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Spiro Mounds; Oklahoma’s Past Indian History Lesson Plan

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Lesson Plan #:AELP-WLG000
Author: Ernestine Hightower
School or Affiliation: Whittier Elementary School, Lawton, OK
Endorsed by: These lesson plans are the result of the work of the teachers who have attended the Columbia Education Center’s Summer Workshop. CEC is a consortium of teacher from 14 western states dedicated to improving the quality of education in the rural, western, United States, and particularly the quality of math and science Education. CEC uses Big Sky Telegraph as the hub of their telecommunications network that allows the participating teachers to stay in contact with their trainers and peers that they have met at the Workshops. Date: May 1994

Grade Level(s): 3, 4, 5, 6


  • Language Arts/Whole Language
  • Social Studies/US History


To acquaint students in grades 3 or 4 to a part of Oklahoma’s heritage by use of Whole Language techniques and Cooperative Learning Groups.


Understanding Oklahoma’s Past


Students will have gained an understanding of the past by creating a part of it.


The Art of Flintknapping by D.C. Waldorf, American Indian Books, 533 Summit, Webster Groves, Missouri, 63119.

Spiro Mounds
Prehistoric Gateway … Present-day Enigma
The mounds at Spiro, Oklahoma, are among the most important archaeological remains in the United States. A remarkable assemblage of artifacts from the mounds shows that prehistoric Spiro people created a sophisticated culture which influenced the entire Southeast. There was an extensive trade network, a highly developed religious center, and a political system which controlled the region. Located on a bend of the Arkansas River, the site was a natural gateway between societies to the east and the west, a gateway at which Spiro people exerted their influence. Yet much of the Spiro culture is still a mystery, including the reasons for the decline and abandonment of the site. Today, the Spiro site and artifacts are among Oklahoma’s richest cultural resources, and the site is Oklahoma’s only National Historic Landmark.
This archaeological site includes the remains of a village and eleven earthen mounds. Although various groups of people had camped on or near the Spiro area since early prehistoric times, the location did not become a permanent settlement until approximately A.D. 600. Spiro Mounds was renowned in southeastern North America between A.D. 900 and circa 1400, when Spiro’s inhabitants developed political, religious and economic institutions with far-reaching influence on societies from the Plains and the Mississippi Valley to much of what is now the southeastern United States. Because Spiroans maintained such practices as mound construction, a leadership of priest-chiefs, horticulture (of corn, beans and squash), and a religious tradition (the Southern Cult) common to the Southeast, they were an example of what archaeologists have termed the Mississippian cultural development in American.
Spiro was known locally as a prehistoric Indian site as early as the late nineteenth century. However, it was not until 1933 that the Spiro Mounds attracted national and worldwide attention. In that year, a group of treasure hunters leased the site and began excavation of the largest mound. They discovered rich troves of spectacular artifacts, including objects of wood, cloth, copper, shell, basketry and stone. Unfortunately, the diggers were only concerned with finding and selling the relics, not with preserving or recording their significance or their context. Consequently, not only were important prehistoric artifacts looted and sold out of Oklahoma, but, like pages ripped from a rare book, irreplaceable information about Oklahoma’s past was lost forever.
Between 1936 and 1941, WPA workers and University of Oklahoma archaeologists, conducted a systematic excavation of the remainder of the Spiro Mounds. They recorded the stratigraphy, burials, crematory pits, and other features which remained in the largest and most severely damaged mound. Called the Craig Mound, this earthwork was 33 feet high and 400 feet long. It was actually four joined mounds which had been constructed between A.D. 800 and circa 1350 to cover the graves of the society’s most important leaders.
Findings show the Spiro site as one of the premier trading and religious centers of prehistoric America. Situated in a narrow valley of the Arkansas River, the Spiroans were in a strategic position to control traffic, trade and communications along this waterway, especially between the small villages scattered among the Ouachita Mountains to the south and the Ozarks to the north. Both of these regions were rich in raw materials favored by the Spiro people. Not only did Spiro become an important center for Caddoan-speaking residents of eastern Oklahoma, but it also began to play a significant role in controlling trade and information between bison-hunting Plains farmers to the west and the numerous settled horticultural tribes in the Southeast. This development was enhanced by the Spiro’s gateway position between the rolling grassy Plains and the wooded Southeast, as well as by the initiative of Spiro leaders.
