The world was changing. Severe droughts that lasted decades at a time gripped the eastern part of North America. Large cities with their dozens of earthen mounds were struggling to harvest enough corn and other crops to feed their inhabitants. People of the Mississippian world called on their leaders to intervene.
At one site along the banks of the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, people and objects convened in spectacular fashion to address this crisis. Riches from across North America – copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico, and even obsidian from the area around present-day Mexico City – were brought together at Spiro around AD 1400, set up in a sacred tableau, and sealed inside a chamber within a mound, where they remained hidden for more than 500 years.
Spiro was not the biggest mound-site, having only 12 mounds and a population of several thousand. (The largest ceremonial centre was Cahokia in Illinois, with nearly 200 mounds and a population of 10,000 to 20,000 people.) Nor was it palisaded, and nor did its people depend on corn as their main crop, like other centres. But what really sets Spiro apart is this remarkable assemblage of items, the vestiges of a ritual enacted during the Little Ice Age seemingly to restart the world.
Many of the artefacts that shed light on Spiro’s unique role among these Indigenous communities were uncovered in a single context in the Craig Mound in the 1930s. For two years during the Great Depression, the Pocola Mining Company (PMC) dug up objects to sell. The number of high-quality objects that appeared from the now obviously important site led to the passing of Oklahoma’s first antiquities laws. Then, between 1936 and 1941, the University of Oklahoma collaborated with the Works Progress Administration, the University of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Historical Society, and the Woolaroc Museum to excavate what remained of the mound, revealing many more finds – altogether the largest set of artefacts known from any single Mississippian site.
Because of this chequered early excavation history, there is much that remains unknown about the original make-up of the assemblage, and the site is still the focus of ongoing research by the Spiro Landscape Archaeological Project, which returns to the field in May. The PMC did leave some notes and drawings, providing vital information about the arrangement of the objects, many of which are spread across collections today. Some of these artefacts have been brought together for an exhibition organised by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (NCWHM) in Oklahoma, in close consultation with the Caddo Nation and Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, the descendants of the Spiroan people. The exhibition opened at the NCWHM last year, before travelling to Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, and now, for its final stop, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), Texas, where it recently opened as Spirit Lodge: Mississippian art from Spiro.
It is the first time that these objects – just a small fraction of what the mound once contained – have been reunited since they were removed from the ground. They tell the story of Spiro, but also of the beliefs and iconography of the wider Mississippian world, of which the site was evidently an important part. In the Midwest and the Southeast, Mississippian people developed a large and complex society between AD 800 and 1650. Their cities, or ceremonial centres, consisted of earthen mounds and plazas near rivers. These were cosmopolitan, well-connected places; people moved between towns and goods were traded over long distances, covering more than 1,000 miles.
People were also connected by a shared belief system with a tripartite universe. There is the above world, the supernatural realm of the Sun and Morning Star (also known as Red Horn, who in contemporary Pawnee traditions came to the earth as a meteor, bringing fire with him); the middle world, which we humans inhabit; and the below world, associated with chaos, underwater, and the night sky. All three were connected by an axis mundi or Tree of Life, via which supernatural characters and spiritual leaders could access different realms to make an impact on the real world.
Spiro had been occupied since approximately AD 950. Important changes began after AD 1200, when the nearly 10m-tall mound that became the main part of the Craig Mound (originally four separate mounds that were later joined together with more earth) was built. Spiro’s inhabitants dug a pit into this mound. Known as the Great Mortuary, this was where they interred generations of their ancestors, along with objects brought from different settlements. Later, around 1350-1400, they dug into the mound and moved the burials to a different part of the Great Mortuary, making way for the building of a hollow chamber called the Spirit Lodge.
Here, the Spiroans placed objects of ritual significance filled with imagery relating to the cosmos in what has been described as a sacred tableau. Knowing how the world was created in their belief system and which characters were involved in the process, the Spiroans set out to do the same thing. These finds are the surviving remnants of what was probably a series of rituals to recreate creation and restart the world during the droughts of the Little Ice Age, which affected the eastern half of North America from around 1350 until around 1650.
