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Around the World at the Time of Columbus

Falcons on the Floodplain
Mississippian<br>Spiro, Oklahoma<br><i>Ear spool with falcon</i>, about 1200-1350<br> Limestone, copper, shell
zoom Mississippian
Spiro, Oklahoma
Ear spool with falcon, about 1200-1350
Limestone, copper, shell


Between 1000 and 1600, a network of communities thrived in the floodplains of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Although the “Mississippian” peoples never united into a single culture, they had much in common. In their towns, for example, they constructed massive earthen mounds topped by temples. Human bones have been found in some of these mounds along with numerous ornaments, like this disk known as an “ear spool.” Such elaborate burials, however, were only for chiefs and other powerful people.

This ear spool came from a burial mound in Spiro, Oklahoma. It is about three inches across and features a falcon with outstretched wings. Archeologists debate whether it fit through a hole in the earlobe or was attached to a headdress. It is carved from limestone and once was covered with a thin layer of copper. A small piece of shell forms the falcon’s eye.

Limestone, copper, and shell may not seem exotic compared to the glittering gold common in Central and South America. (And that is one reason Europeans didn’t colonize the region until the 1700s.) But many of the materials prized by the Mississippians were not available to them locally. Much of the wealth of Spiro’s tombs—objects made of seashell, copper, feathers, bone, and fur—was brought along trade routes from the Midwest, the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Gulf coast of Florida and Mississippi.

Ideas and symbols traveled along these routes as well. Throughout the region, birds such as this falcon had special meaning. Mississippians linked them with the “upper world” of the sun and the life-giving forces of nature. (Serpents represented the dangerous forces of the “lower world.”) Chiefs and others of high rank claimed such images to reinforce their power and status, among their own people and also in the eyes of rival chiefs in neighboring communities.

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1. Mississippian peoples occupied territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.
2. Gorgets (decorations for the neck) made of conch shells from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have been found in every part of Mississippian territory. (Mississippian, Spiro, Oklahoma, Pair of gorgets, about 1200-1350, shell)
3. Mississippian tombs also contained many ceramic pots, often with similar designs. (Mississippian, Effigy bowl, 12th-15th century, ceramic)


September 2005