As certain Spiro inhabitants became political and religious leaders, they also became commercial entrepreneurs. To help identify their growing status in the community, these leaders accumulated exotic goods which they wore as status markers or used in special ceremonies. Among the most favored exotic goods were conch shells from western coastal Florida, copper from the Southeast and other regions, lead from Iowa and Missouri, pottery from northeast Arkansas and Tennessee, quartz from central Arkansas and flint from Kansas, Texas, Tennessee and southern Illinois. Spiro artisans fashioned many of these materials into elaborately decorated ornaments, ceremonial cups, batons and other symbols of status and authority. Among the prehistoric societies, such objects were a sign of wealth, and Spiro’s priestly leaders were among the most affluent of the time. Elaborate artifacts of conch and copper were more numerous at Spiro than at any other prehistoric site in North America.
The Spiro site reached its peak as an inhabited ceremonial center between A.D. 900 and 1200 when the village and public buildings covered nearly 100 acres, with a sizeable village occupying an upland ridge and portions of the adjacent bottomlands. During this time, two sets of earthworks were constructed: one on the upland ridge which contained a ring of eight mounds erected over the remains of burned or dismantled special buildings, and one on the bottomlands where three mounds were built.
In contrast to other mound centers along the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, the Spiro site was never fortified by either moat or palisade. Assumption being that they felt secure with their military control of most strategic sites. It is clear that Spiro was the most powerful of a group of at least 15 political-religious centers in northeast Oklahoma. All of these centers were located at strategic frontier points along navigable waterways in the area, thus allowing Spiroans or their allies to monitor all traders, travelers, or potential enemies coming into their sphere of influence. These northeast Oklahoma natives could easily launch forays into neighboring regions from these sites. Utilizing canoes, parties were sent out to hunt, trade, raid or complete diplomatic missions.
Between A.D. 900 and 1350 Spiro was clearly an important political/religious center. It was also the home of artisans who influenced the ideas and works of many southeastern people. Conch shell and copper were favored materials for Spiro artisans. They used a variety of techniques including engraving and embossing, depicting elaborate scenes of dance, gaming, warriors, and mythological creatures. Among the latter were winged serpents, antlered serpents, spiders, and catlike monsters that later became important in the mythologies of historic southeastern tribes. At Spiro, however, the animal figures favored by early artisans were later replaced by humanlike figures.
For two or three centuries, Spiro and its satellite centers flourished. Around A.D. 1250, they began to change their way of life. Frontier settlements were abandoned, some people completely left northeast Oklahoma, and others began congregating along the Grand and Arkansas Rivers. From A.D. 1200 to 1400, a large community developed on the uplands and terraces around the Spiro site; however few, if any, people were actually living at the site itself. Apparently, they only visited the mounds periodically for certain rituals and ceremonies. Mound construction continued, and many people were buried in Craig Mound. Their diverse graves and burial associations attest to the presence of a highly developed hierarchy of political-religious leaders. More than 700 burials have been discovered at Craig Mound. By A.D. 1450, the dominant priestly chiefs were no longer evident in Spiro society; trade and influence among Southeastern cheifdoms were no more; and ritual mound construction at the Spiro site had apparently ceased.
By the mid-sixteenth century, Spiro’s descendants were living in hamlets scattered along the Arkansas River. Their settlements consisted of small, less substantial houses with many nearby storage and trash pits. For the first time in their history, these people were hunting bison extensively. The use of buffalo and increased use of storage pits indicates that Spiro’s descendants were becoming part-time hunters and farmers. Another noteworthy feature of these later people’s cultural change was their adoption of ideas and tools which had long been common with the Plains Indians. As trade with the Southeastern chiefdoms decreased, that with the Plains people increased.
The principal stimulus for this marked change is believed to have been the onset of a drier climate around A.D. 1200. This change adversely affected the ability of northeast Oklahoma villagers to produce crops, eventually causing them to move down-stream toward the Arkansas River Valley where summer rainfall remained dependable for growing crops. However, this increase in population placed more demand on the available soils and resources, creating ecological and social stresses that Spiro leaders could not resolve. It is thought that this eventually brought about the decline of these leaders’ political and religious power, this undermining the Spiro society’s high level or organization and cultural development. By A.D. 1450, the Spiro site was abandoned. And, by 1719, when eastern Oklahoma was first visited by Europeans, the natives were bison hunting, part-time farmers of a tribe now part of the Wichitas.
Text by Don G. Wyckoff and Dennis Peterson

