Mexico and South America are noted for three important pre-Columbian civilizations: the Maya, the Inca and the Aztec. But there is a fourth, and often unrecognized, important civilization in North America: the Mississippian culture (800–1650 A.D.).
Encompassing a large area of the southeastern part of what is now the United States, this huge federation reached into Oklahoma.
And now, with a major exhibition at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, we have a chance to appreciate this great legacy in “Spiro and the Art of the Mississippian World.”
In our big breakout from isolation, vaccinated and masked, Jack and I toured the extensive exhibition with Curator of Ethnology Eric Singleton. We were fortunate to have such a knowledgeable guide. Singleton has been preparing for this display for a decade.
How did he get interested in the subject? He told us, “When I worked at Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, I would look at the material from Spiro and other Mississippian communities and I realized I knew nothing about it. ... I knew that if I didn’t know anything about it, as a trained historian and working as an anthropologist, then most people didn’t either.”
The result is this epic exhibition. With 11,000 square-feet of space, this is quite possibly (with the exception of the Prix de West) the largest exhibition ever mounted at the museum.
The first room introduces the Mississippian civilization, followed by large areas concentrating on Spiro. Another area features contemporary works with roots in the ancient traditions.
A hands-on room offers guests the opportunity to experience basic techniques, utilize virtual reality devices for a more immersive look at the ancient world, and read books and other explanatory materials.
The Mississippian civilization was made up of a number of tribes, ceremonial centers and small communities. The belief systems of individual groups were congruent; creation stories contained striking similarities and artwork shared common symbols.
The largest population centers were located on or near rivers that facilitated trading. Items found in excavations of the most important cities bear evidence of trading, which extended far beyond the borders of the settlements — from the Sea of Cortez to the Atlantic Ocean, the Great Lakes to Florida.
The most important cities included Cahokia (Illinois), Etowah (Georgia), Kincaid (Illinois), Moundsville (Alabama) and Spiro in eastern Oklahoma.
The introductory area provides background illustrated by graphics on these five sites and commentary about the present day Caddo Nation and Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, closest descendants of the Mississippi culture.
In addition to artifacts from a number of locations in the confederation, colored engravings, created in 1591 provide the earliest images of the culture and activities of the communities encountered by European explorers.
The largest section of the exhibition is devoted to the Spiro site.
The Spiro community, while not the largest of the Mississippian sites, certainly had great importance. It is unique in that the site housed thousands of ceremonial objects concealed in a buried room, the Hollow Chamber.
Through these objects, important clues to the cultural and everyday lives of this prehistoric society are revealed. Even the simplest items are imbued with embellishment related to belief structure.
Gorgets, carved shell pieces worn around the neck, were indications of rank and prestige. The pieces are richly incised with symbols and depictions of rituals and costumes. Pottery vessels, effigy pipes and copper plates add to the story.
Graphics show a cross-section of some of the mounds. Twelve mounds are on the Spiro site — temple mounds, burial mounds and house mounds. The large Craig Mound contains the Hollow Chamber.
All the items on display in this area, with the exception of contemporary pieces, were found within the hidden chamber, a space about 16-by-16 feet.
Visitors can read graphics giving the most reasonable explanation of why all these articles were here.
“This was the most object-laden Mississippian mound ever discovered in North America,” Singleton said.
The next room tells the story of how, after all these things were assembled in Spiro, they were dispersed throughout the world. In short, the mound was looted.
In 1933, a group of men, having discovered a number of artifacts in the area, obtained a lease on the land and set out to excavate the mounds to sell what they found, and they found plenty.
The looting went on for two years. Today, you’ll find Spiro artifacts in museums throughout the world.
In 1935, the State of Oklahoma passed an antiquities protection law, and the looting was stopped. With WPA participation and funding from the University of Oklahoma, the University of Tulsa and Gilcrease Museum, the Oklahoma Historical Society and Woolaroc, proper excavation and exploration was undertaken.
Perhaps the most colorful section of the exhibition is the last section: Continuation of Culture. Here, contemporary pieces reflect traditional themes of the ancestors in new and interesting ways.
I’m particularly fond of a small piece of pottery by Jeri Redcorn, who is credited with reviving Caddo pottery.
She had already begun studying and practicing the tradition when, visiting Natchitoches, Louisiana, she was standing on the edge of Cane Lake.
“I looked at the water and the moss hanging on the trees and all of a sudden I realized we have the Alligator Dance out on the plains,” she said. “And it was like an ‘aha’ moment — that’s why we have the Alligator Dance. and I thought, ‘They (the ancestors) kept that — they kept that tradition.’
“As I stood there, I felt that there were other women on the banks, grass houses and arbors, and they were making pottery with me, even though I was the only one there.”
The influence of the ancestors continues; the creation of the art is a spiritual experience.
This is the first and only time since the 1930s that these Spiro items have been reunited. Coming from 16 American museums and private collections, most will again leave the state after the exhibition.
“Spiro and the Art of the Mississippian World” runs through May 9. Don’t miss this opportunity.
“It’s America’s classic culture,” Singleton said.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.75 for students with IDs, $5.75 for children ages 6 to 12 and free for children age 5 or under. Masks and social distancing are required.