Boatstone

Boatstone – 34Lf40/1452 (written by Laurel Lamb)

Identified as a boatstone, this artifact is commonly associated with its function as an atlatl weight.  Hunters used atlatls, which were slim rods to thrust their spears.  Spear-throwing benefitted from the atlatl because it could be used to thrust spears a longer distance and higher speeds.  Boatstones were attached to the ends of atlatl rods and used as a weight in order to make spear-throwing even more advantageous (Townsend 2004:26).  Boatstones are only one type of weight known to have been used.  Atlatls were commonly used by early Woodland cultures (Merriam and Merriam 2004:102).

34Lf40/1452
34Lf40/1452

It is clear that boatstones were used for utilitarian purposes when spear-throwing was the main form of hunting.  This is even seen on a decorated shell cup that includes an atlatl with some sort of weight attached to it (Brown 1996:466).  However, Brown (1996:465) also notes the archaeological presence of boatstones even after arrow points enter mainstream hunting: The boatstones’ continued presence after spear-throwing became obsolete leads to the conclusion that atlatl weights, such as this boatstone, started out mainly as a utilitarian tool for hunting, then later gained a different function.  That these artifacts are found specifically in high-status mound burials later in the archaeological record is perhaps an indication that their function became ceremonial or symbolic (Sievert 2011:100).

Sometime between 1936 and 1937, the Works Progress Administration excavated this boatstone from Craig Mound, a great mortuary mound.  If the boatstone did have symbolic meaning to Spiroan culture, this symbolism might have been associated with warfare and hunting.

34Lf40/1452
34Lf40/1452

This artifact is small with a length of only three inches and width of one and one quarter inches.  Its curvature and hollow center make it easily recognizable as boat-shaped and it is most likely made from siltstone rock.

In Artifacts from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma, April Sievert (2011:100) also notes the small tool marks lining the inside of hollow boatstones.  Running horizontally along the inner walls, the lines indicate that the hollow inside was perhaps carefully scraped away.  From an object that was made so long ago, it is fascinating to still be able to see these inner workings.

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French Fork Agee Incised Pottery Vessel

Pottery Vessel – 34Lf40/ 1507 (D148) (written by Alyxandra Stanco)

Pottery comprises a large part of the artifacts that were found at Spiro during the WPA excavations in the 1930s. This pottery vessel from the Spiro Mounds site is 17 cm in length, 12 cm in height and its orifice or opening is 9.5 cm in diameter. The vessel is globular shaped with the widest area being around the mid-line. There is a line that cuts around the middle of the pottery vessel and it seems to separate the top portion and bottom portion into hemispheres. Patterns on the vessel are reflected in both hemispheres. Two parallel lines run along the rim on both the top and bottom segments of the vessel. Brown (1996:365) categorizes this vessel as French Fork-like Agee incised.

34LF40/1507
34LF40/1507

Many pottery vessels from eastern Oklahoma are delicately decorated with shapes and motifs. This particular vessel is incised. Incising, according to Rice (1987:146) is cutting lines into a vessel with a pointed object. The surface of the bowl features triangles and squares connected by incised lines. One motif that is found on this vessel was described in the earlier Brown (1971:94) texts on pottery vessels as a whorl or “scroll band” motif. The vessel is burnished and is dark brown in color. There is no significant evidence as to whether the intricate designs on the surface of the vessel have any particular symbolic associations.

Culturally, pottery vessels served both a utilitarian and ceremonial function. According to Townsend (2004:240) this pottery vessel may have been used by the aristocratic elite to seek bonds from other settlements for military, trading and religious alliances. Sievert (2011) believes that this pottery vessel may have been part of a regional trade network during the time of the Spiro Mounds occupation. Pottery vessels similar to this might have also been used for food storage or cooking. During ceremonies, pottery vessels might have been used to hold a variety of substances.

Pottery Owl Effigies

Owl rim effigy – 34Lf40/1289 D#9 (written by Louisa Nash)

The Works Project Administration (WPA) uncovered these owl rim effigies at Craig Mound during their excavations in 1936-37 at the Spiro Mounds site. These owl effigies are pottery and were made from clay tempered primarily with grog. The owls are a grey color and measure 9 centimeters in length and about 6 centimeters in width. They are depicted naturalistically and are very detailed. Engraved lines emphasize their eyes and beaks, and they have “horns” or “ears” made of molded clay, which depict the tuffs of display feathers that large owl species have on the tops of their heads. Molded clay bumps representing feathers are also found on the front of their necks. These owl effigies were used as a decorative element and were attached on the rim of a ceramic vessel.

