Oklahoma has only been a state since 1907, but people have been living here a lot longer than that. There’s a quiet little spot by the Arkansas River just outside of Spiro where Native Americans lived for 8,000 continuous years. About 1,200 years ago they built a city that included earthworks mounds and a plaza laid out to match solar astronomical events (solstices and equinoxes). The people who built that city were part of a Mississippian culture that included similar settlements along all the major rivers of the south-eastern and mid-western continent. The Mississippians established religious, political, and economic ties from the
Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Spiro mounds city—and the entire Mississippian culture—thrived from 900 to 1300 A.D. Then it went into a steep decline. The city was abandoned by 1450, less than a half century before Columbus changed everything in this part of the world forever. The most probable reason for the Mississippian collapse was global climate change associated with the “Little Ice Age”.
A centuries long drought made the Mississippians’ corn based culture untenable and the population dispersed. A few holy men continued to maintain the city as a burial site and religious center for another 150 years.
While the Mississippian culture flourished, Sun Kings lived on top of platform mounds, higher than any other citizens. They were religious as well as a political leaders with direct connections to the supernatural. When a Sun King died, his wife and servants were strangled. Their bones were cleaned and buried along with elaborate grave goods. In the Spiro mounds city, the bones were put into a central burial chamber inside “Craig Mound”.
Over 600 complete and partial burials have been found in Craig Mound. It is the only Mississippian mound with a central chamber. Archeologists call it “The Great Mortuary”.
In 1933 a group of commercial diggers who called themselves the Pocola Mining Company acquired a lease for the Craig Mound. From 1933 until 1935 Pocola employees dug haphazardly into the burial mound, using earth moving equipment and even dynamite. The commercial diggers destroyed about one-third of the mound and sold thousands of artifacts, made of stone, copper, shell, basketry, and fabric, to collectors throughout the world.
In 1935, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a licensing requirement to protect the site and the Pocola Mining Company was shut down. OU archeologists began careful, methodical excavations a year later with the help of WPA laborers. This continued until 1941 with the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWII.
Today, the Spiro mounds site is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. It is open to the public and special tours are conducted during solstices and equinoxes.
The mounds are not currently being excavated but archeologists are still exploring the site with non-invasive techniques as well as excavations.
Many anthropologists believe the early ancestors of the Muskogee speaking tribes, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole were part of the Mississippian culture. About 1,700 years ago, the Hopewell People—ancestors of the Choctaw—built the great earthwork mound, Nanih Wayah, which is still sacred to the tribe today.
When the Muskogean “Civilized Tribes” were forced-marched from their southeastern tribal lands to Indian Territory, they were actually being sent to the ancient religious center of their ancestors’ culture. The magic had waited patiently for them for 400 years.
Coincidences like this is one reason I think Oklahoma is the best place in the world for a fiction writer to live.
My first book, Owl Dreams, is a magic realism novel based loosely on Native American mysticism.My new novel Magic Popsicle Sticks also has a contemporary Native American Mystical theme and will be released from Pen-L Publishing soon. If you visit the Spiro Mounds Archeological Center, you’ll see where the magic all started.