In around 1450, a community of mound-building people in what’s now eastern Oklahoma abandoned their homes. The exodus might have been because of a changing climate.
These Mississippian people, as they’re known, tried to fight the changing weather by assembling art and goods in one of their mounds. Many of those objects are now on display at the Dallas Museum of Art in an exhibit called ‘Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art from Spiro.’
Michelle Rich, the museum’s assistant curator of the arts of the Americas, spoke with Texas Standard about the artworks on display, and the people who created them. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Before we get into the art itself, tell us a little bit more about the people behind the Spiro Mounds. Who were they?
Michelle Rich: The Mississippian peoples extended across the Midwest and the southeastern areas of what we call the U.S. today. And they lived in variously sized towns and cities from about 800 to about 1600 C.E. – contemporary era. They were geographically dispersed but culturally unified through several different lines of thinking – primarily cosmology and world view, and also their practices of building earthen mounds. Earthen mounds are available to view all across the Americas, and particularly here in North America.
These artifacts that we’re particularly focused on were first discovered back in the 1930. Can you tell us a little bit about that discovery? What was the state in which they were found?
The 1930s was a difficult time for a lot of people because of the Great Depression. And rather than being discovered by archeologists conducting scientific research, the site of Spiro was initially excavated by a coalition of out-of-work miners who called themselves the Pocola Mining Company. And they received a lease for the land upon which the site of Spiro sits. And then they proceeded to mine the earthen mounds for, as they were called, relics – and then to sell with the intention of selling those on the art market. And the looters encountered something that we call the Spirit Lodge, which was a hollow chamber inside of one of the mounds at Spiro. And this is unique in the world of Mississippian culture. So it was a huge find, but it wasn’t made by scholars or researchers.
Did the looting stop or did it continue for some number of years? How did it ultimately come to be known as what it is today?
The looting did continue for a number of years. And in the Kansas City Star newspaper, the site was actually called ‘America’s King Tut’s Tomb,’ because of the number and quantity of objects that were coming out of the hollow chamber. And this is something that was, then widely known. So more looters, collectors and interested parties descended upon Spiro and the looting continued until actually it was put to a stop by the state of Oklahoma, which was one of the first states in the U.S. to enact cultural heritage laws that protected sites.
When was that?
How much was lost and what was ultimately found is treasure.
That’s the sad thing. We can’t answer that question, how much was lost? We just don’t know, because the objects from the Spirit Lodge were dispersed across the world, essentially into museum collections, into private collections. And we really don’t have a full sense of the quantity and types of objects that would have been found in the Spirit Lodge.
What was preserved? Can you say a little bit about the sorts of artifacts that were found, their condition, the arrangement, that kind of thing?
The single largest deposit of Mississippian shell cups that is known – there were probably some 700 shell cups included in the Spirit Lodge. And these were made from lightning welk shells which are from the Florida Gulf Coast. So it’s one of the ways in which we can understand that Mississippian peoples were engaged in a very large network of trading and exchange, and they were very cosmopolitan and had access to a number of types of shell. Also from Baja, California, there’s shell.. There’s copper and flint clay.
So they used the flint clay to make ceremonial pipes that are typically sculpted to look like human figures. There is copper in in abundance – copper jewelry, copper breast plates, copper plaques. Just really lavish artistic productions that represented ceremonial objects and bodily adornment objects.
What explains the fact that it was all found as a kind of cache? In other words, would that have to do with the way that the lodge itself was used, or does it speak to some kind of storage over the years or what exactly?
That is a really interesting story and it kind of resonates with some of our cultural and environmental issues we’re experiencing today. So around 1400, there was a climatic event that’s known as the Little Ice Age. And for Mississippian peoples, who were largely agricultural, to experience the series of droughts in the Little Ice Age was causing, was devastating. And the current interpretation of the Spirit Lodge suggests that people from across the Mississippian world gathered together at Spiro with their most precious ritual objects and placed them in a systematic tableau, within the Spirit Lodge. And that tableau tells the story of creation. They’re storytelling without the written word. They’re using objects to tell the story of the creation of the universe and basically trying to reboot the universe during this devastating climate event.
When you say reboot, they weren’t just collecting it for the purposes of future generations, keeping their story alive. What do you mean when you say reboot?
In the same way that we use science and technology to understand and manipulate our world, the Mississippian people were using belief systems, ritual and religion to manipulate theirs. And this is not a cache of objects that were being preserved. This is a ritual offering, basically trying to regenerate the universe.
Tell us a little bit about the pieces that are now on display in Dallas.
We have wonderful objects and meaningful ritual objects here that are from the Spirit Lodge and those range anywhere from flint clay pipes to ear ornaments made from copper or shell or wood with shell inlay. We have ceremonial weaponry and ceremonial arrowheads and knives.
There are a number of gaming stones that represent stones that would have been used in a competitive game called Chunky, which was played by the gods and also by humans. So we have a wide array of ceramic vessels and any number of shell gorgets. Basically it’s a neck ornament carved out the lightning welk shell, and then shell cups that are all incized with unique imagery that speaks to the narrative of creation.
How did these artifacts end up in Dallas? Was this a traveling exhibit or what exactly?
The show was originated by curators Dr. Eric Singleton of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and Dr. Kent Riley, who is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Arts and Symbolism of Ancient America at Texas State University, where he is also a professor of anthropology. And about ten years ago, they started talking about this exhibition and developing a show around Spiro. And this is really only the second large scale museum exhibition that has focused on Mississippian art, the first being a show called Hero Hawk and Open Hand in 2004. So this has been a journey for Drs. Singleton and Riley. I heard about the show a number of years ago and was really thrilled to be in a position to pitch it to the DMA so we could host the exhibition here. And between the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the show also traveled to the Birmingham Museum of Art. So we’re the final venue and this is a great honor for us to host this show.
Do you see the influence of that Mississippian culture today?
Absolutely. This is one of the great treasures of this exhibition. It features contemporary artwork by a number of artists who are of Mississippian descent. So there is a section in the exhibition called ‘Cultural Continuation,’ where we feature textiles, we have a skateboard deck, ceramics, bandolier bags, jewelry. And all of that beautiful contemporary work has been created by artists who are of Mississippian descent and continue to represent some of the same themes that you see in the objects from Spiro in their work. But then they’re also taking these concepts and their artistic practices in different directions. So it’s just a fantastic coming together of both contemporary and traditional work.
Is there a design style or a design language that is immediately recognizable?
There are very iconic, symbolic visual culture representations that you can see in Mississippian art. I will say that the hand and eye motif is a very commonly represented motif within the objects from Spiro. And that hand with the eye in the center, represents a portal to the above world. In Mississippian cosmology, the world is trilayered, the universe is trilayered, and there’s an above world, a middle world and a below world. And so a lot of the imagery that we see represents different characters, culture heroes and supernatural individuals that inhabit these three different layers of the universe.