Shell Fragment

Engraved Shell Cup – 34Lf40/1490 (written by Alyxandra Stanco)

This portion of an engraved shell cup is one of the many pieces that come from Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. An engraved shell cup is a large shell that is used as a drinking vessel and is decorated with icons and figures. This particular piece is an off-white color, it is only a portion of a whole shell cup and 14 centimeters in length.  The inside of the piece is a pinkish-white color that is characteristic of conch shells.

Engraved shell from Spiro

Engraved shell cups were created by making cuts on the top and down the body of the columella, which is a column-like structure that rests of the top of a conch shell.  This produced a suitable drinking vessel, which was then engraved with different iconographic designs and figures. This particular piece is engraved with feathers lining the outside portion and then a petaloid motif surrounding the figure that is most likely on the missing conch pieces. According to Reilly (2007:45), the petaloid motif gets its name from its resemblance to the petal-shaped leaves that are seen on flowers. He argues that the petaloid motif that surrounds objects and figures identifies their location as celestial. The semilunar eye within each petaloid may indicate that this scene refers to the Pawnee Morning Star ceremony (Reilly 2007:45). The Pawnee belong to the Caddoan linguistic group to which the inhabitants of Spiro also probably belonged. The ceremony refers to Morning Star, who travelled through the celestial realms to defeat guardian star beasts and to reach the female Evening Star. It is possible that the engravings on the shell cup illustrate this story.

Because this artifact’s petaloid motif can be interpreted as celestial, this artifact might have been included in religious contexts such as ceremonies or rituals. According to Brown (1996: 417), shell cups have been used during rituals to consume the “black drink”, which might have been used to cure spiritual or physical ailments.

This piece of engraved shell, once part of a whole drinking vessel, is now at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Researchers or visitors to the museum collections area can view this artifact in conjunction with other materials found at this site. By studying artifacts like this, archaeologists can begin to determine what life was like for the inhabitants of the Spiro Mound site.


Stone Earspool

Earspool – 34Lf40/555 (written by Laurel Lamb)

This artifact is a perforated pulley-shaped earspool with a carved hole in the center (Brown 1996:564).  A variety of different types of earspools can be found at the archaeological collection at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, as well as many others in Spiro collections around the country.  The variety of types and sheer amount of ear ornaments in existence support the idea that they were far from rare in Caddoan society.  In fact, there is evidence of earspool usage across the Eastern Woodlands region during the Mississippian period (Brown 1996:563).


This particular earspool was made either from fine-grained siltstone or sandstone, though earspools were also made from other materials, such as wood and clay.  Siltstone and sandstone are durable material, which is one reason why many earspools, such as this one, are still in such good condition (Sievert 2011:107).  Often copper plates originally covered the front of earspools.  Though none of the earspools at the Sam Noble Museum collection still have their copper plate covers, some do have leftover copper residue on them.

Despite its remarkable two and a half inch diameter, this earspool was actually able to be worn on people’s ears.  The outer and inner flanges, which are the front and back sides of the earspool respectively, are separated by a carved out core area in between them.  So, despite the large diameter of this artifact’s flanges, the diameter of the core was not as large.  Appearances can be deceiving.  However, it still would have been an amazing feat to be able to stretch an earlobe enough for this object to fit.  Other evidence that earspools such as this one were actually worn lies on various pictorial decorations.  Warriors with perforated pulley-shaped earspools can be seen on both decorated shell cups and copper plates (Brown 1996:561).

A cross within a circle is one of the most common decorations on earspools like this one (Brown 1996:566).  In fact, it is a very common symbol found on a variety of different Spiro artifacts.  Though the cross is not one of the most elaborate symbols found on artifacts, the symbolism behind it is nonetheless very significant for an understanding of Spiroan spiritual beliefs.  This significance lies with F. Kent Reilly’s (2004:127-128) explanation of the Mississippian belief of a three level universe: the Above World, the Middle World, and the Beneath World.  The Middle World, home to humans, was oriented by the cardinal and semi-cardinal directions.  Residing in the Above World and Under World, various deities, such as a female lunar deity and a solar deity, were associated with specific cardinal directions.  The earspool’s three parallel lines forming the cross perhaps signifies these three worlds connection with the cardinal directions.  This connection might be of even greater importance since the earspool was excavated from the Great Mortuary mound, a place where death provoked thoughts about the other worlds in the Mississippian universe.


Spatulate Celt – 34Lf53/002 (written by Alyxandra Stanco)

A variety of stone artifacts were found during the 1936 WPA excavations at the Spiro Mounds site. Among them is this celt. A celt is a long ax-like object that would have been hafted and sometimes used for digging. This celt is 23cm long and 9cm wide and is 2.5cm thick. It is probably made of white chert. Hamilton (1952:44) describes the celt as having been ground and polished until there was a glass-like finish.


This artifact is known as a spatulate celt, or ceremonial spud. The spatulate celt is typically flat with a rounded head and rectangular poll ends. The poll is the end of the celt that is held. The flat-flared form has a flattened end and a rectangular head. The bell-shaped form is named for its unique shape. It is bell-shaped and round and has concave edges. Lastly, the union form is a chipped flint form with s-shaped edges.