‘What’s interesting is that recent archaeological research has uncovered across the site a series of post-hole remnants that indicate temporary housing’, says Michelle Rich, the DMA’s Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of the Arts of the Americas and venue curator of the exhibition. ‘That supports this notion of a convening of people from across the Mississippian world at Spiro – local leaders, spiritual leaders, political leaders coming together and bringing all of their most powerful, potent ritual objects with them. I don’t want to trivialise it by making this comparison, but it’s like Burning Man, where thousands of people come together with their tents and their RVs, creating a town in the middle of the desert, and then they disperse again.’
At the centre of the Spirit Lodge was a carved stone effigy pipe depicting Earthmother, the supreme provider and an essential ingredient for a new world. She holds corn and is responsible for rebirth. The placement of this life-giving figure in the centre of the floor has been interpreted as a means of establishing a new axis mundi between the tableau and the above and below worlds. Another fine effigy pipe – pressed into the wall of the hollow chamber – depicts Morning Star, seated and seemingly nude as befits a primordial god, but wearing a feathered cape, a beaded necklace, a palette with an ogee on his head, a horn hanging down from his hair, and other adornments, known as maskettes, in his ears. A carved wooden statue of First Man, a human who could perform rituals to interact with the spirit world, was here too, accompanied by two smaller ‘assistant’ statues. There were also 18 baskets filled with regalia, which enabled their wearers to embody a specific deity, bowls of pearls, arrowheads, earspools, and more.
Among the numerous objects was a fascinating group of more than 100 shell cups placed at the side of the room. Made from lightning whelk shells from the Florida Keys, they were engraved with a range of images, including animals, mythical creatures, stylised cosmological symbols like the human hand, Birdman (a spirit who played a part in the development of Native American communities at the beginning of time), and anthropomorphic figures wearing regalia (some like that found in the baskets). Some of the shells carry a set of images that create a narrative sequence that possibly reflects the ceremony performed at Spiro: humans call on the spirit world for help, which is given as a gift of power in the form of a forked pole.
Shell finds from the Spirit Lodge represent 90% of all known Mississippian engraved shell. Research by archaeologists Jim Brown and Phillip Phillips identified two main styles: the more figural Braden style (from Cahokia) and the more schematic Craig style (from Spiro). Now, a third style has emerged: Holly Bluff, from Moundville, Alabama.
Eric Singleton, Curator of Ethnology at the NCWHM, elaborates, ‘I think there’s a specific intention and a need for certain items to come from certain locations. Looking at these shell pieces, it looks like these styles correspond to the above, middle, or below realm. Most of the Braden stuff is supernatural; your Craig stuff is real world; and your Holly Bluff, or Moundville, is underworld, with snakes and piasa birds and chimeras.
‘I think that these specific locations connect to sacred geography. And so the ritual that happened at Spiro had to happen at Spiro, because it is the ritual location of the real world.’
An acidic substance, says Singleton, was probably painted on to the tough surface of the shell to enable the engraving. Some objects had been coming to the Spiro over a long period of time, but some of the shells may have been prepared on-site specifically for this ritual. ‘There’s one particular cup in the exhibit that shows a style we call Braden B. It has a really refined floating head – it’s probably a head that’s been decapitated – but the other five heads on the cup are really choppy. What I think occurred is that you have one part that had been refined and the process had began, and then when they came to Spiro they needed this piece, so they quickly had to incise it. But when they’re incising this, they’re slipping. And that’s because either the acid has not had time to work, or they’re not applying enough, or they’re not applying it correctly.’
Parts of lightning whelk shells were also used for decorated objects called gorgets, with holes that would have allowed them to be attached to items like headdresses. One striking example has in its centre a spider, with a swirling cross that resembles a whirlpool, a portal to the underworld, on its body. Around the edge are a series of human hands. Hands – sometimes with an eye on them – are a frequent image on a number of Mississippian objects. ‘The hand-and-eye motif is associated with Orion and the night sky’, Rich explains. ‘That hand with the eye or sometimes with the ogee – which is a curved element that you also see on its own – is viewed as a portal between worlds.
