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.

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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.

Oklahoma Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Competition

We are excited to announce that the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is participating in the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust’s Top 10 Most Endangered Artifacts competition.  We have nominated the Spiro “lace”, a rare textile fragment from the Spiro mound site in eastern Oklahoma dating to around A.D. 1400.  The goal of the competition is to bring attention to Oklahoma’s endangered cultural heritage present in museums, libraries, and archives across the state.

Spiro "lace" attached to yellowed matboard
Spiro “lace” attached to yellowed matboard

We need your help!  Please vote for us – and any other objects that interest you!  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KJTCTT8

Fabric and textiles have been an important part of the human experience for millennia for making clothing, blankets, and ornamentation — and yet few archaeological samples exist because of their rapid deterioration.  The “Spiro lace”, a unique textile fragment from the Spiro mound site, represents an important pathway to learning about the native history of Oklahoma. This extremely delicate artifact is very important for its rarity and research potential.  From this small piece of fabric, we can learn about an ancient artistic and technological tradition of textile production that has been largely lost to history.

Close-up of Spiro "lace" from Craig Mound
Close-up of Spiro “lace” from Craig Mound

The textile fragment consists of alternating horizontal bands of compact plain twining and single element interlacing (Brown 1996).  The compact plain twining bands serve to bind together broader bands of openwork.  The two main openwork techniques are plain oblique interlacing (braiding or plaiting) and bobbin lace work.  The latter includes two elements, a circular hole and a cross in circle.  The fabric is blackened from oxidation or burning.

The specimen was conserved by Joan S. Gardner in 1979.  When she found it, the fragment was glued to a yellowed mat board.  She noted that the material was too brittle to remove the glue in which it had been saturated and created a Plexiglas mount with a central cut out.  The mounted portion of the specimen measures 43 by 16 cm.

Gardner hoped that the at some time in the future a way might be found to remove the specimen from the mat board without further damage.  Today, 34 years have passed.  Now is the time to re-assess the conservation needs of this exquisite artifact.

To learn more about the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust, visit, http://www.culturalheritagetrust.org/node/1
Elsbeth Dowd and Lindsay Palaima at the OK State Capitol
Elsbeth Dowd and Lindsay Palaima at the OK State Capitol
Bibliography:
Brown, James A. 1996. The Spiro Ceremonial Center: The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma. Vol. 2. Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology No. 29. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Gardner, Joan S. 1980. The Conservation of Fragile Specimens from the Spiro Mound, Le Flore County, Oklahoma. Contributions from the Stovall Museum No. 5. University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Box-making

One major part of the Spiro project is rehousing the artifacts, which is critical for their long-term preservation.  Best practices for housing artifacts have changed a great deal since the early days of excavation at Spiro.

Old artifact storage - plastic baggy, acidic cardboard box, and bubble wrap
Old artifact storage – plastic baggy, acidic cardboard box, and bubble wrap

Our goal is to make sure the artifacts are in a stable environment, both physically and chemically.  This is particularly important for delicate items, such as engraved shell, wood, textiles, basketry, and copper plates.  To protect the artifacts physically, we make sure that they do not rub against each other, are cushioned, and move as little as possible.  To protect the artifacts chemically, we use acid-free archival materials and expose them to as little light as possible.

Additionally, all of the collections at the Sam Noble Museum are kept in climate-controlled conditions and bugs are kept at bay through an preventative integrated pest management system.  No food or drinks that might attract critters are allowed!

In order to rehouse many artifacts, we make our own boxes out of acid-free corrugated board, commonly known as blueboard for its blue-grey color.  It is much less expensive to buy the materials and make your own boxes than to purchase them pre-made.  This also lets us fit the size and shape of the boxes to particular artifacts.  Other useful box-making materials include acid-free tissue paper, ethafoam, a glue gun,  acid-free gummed linen tape, a steel ruler, a bone tool, a cutting board, and a utility knife.

Tools for box-making
Tools for box-making

We are making three different types of boxes for the Spiro artifacts.  Excellent instructions for making the first type of box, which has a separate body and lid, are available here: http://mgnsw.org.au/uploaded/Box%20Making%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

The second type is a clamshell-style box with ethafoam sides.  We got this idea from Eric Singleton at the Gilcrease Museum.  One advantage to this type is that it is easier to construct – making close-fitting lids for the first type of box takes some practice.  The clamshell box is useful for holding a number of smaller artifacts.