There has been debate about the function of the celt form. According to Sievert (2011:97), celts fall into two categories: utilitarian celts or ceremonial celts. Utilitarian celts were used for everyday tasks that might have included digging. Celts might have been useful for making small trenches for water or other resources and were used as axes that went into the ground. Brown (1996:477) refers to the celt as an ax form. He also indicated there may have been a ceremonial use for celts.

Engraved Shell Cup – Piasa

Engraved shell cup – 34Lf40/1210 (written by Louisa Nash)

(Craig B style engraved shell cup with Piasa Concept)

This engraved shell cup fragment is one of six matching fragments that make up the remains of a shell cup. The shell is white, and black pigment has been rubbed into the engraved lines probably after excavation. It is 13 centimeters long and about 13 centimeters wide. The inside of the cup is undecorated and smooth. Engraved on the outside surface of the shell cup fragment is a creature that possesses a human head with the mouth and teeth of a feline, the upper torso of a feline, the talons and feet of a bird, and the scaly lower torso of a large snake.


Engraved shell cups, likely displayed in ceremonies and rituals, were used as containers and are believed to have held liquids. It is also possible that unengraved shell cups held clay pigments (Sievert 2011:43). Whelk shells of the genus Busycon were primarily used in creating engraved shell cups (Sievert 2011:40). The engraving was made using a sharp lithic tool. The cups were formed by cutting the whelk shell near its top and down its body. Parts of the outer wall on one side of the shell and the columella core of the whelk were removed and were later used to make shell beads and pendants. The knobs on the shoulder of the whelk shell were generally removed and ground down (Brown 1996:417).

There are six styles of engraved cups at Spiro based on two major contemporary artistic approaches. This engraved shell cup piece has characteristics of the Craig B stylistic phase. Composite animals, in addition to raccoons, birds, and spiders, have been noted as a common theme of Craig B style designs (Sievert 2011:49). This shell cup features an animal referred to as the Piasa (Phillips and Brown 1984). To be characterized as a Piasa, the depicted composite animal must have feline elements and some features from several other animals such as snakes, birds, deer, fish, raccoons, or humans. In this shell cup, the dotted single circles that cover the figure’s torso frequently appear on snakes and felines (Phillips and Brown 1984:140). There are portrayals of humans with tattoos or painted designs on their bodies found at Spiro; however, in this cup the dotted circles indicate that the body is that of a feline (Duffield 1963:221).

On the elbows, there are concentric bisected semi-circles, and along the wrists, neck and waist is a grid design depicting jewelry in the Craig B style (Sievert 2011:49). The figure wears an earspool with a beaded feather. The mouth is distinctly feline, and there is a bowknot on the tongue, which is often shown on snakes (Phillips and Brown 1984). The lower half of the Piasa’s body is covered in large snake scales. When this engraved shell cup piece is combined with the others that compose the cup, it can be seen that this creature has a long, scaly serpentine tail with raccoon bindings along its length. Many scholars believe that the Piasa is actually a depiction of the Underwater Panther (Phillips and Brown 1984:142). The Underwater Panther can be portrayed as a combination of cougar, rattlesnake, deer, and hawk. Often it is shown as a creature with a panther body, a human head, and an extremely long tail (Lankford 2007:111).

Historically, the Horned Water Serpent and the Underwater Panther have been known as the two major forms of the Great Serpent, who is the guardian of all water and the ruler of the Beneath World and the realm of the dead (Lankford 2007). Often, there is not a tremendous amount of distinction between these two forms, although the form of the Underwater Panther only appears among tribes in the central region or heartland of North America (Lankford 2007:113). In ethnographic accounts, religious specialists were said to attempt to gain the Underwater Panther’s power. However, this was a dangerous pursuit, and most of the drowning that occurred was believed to have been caused by the Great Serpent (Lankford 2007).

The Underwater Panther was a source of sacred and medicinal power that could potentially provide knowledge, assistance, and sacred objects. Warriors participated in a pre-battle ritual that used items from the Underwater Panther that allowed them to become pure and balanced. There are also mythological stories about women who were married to the Underwater Panther; in some stories, the Underwater Panther caused floods to destroy the villages of people who opposed these marriages (Lankford 2007:127). Underwater creatures also served an explanatory role for the fossil bones that would wash up on the banks of creeks and rivers (Lankford 2007).

Scholars have noted that there is a shamanistic orientation to a majority of the engraved shell cups and gorgets at Spiro. The Underwater Panther, as a form of the Great Serpent, was a major source of power and had great cosmological and religious significance as representing the ruler of the Beneath World. Engraved shells, which represented the Beneath World and its power, would have been a sacred object used in rituals (Lankford 2007). Marine shell cups were closely associated with the black drink ceremonies that were noted to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times (Galloway 1989:72). This ceremony had an important function of providing social integration. This engraved shell cup that depicts the Underwater Panther fits into the recent theory that Craig Mound was constructed as a sacred monument to help unify the surrounding communities (Brown 2012).