This week: Spiro Mounds

A shell gorget from the Spiro Mounds depicting a spider motif framed with hands. It is housed in the Woolaroc Museum. IMAGE: Marc Carlson/Wikimedia Commons.

It was considered one of the finds of the century, when – at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s – a group of American prospectors calling themselves the Pocola Mining Company uncovered a burial chamber in eastern Oklahoma that had remained undisturbed for more than 500 years.

Inside, they found an extraordinary assemblage of pre-Columbian riches – including copper breast-plates, elaborately carved effigies, and hundreds of shells engraved with mythical figures – proving beyond all doubt that the Mississippian civilisation which spead across much of eastern North America between the ninth and sixteenth centuries had created a culture to rival those of the Aztec, Inca and Maya.

At the time, the find was described by newspapers as the US answer to ‘King Tut’s tomb’ – but in a reflection of an era before antiquities laws were introduced, it was the looting that followed which ensured that the miners’ discovery will now forever be associated with controversy in the annals of American archaeology.

As we discover this week on The Past, the Native American treasures found at the site known as Spiro Mounds were simply sold off – to curio-seekers or anyone else who made an offer – with the result that this extraordinary group of prehistoric sacred artefacts is now split between dozens of institutions around the world, including the British Museum, the Smithsonian and the Louvre, along with countless private collections.

In the new issue of Minerva magazine, curators Michelle Rich and Eric Singleton tell Lucia Marchini how it was that the Spiro Mound objects came to be buried, how they were rediscovered and cast to the four winds – and how, almost a century later, 175 of the pieces have now been reunited for a revelatory travelling exhibition currently on show at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives in search of more about the early history of North America: we travelled to New York to visit the National Museum of the American Indian; we journeyed to the Pacific north-west to tell the story of its ancient peoples; and we headed to South Dakota on the trail of one of the Northern Plains’ earliest farming communities.

And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is focused on the pre-Columbian civilisations of both North and South America. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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