Clamshell box made of non-acidic corrugated board and ethafoam, holding many smaller boxes
Clamshell box made of non-acidic corrugated board and ethafoam, holding many smaller boxes

Within the clamshell boxes we are placing a number of smaller, unlidded boxes, padded with ethafoam and tissue, to individually house engraved shell fragments.  These boxes keep each fragment protected yet still visible as a group, which decreases the need to handle them.

Small box ready for assembly. Before folding the sides up, crease the board with the bone tool.
Small box ready for assembly. Before folding the sides up, crease the board with the bone tool.
Finished box, padded with ethafoam and acid-free tissue, containing engraved shell fragment
Finished box, padded with ethafoam and acid-free tissue, containing engraved shell fragment

For some of our larger and most delicate objects, such as the engraved shell cups, we cut out a cavity in an ethafoam plank, which will hold the artifact steady and secure.  Next we line the cavity with acid-free tissue or Tyvek.  Finally, we place the ethafoam and artifact in a custom-made box.

Engraved shell cup cushioned in ethafoam cavity lined with acid-free tissue paper
Engraved shell cup cushioned in ethafoam cavity lined with acid-free tissue paper

Daily Life of the Project

A major highlight of working on the IMLS grant is seeing some of the marvelous artifacts from Spiro, such as this basketry fragment with remnants of copper attached.

Spiro basketry fragment
Spiro basketry fragment
Close-up of basketry fragment
Close-up of basketry fragment

Achieving the primary goals of the project, however, requires a tremendous amount of time-consuming and painstaking work.  For that, I thank my Collection Assistant, Emily Turriff, and all of our wonderful volunteers and interns.

Emily Turriff working on pottery inventory
Emily Turriff working on pottery inventory

The two major goals for Year 1 of the IMLS grant are (1) to inventory the Spiro collections and (2) to repackage the artifacts.  For the inventory, we compare what is on our shelves to the original catalog records.  Each catalog number corresponds to a particular provenience, or geographic location, from which the artifacts were excavated.  That catalog number will encompass all of the artifacts found in that provenience.  Most of the artifacts were carefully counted and described when they originally came to the Museum, but for others we only have a vague description.

For example, some of our catalog entries say that we have a “box of beads”.  For the inventory, we are updating the record by counting the number of beads and describing their material type and shape.

Beads from Spiro - need to be counted!
Beads from Spiro – need to be counted!

Repackaging the artifacts involves moving them from their original storage materials into archival materials, and also organizing the artifacts.  The original storage materials included brown paper bags, old plastic baggies that are now falling apart, and acidic cardboard boxes.  We are moving them into 4-mm polyethylene zip lock bags and archival boxes.  Delicate objects are supported with foam and cushioned with acid-free tissue paper.  Each artifact bag gets a tag listing the catalog number, contents, and provenience.  Then we put all of the artifacts from a single material type together and organize them by provenience.  This makes the artifacts much easier to find and keeps them safe.

Artifact storage - BEFORE
Artifact storage – BEFORE
Artifact storage - AFTER
Artifact storage – AFTER

Spiro Project

Engraved shell from Spiro
Engraved shell from Spiro

The Spiro Mound site, located in eastern Oklahoma, was one of the most important ceremonial sites in eastern North America between ca. A.D. 1000-1450.  After damage by looters, archaeologists from the University of Oklahoma conducted excavations from 1936-1941 and again in the 1970s and 80s.  Many unique and significant artifacts were found at Spiro, including engraved conch shell, decorated copper plates, pottery, ear spools, stone objects, textiles, and basketry.  Today the Spiro collections are split between a number of museums, including the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the Gilcrease, and the Smithsonian.

The archaeology department at SNOMNH recently received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to inventory and rehouse our Spiro collections.  By the end of the year, we expect to have documented nearly 168,000 artifacts from Craig Mound alone, and many more artifacts from other parts of the site.  We look forward to updating you on the progress of this exciting project!