‘We have a case with objects that are exclusively from Moundville. It’s an interesting site because it wasn’t huge – it was bigger than Spiro but smaller than Cahokia – but towards the end of the site’s occupation, it is thought that it became a regional centre for burials. So a lot of the iconography on the ceramics or the stone discs portrays skeletal elements, but the hand-and-eye motif is also really prominent there.’
Two popular figures in Mississippian iconography are the Hero Twins, mythical twins from the time of creation, associated with death, rebirth, and the weather. They appear in a somewhat abstract form in the maskettes, like those worn by Morning Star in the effigy pipe.
‘The short-nosed maskette is in all likelihood a personification of one of the Hero Twins, the first-born who they call Civilised Boy,’ says Singleton. ‘There are various names. And the long-nosed one is Wild Boy, or Uncivilised Boy, who was cast out and came back later. They actually function as thunder and lightning as well, and they take on powers.
‘The maskettes would have probably been tied to a cord and attached to a headdress. When a person wore them, the masks would have hung down to the lower lobe and then pointed outwards, so they would have had all the appearance of a long-nosed maskette on their ear, but it was not actually affixed to the ear.’
One twin possibly appears on an extraordinary wooden object from the Spirit Lodge. As Singleton says, ‘Based off of some evidence, a colleague of mine, David Dye, associates this (and I think he’s correct) with Wild Boy. The face would have been inlaid – the eyes with shell, and the earspools… It’s a beautiful mask.’
There is much that impresses in the artistry of these objects, but it is important to remember the reason why these masterpieces were all found in this one chamber. A group of people committed their holy objects into the earth in an attempt to regain control of their agriculture, to restart creation and fix the world and the broken climate. Ultimately they failed. The effects of the Little Ice Age endured into the 17th century in the region, but by then Cahokia, Moundville, and Spiro had all long been abandoned, possibly as a result of the droughts.
‘In about 1450, Spiro was abandoned,’ Rich notes. ‘Mississippian culture was disintegrating in the way that it had been shaped previously. Mississippian peoples restructured themselves and persevered, and in the exhibition we feature contemporary work by artists from descendant populations.’
Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Kiowa, Muscogee, Potawatomi, Seminole, and Wyandot artists are all showcased. ‘I think everything that is part of the show really connects to the ancient objects in the exhibition, or helps us to understand them more clearly, like when we’re looking at some of the perishables,’ says Rich. ‘We have two very beautiful sets of regalia that were used in a Chickasaw opera. But the artist who made those, Margaret Roach Wheeler, she made use of museum collections to study how ancient textiles were created.’
‘It’s the same with Caddo pottery,’ Rich adds. ‘We have some in the show made by Jeri Redcorn and Chase Kahwinhut Earles. The tradition of Caddo ceramics had really disappeared. The story is that in the 1990s Jeri Redcorn was at the Museum of the Red River in Oklahoma and saw Caddo pottery, and basically single-handedly revived the Caddo ceramic tradition. Then Chase Kahwinhut Earles apprenticed with her. They have their different styles now, but they both draw deeply on the work of their ancestors.’
One work in the show combines the Caddo ceramics of Chase Kahwinhut Earles and the Muscogee painting of Starr Hardridge. Writing in the book accompanying the exhibition, they say of their Everlasting Fire Plate, ‘Much like what occurred at Spiro… this plate represents the coming together of people and artists from different communities and cultures to achieve something unique.’
Further information Spirit Lodge: Mississippian art from Spiro runs at Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, until 7 August 2022. Visit https://dma.org for details. An abundantly illustrated book accompanies the exhibition, with chapters by a range of contributors on different aspects of Spiro, and featuring some of the contemporary art. Recovering Ancient Spiro: Native American art, ritual, and cosmic renewal, edited by Eric D Singleton and F Kent Reilly III, is published by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. You can hear more about Spiro in an upcoming episode of The Past’s podcast, which will be available at https://the-past.com/podcasts/