Looting Spiro Mounds: An American King Tut's Tomb. By David La Vere. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. Pp. ix, 255. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, index. $24.95, paper.)
Spiro Mounds is a pre-Columbian American Indian ceremonial center located along the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, just a few miles west of Fort Smith. It is famous for the incredibly large number of intricately decorated artifacts retrieved by twentieth-century diggers. Spiro, the Etowah site in Georgia, and the Moundville site in Alabama together account for the majority of the exotically decorated fabric, copper, shell, pottery, and stone artifacts surviving from between A.D. 1000 and 1500. Spiro produced the largest number of these artifacts, but analysis and interpretation have been hindered by the fact that the majority of them were recovered during the infamous Depression-era looting of the site by members of the so-called Pocola Mining Company. In this book, David La Vere provides the first detailed history of the Spiro Mounds looting, examining those events within two larger contexts: the history of American archaeology and the sequence of Indian occupations that created the Spiro Mounds and produced its extraordinary treasures.
La Vere brings an interesting approach to his task: chapters alternate back and forth between the history of archaeological investigations and the story of the site's long Indian occupation. The stories are well told and make a fascinating read, though La Vere is more at home recounting twentieth-century events than reconstructing the fine details of a more ancient past. This observation is not so much a criticism of La Vere's scholarship as it is an unavoidable consequence of what he describes so well-the rampant looting of the site by desperate men trying to make a fast buck during very desperate times. An accurate picture of ancient life comes not just from artifacts but from a thorough understanding of their archaeological context. Such details of distribution, arrangement, association, and patterning are lost when the purpose of digging is merely to retrieve objects to be sold to the highest bidder.
Chapters dealing with the history of digging at the site weave an instructive tale about evolving relationships among professional archaeologists, looters, collectors, and antiquities dealers. The first investigations of the Spiro Mounds were conducted between 1913 and 1917 by University of Oklahoma archaeologist Joseph B. Thoburn. His excavations, though limited, were sufficient to establish the archaeological significance of the site. Thoburn, unfortunately, could not raise the funds needed to support more extensive work. This left the site vulnerable to a small group of men from Arkansas and Oklahoma, down on their luck during the hard years of the Depression but aware that collectors and antiquities dealers paid good money for American Indian artifacts. They organized themselves as the Pocola Mining Company and leased the land on which stood the multilobed mound that would come to be known as the repository of one of the greatest concentrations of ancient ceremonial objects in North America. Their actions touched off a series of events that pitted them against University of Oklahoma archaeologist Forrest E. …