34Lf40-1289-owls-a-5-5-13
34Lf40/1289

The image of an owl likely carried important symbolic meaning for the people at Spiro.  Owls are seen less commonly in decorative images than amphibians, other kinds of birds, and reptiles, though owls still appear as motifs in a variety of artifacts throughout the southeast, such as in figures and pottery vessels. Dating from the archaic period, jasper beads shaped like owls have been uncovered by archaeologists (Hammerstedt and Cox 2011). At Spiro, a stone effigy pipe had been carved into the form of an owl (Hamilton 1952). In addition to the effigy pipe, water bottle tops found at Spiro also showed an owl motif (Merriam 2004).

The symbolic and iconographical significance of owls varies among different tribes in the Southeastern United States. In most cases, owls were regarded as a powerful symbol that indicated either a dangerous omen or curing medicine (Krech 2009). Seven different owl species live in this region, and many tribes associated these species with impending death or misfortune. During the 1800s, an anthropologist noted that many tribes associated owls with sorcerers, witchcraft, impending death, and the wandering souls of the dead (Krech 2009). Europeans also traditionally associated owls with witches and death.

34Lf40/1289
34Lf40/1289

Historically, the Caddo have linked owls with curing in addition to witchcraft (Hammerstedt and Cox 2011). Medicine men could take the form of owls and cure sickness. The Caddo also had a culture hero called Medicine Screech Owl, who was able to heal people and destroy monsters through touch (Hammerstedt and Cox 2011). Owls were likely associated with powerful but mysterious forces due to their nocturnal nature and frightening appearance. Their silence in flight and ability to hoot, hiss, and swivel their heads, further connected owls with supernatural capabilities (Krech 2009).

Engraved Shell Cup

Shell Cup – 34Lf40/692 (written by Laurel Lamb)

This Spiro artifact is made from what is commonly known as a conch shell.  It is very likely that the artifact was traded north to the Spiro area from either from the Florida Keys or the Gulf Coast, according to the Dr. Pulley, the Director of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (Brown and Phillips 1984:26).  However, the Huastecan culture, who lived along the Gulf Coast, had a similar tradition of shell engraving, so there is strong evidence that the shell material came from that region (Brown and Phillips 1984:27).  Whether the engraved shell cup originated from the Gulf Coast or the Florida Keys, it can definitely be surmised that there was some form of long distance trading occurring during this period.  In times before cars, planes, and trains existed, it is remarkable how great a distance Spiro artifacts traveled.

34Lf40/692
34Lf40/692

Ten inches long, this shell cup is almost complete, except for its broken tip and eroded edges.  The shell’s back spire was somehow carefully cut off, leaving Brown and Phillips (1984:vii) to believe it was done to make the object lie flat.  Despite how large the shell cup is, they have also proposed that artifacts like this could have been worn as a pendant based on the hole drilled on the top spire of the shell.  Brown and Phillips (1984:vii) have found another type of physical evidence that these shell cups were being used as pendants, on the decorations of other engraved shell artifacts that feature human figures.  These human figures are wearing large shell cup pendants, very similar in shape to this artifact.  Paying attention to the clothes and accessories figures wear on contemporary artistic renditions can be important to understanding other aspects of that society.

The figures on the shell cup are significant because of what they suggest about the beliefs people had in Spiro society.  According to George E. Lankford (2004:214), there is a figure in Southeastern Native American mythology that is often called the Great Serpent or the Horned Underwater Serpent.  The Great Serpent was thought to dwell in the Underworld and was a symbol of both great fear and power amongst people (Conrad 1989:98).  This fear and power of the Great Serpent was used by shamans as a source of power in their duties, such as helping cure illness.  The figures engraved on this shell cup are most likely associated with this Great Serpent, or at least the symbolism that went along with the being.  Easily mistaken for ears, the short stubs on three out of five of the snakes are horns.  One snake has antlers, which is important because the Great Serpent is often portrayed as a combination of different animals, such as the deer (Conrad 1989:99).  Due to the great power snakes had in southeastern Native American beliefs, it is possible that this shell cup was meant to be used, not as an everyday, utilitarian pendant, but an object in important shamanistic rituals or ceremonies.

34Lf40/692 detail
34Lf40/692 detail

This engraved shell cup passed through several hands before eventually being donated to the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History by H.W. Hamilton.  Hamilton bought this artifact from a collector on September 12th, 1946.  The Pocola Mining Company looted the Spiro Mounds in the 1930s, so this artifact most likely was found at that time, then bought and passed around by collectors before Hamilton found it.