A BRIDGE BETWEEN WORLDS
Oklahoma Today|November/December 2020
THE HIDDEN PAST OF NATIVE AMERICA STILL IS BURIED AT SPIRO MOUNDS.
MASON WHITEHORN POWELL
DENNIS PETERSON, DIRECTOR of Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center in eastern Oklahoma, is the site’s last remaining employee. The center opened in 1978 and has been operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society since 1991, but budget cuts have left Peterson to manage the facility on his own. If there wasn’t someone able to help cut and bale the 150 acres of hay on the property, he says he’d be out on a tractor too instead of greeting guests in the visitors center.

Of the estimated thirty to forty American Indian earthwork mounds in Oklahoma and Arkansas, Spiro is the largest—and the only such prehistoric archaeological site open to the public. Without Peterson—a passionate, seemingly endless source of knowledge on Spiro civilization, artifacts, and culture—these mounds would remain as inaccessible and mysterious as they did for six hundred years.

Before they were disturbed by the Pocola Mining Company during the Great Depression, the mounds at Spiro served their intended purpose as mortuaries holding bodies, structures, and sacred objects. But before the intervention of archaeologists, these sites were looted, their artifacts and bodies scattered globally. A handful of books tells this story, and scholars continue to interpret Spiro and its people, but there is nothing like visiting the place itself to experience the remnants of a great civilization.

Peterson now acts as the guardian of this ancient city, again on the edge of abandonment, as if he has been chosen to bring it back to life for those who come here.

WHILE MANY DETAILS of Spiroan life have been pieced together by archaeologists and anthropologists, together they give only broad sketches of the rise and fall of Spiro. The people who lived in this region and used this land to varying degrees from circa 800 to 1500 CE are known as Caddoan Speaking People of the Mississippian Period.

“The Mississippian is a confederation of more than sixty different tribes, more than thirty different language groups directly involving at least six million people, everywhere from the Rockies to the Virginian coast to the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Great Lakes,” Peterson says. “The moundbuilding people at Spiro and scattered across the continent were autonomous but interconnected, partly through economics but also through politics, religion, and society structure.”

Outward from Spiro branched a trade network of ambassadors who gathered raw materials from coast to coast and spread their culture’s influence through art. The shared mythological and ceremonial aspects of the Mississippian religion are referred to as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, or Southern Cult. Cahokia, eight miles from present-day St. Louis, Missouri, and perhaps America’s most famous mound site, was the largest and most influential Mississippian city.

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