Most of us are at least vaguely aware of elaborate Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations predating — and tragically doomed by — European explorers. Far less known are bygone civilizations in the eastern half of what became the United States. One former center is just a four-hour drive northeast of Dallas.
Outside Spiro, Okla., along the Arkansas River valley, is a cluster of 12 earthen mounds built up by Native Americans belonging to a broad spread of tribes collectively known as Mississippians. This particular settlement seems to have lasted from around 850 to 1450, in later years a site more ceremonial and funerary than residential.
These mounds began to be extensively excavated only in the 1930s. Shamefully pillaged before systematically explored, one mound in particular proved to be a treasury of sophisticated vessels and artworks in stone, ceramics, shells, copper and other metals, basketry and textiles. Thirteen years after the opening of a famous Egyptian tomb, a 1935 article in The Kansas City Star hailed the Oklahoma discovery as “A ‘King Tut’ Tomb in the Arkansas Valley.”
Quickly sold by looters and widely dispersed among museums and private collectors, artifacts from Spiro and other mounds have been brought together in an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art. Organized by co-curators Eric D. Singleton and F. Kent Reilly III for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, “Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art From Spiro” comprises around 200 items — including works by current artists who trace their heritage to Mississippian tribes.
American Indian mounds were built up in layers, soil covering human bones, religious artifacts and sometimes remains of structures either collapsed or burned. Flat topped mounds served as bases for homes and ceremonial structures.
Unusual among Native American mounds, one at Spiro had a hollow core. Dating from around 1400, this so-called Spirit Lodge is thought to have been an offering to gods for relief from drought. This dry period, confirmed by study of tree rings, was an early part of what’s been called the Little Ice Age, lasting until the middle 19th century. A slight drop in average temperatures was accompanied by prolonged shortages of rain, which ultimately obliged the Spiro inhabitants to move to literally greener pastures to the west.
In the absence of a written language, artifacts in the Spirit Lodge were arranged to communicate shared religious beliefs and prayers. As in many religions, the Mississippians imagined a three-level universe, with worlds both above and below the earth; theirs was held together by a Tree of Life and balanced by creatures including a turtle and winged serpents. Images of a hand with a central eye symbolized interpenetrations of human and divine.
In addition to these and images of humans and half-human divinities, geometric patterns radiate religious significance. All these can be seen incised on ceramics, carved stones and conch shells. The objects range from practical mugs to ritual masks, pipes and axes, pendants and ear ornaments. Even on finely serrated arrowheads, the delicacy of the work is often amazing.
Some of the artifacts’ materials are decidedly non-native to Spiro, suggesting long-distance pilgrimages to the site, or at least lively trade activity. The conch shells would have come from Florida; masks incorporate copper, which would have been mined in Minnesota.
The Spiro civilization coincided with Europe’s Middle Ages, but unlike the evolution of European cultures, this one dissipated. Vacated well before European explorers reached the area, it would be rediscovered only centuries later. But some present-day artists from Native American tribes tracing their heritage back to the Mississippians are reviving and adapting techniques and imagery from their ancestors.
A particularly vivid example is a ceremonial stole in fabrics and fine beadwork by Cherokee artist Martha Berry, who lives in Rowlett. A ceramic urn by Richard Zane Smith, from the Wyandot tribe, is finely incised and patterned to look like the most delicate basketry. After an interruption of centuries, the past lives again.
“Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art From Spiro” runs through Aug. 7 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays. Free. 214-922-1200. dma.org.