Archaeology — the study of ancient cultures through digging

Anthropology — study of cultures and behavior of people

artifacts — articles made or modified by people

Caddoan — culture to which Spiro people belonged

community — in Spiro times, a political-religious center

conch — a type os seashell — used for ornaments, cups, etc.

earspools — kind of earring worn by Spiro people

flintknapping — working with stone; method to create tools, projectile points

gorget — engraved shell ornament worn around neck

Mississippian — the many societies of intensive farmers who lived in the central and southeast United States between AD 900 and 1400 who developed complex communities ranked social systems, and widespread trading networks. Historically, the Natchez and Caddo were groups still practicing the Mississippian life-way when first visited by European explorers.

palisade — barrier made of strong timbers set in ground

potsherd — a piece of broken pottery

trade network — a system of trading raw materials and finished products among different societies living over a large area.

Activities and Procedures:

  • Make a model of a Spiro village—include grass roof, evidence of farming, hunting and pottery making.
  • Make a three-dimensional map or chart of the Spiro trade network. Use real materials to illustrate your work.
  • Pretend you are an archaeologist. Use classroom as a site. Write an exact description of all you find and then describe how you think they were used.
  • Write a story describing your life as a member of the Spiro village. Illustrate your story.
  • Compare and contrast other mound builders in other parts of the United States and elsewhere.
  • Do some flintknapping (read Art of Flintknapping by D.C. Waldorf, American Indian Books)
  • Corn grinding–use a matate and dried corn
  • Pottery making
  • Create a Pump Drill–an ancient tool that was used by Indians throughout the Americas.
  • Word Search
  • Other Activities:

    The following activity relates to the resourcefulness of prehistoric people in utilizing their natural environment. Students can gain an appreciation for the abilities and skills required to survive.

    Corn Grinding
    Many native peoples in North American grew corn as a staple crop. Corn has many uses, and was one of the greatest developments of the Indians. After harvest, many ears would be dried for future use. It could be used during the winter; boiled, made into pudding or porridge, or ground into meal for cornbread or corn cakes. To grind corn, you need a grinding stone, a milling basin and dried corn. (The Spanish names for such equipment are mano, matate and maize.)

  • Find a large, flat chunk of sandstone. (This may be purchased from landscape supplier, or you can use a cement slab (Danger! Do not let students eat corn ground on cement slab.) It should be at least 18 x 10 and 5 thick. Using stones or chisel, carefully make a depression in the top. The depression should be about 5 in diameter (or larger) and about 3 deep in the center.
  • Find a grinding stone. It should be a fist-sized rock, made of some material harder than sandstone. Dried corn may be purchased at any Feed and Seed store.
  • Place a small handful of dried corn in the milling basin. Tap kernels gently in order to break the kernel open. Grind in a circular or up-and-down motion until the meal is fine. May be used to make something. Students will notice it is very gritty because of the sandstone content. May lead to some interesting discussions about prehistoric dental problems.