Wood-Shell-Copper Earspool

Earspool (perforated pulley-shaped) – 34Lf40/1297 D#7 (written by Louisa Nash)

This earspool is shaped like a pulley and has a hole, or perforation, in its center. It can also be classified as a composite earspool because it is composed of more than one material (Sievert 2011:111). The earspool is made of cedar wood and has a white shell inlay that is slightly encrusted with oxidized copper. It is round, 4.5 centimeters in diameter, and has a perforation of 0.5 centimeter in the shell inlay. The perforation does not extend into the wood. Around the center of the earspool is an incised circular line and inside this line, covering the shell inlay, is the remnant of what was probably a decorative copper foil.  The Works Project Administration (WPA) uncovered this earspool at Craig Mound during their excavations in 1936-37 at the Spiro Mounds site.

34Lf40/1297 front
34Lf40/1297 front

Archaeological evidence suggests that earspools were worn by individuals as a decorative ear ornament. They are found at a number of sites dating to the Mississippian Period (800-1500 A.D.). Artifacts from Spiro, such as engraved shell cups and gorgets, human effigy pipes, and copper plates, portray human figures wearing earspools in their earlobes (Brown 1996:561). At Spiro, matching earspools have been found in burials on either side of the skull, further indicating that earspools were actually worn (Merriam 2004:136).

Earspools often contained multiple decorative elements. The marine shell that was used as an inlay in this earspool originated from the Gulf of Mexico, likely from the coast of Florida (Bell 1947). The copper remnants encrusted on top of the shell inlay were thought to have derived from Michigan, but now scholars have determined that the copper came from Illinois and from the southern Appalachian Mountains (Wyckoff 2001). These imported components indicate that distant trading networks were used to attain important resources that carried religious connotations.

Spiro, as part of the Mississippian cultural system that extended through the Southeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwestern United States, would have been included in a region-wide religious system called the Southeast Ceremonial Complex (Rogers 2011:2). The materials of shell and copper that make up this earspool had cosmological significance to the people at Spiro. Based on historic and ethnographic accounts, it is probable that shell and copper were both understood to be gifts given to humans from the Great Serpent, who acted as the guardian of bodies of water and as ruler of the Beneath World, a realm largely comprised of water located under the Earth’s surface (Reilly 2007:29).

34Lf40/1297 back
34Lf40/1297 back

Many prominent scholars of Spiro, such as James A. Brown (1996), traditionally interpreted the site of Spiro and Craig Mound as a center of a chiefdom and a place for elaborate elite burials. If this interpretation is correct, then this earspool might have been worn by an elite member of society. However, Brown now argues that the purpose of mound construction at Spiro was not to honor elite chiefs, but to create a sacred monument that contained prestige goods and sacred objects (Brown 2012). This monument was constructed with the intention of bringing together and unifying a scattered population. Objects such as this earspool, which carries religious and cosmological associations, fit into Brown’s interpretations of Craig Mound as a sacred monument.


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