Spiro mounds in Oklahoma is one of the most important pre-Columbian mound-builder sites in the United States. Most of the copper and shell artwork used to illustrate mound-builder culture in textbooks comes from Spiro Mounds. Archaeologists believe the site along the Arkansas River once served as an important regional ritual center. Oddly enough, the site is not a national monument or an Oklahoma state park. The local historical society operates the park. Many of the exhibits and several of the mounds themselves have fallen into disrepair. Needless to say, I still had a good time touring the site. Mound-builder culture is a bit of a perennial curiosity for me. I've toured several important sites in the Southeast. Sadly, pervasive looting in the 1930s by the Pocola Mining Company, established specifically to unearth Indian artifacts, destroyed much of the valuable archaeological context of the site.
In fact, the devastation of Spiro helped inspire some of the first laws in the United States to protect archaeological sites. One mound in particular contained an unusual cedar burial chamber-- unlike anything else discovered in North America. Called the "American King Tut's Tomb", the chamber preserved valuable organic material like clothing, feathers and basketry. Before scholars could assess the remains, looters dynamited the chamber and discarded everything they found, including the skeletal remains, saving only a few valuable shell and copper ornaments they could sell to collectors. The mound visible today is actually a reconstruction built during the 1970s. Much of the Spiro complex was in fact, comprised of mortuary mounds. According to a display in the museum's disintegrating exhibition room, the execution of servants and family members often accompanied the death of a powerful Spiro leader. After several months, perhaps years, priests would exhume the bodies. Specially equipped with long fingernails, they would tear the remaining flesh off the bones before re-intering the remains. Eish. There may have never been a more pressing need for press-on nails.