, and James A. Brown. Pre-Columbian Shell Engravings from Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, 1978–1984.

James A.Brown

See alsoIndian Art ; Indian Mounds ; Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act .