The American King Tut’s Tomb – The Most Object-Laden Mound in North America

In the 1910s, one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in North America was made, but it was quickly followed by one of the worst looting incidents in United States history (Bleiberg 2021). The Spiro Mounds site in Oklahoma consists of twelve, human-constructed mounds made from dirt. They date back to somewhere between 850 A.D. and 1450 A.D. and come from a Caddoan-speaking city. The mounds include nine house mounds, two temple mounds, and one burial mound (Peterson n.d.). The burial mound is called the Craig Mound, which has been referred to as the “American King Tut’s tomb,” and is where the looting took place. An early photo of it can be found in Figure 1 (Thoburn 1913).

Figure 1. Photograph of Craig Mound in 1913 by Joseph Thoburn.

    After years of being relatively undisturbed, in 1933 the Pocola Mining Company obtained the rights to dig in the Craig Mound. They spent two years digging into it, uncovering thousands of previously well-preserved artifacts, and destroying many of them in the process. They were sold all over the world, and it took many years to recover even a small portion of what was lost. In 1936, a year after the mining company was shut down, the University of Oklahoma and the Works Progress Administration started a systematic, scientific excavation and study of the Spiro Mounds (Peterson n.d.). Excavations eventually ended in 1941 because of World War II, and the area was once again used as farmland until the 1960s. It was then that the Spiro Mounds Archaeological State Park was created, and an Interpretive Center was opened. Later, in 1991, the Oklahoma Historical Society was given site administration. 

Today, the mounds site is open to the public and is preserved by the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center. Many people visit the 150-acre protected site, where they learn about Spiro’s connection to Mississippian culture (Oklahoma Historical Society n.d.). It also contains a new exhibition, one that was developed with the help of people of Spiro ancestry (Brandes 2021). The mounds and artifacts show a history of ceremonies, mound building, religious and political systems, organized trading, and connections with other “regional mound centers,” including Cahokia (Peterson n.d.). They also tell a story of Spiro’s people trying to survive droughts and a changing climate (Bleiberg 2021). Beyond that, over 65 American public facilities and dozens of international institutions have Spiro artifacts (Brandes 2021). These artifacts include engraved conch shells (an example of which can be seen in Figure 2), copper breastplates, beads, and weapons, which display remarkable craftsmanship and sophistication.

Figure 2. Photograph of engraved conch shell excavated from Craig Mound.

The Spiro Mounds are a prime example of the damage that can be caused by looters, as well as the way pieces of history can be lost and overlooked. There is a lot to be learned from both the artifacts themselves and the ways they were excavated.


Further Reading


Reference List 

Bleiberg, Larry. “Spiro Mounds: North America’s Lost Civilisation,” June 21, 2021.

  Brandes, Heide. “This Little-Known Native American Society Was Once as Powerful as the Aztecs and Incas.” National Geographic, March 9, 2021.

  Daniels, Gary C. “Spiro Started Upward Spiral in 700 A.D.”, August 12, 2011.

     Oklahoma Historical Society | OHS. “Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center | Oklahoma Historical Society.” Accessed November 6, 2022.

      Peterson, A. Dennis, “Spiro Mounds,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,

     Thoburn, Joseph. Craig Mound in the Snow. 1913. Photograph. Thoburn Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society.


Paleopathology: The Relationship Between Humanity and Disease

Paleopathology is the study of diseases, viruses, and epidemics throughout history and their effects on individual people, animals, environment, and societies as a whole. It is an area of study that ties anthropology, archaeology, and forensics together to investigate diseases and their impacts. Additionally, contact between societies can be tracked through the spread of diseases, in which groups transmit diseases when they travel and trade with other groups. Viruses have been around for all of human existence, and have severely affected human development and growth, and paleopathologists strive to discover and research these effects in order to piece together the entire existence of humanity.

10,000 years ago, the shift to agrarian life resulted in sweeping epidemics and brought forth devastating consequences on developing groups (History 2019). Agriculture allowed the creation of large communities in which people no longer hunted and gathered for food, which in turn led to the domestication of animals. Overpopulation, malnutrition, and overcrowding allowed disease to run rampant, rapidly devastating societies. Additionally, this newly created physical connection between humans and animals eventually allowed a direct transmission of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox from animals to humans, which wiped out large portions of populations,  and directly altered human biological systems for future generations.

The complete effects of disease on the entirety of human evolution and development are immeasurable. However, paleopathologists have developed several analysis methods in order to pinpoint these consequences. Bone analysis is one of the most prevalent methods, in which archaeologists examine bone structure and composition in order to determine which diseases that particular person had at their time of death. Teeth are by far the most useful body part in determining disease affliction. The genome sequence of several diseases can be preserved within teeth, and paleopathologists have been able to recreate these sequences to study the evolution of disease throughout history

Paleopathologists were able to recreate the genome sequence of smallpox shown above from dental analysis of Viking remains (Autoren 2020).


Smallpox, one of the most lethal human diseases throughout history, has remained a mystery to paleopathologists for years. Claiming between 300-500 million human lives in the 20th century alone, researchers recently found Vikings from over 1400 years ago who were afflicted with smallpox, noted by residue found from dental analysis,  definitively creating a baseline approximation for the development of the deadly disease (Ktori 2020).

Picture of the 1200 year old Viking site in Öland, Sweden, that contained traces of smallpox (Page 2020).

Before this discovery, scientists have relied on vague analysis of Egyptian mummies, and were unsure about the origins of smallpox. Now, they have been able to reproduce the genome sequence and compare the virus to its current sequence, allowing paleopathologists to start effectively researching smallpox’s evolution since the Viking age. The lethality of the strain that was found within the Vikings’ teeth is currently unknown, as the severity of the disease cannot be measured, but researchers have hypothesized it must have been noticeable considering such a large amount was found. Pushing back the earliest known evidence of smallpox by 1000 years, this groundbreaking discovery opens a pathway for more extensive research on diseases and their influence throughout history. 


Additional Content for Further Discovery

History of Tuberculosis

History of Malaria

Works Cited

Autoren Mühlemann B et al. “Even The Vikings Had Smallpox.” Even the Vikings had smallpox | German Center for Infection Research. DZIF, July 24, 2020. 

Division of Tuberculosis Elimination. “History of World TB Day.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 12, 2016.,China%20(2%2C300%20years%20ago). Editors. “Pandemics That Changed History.” A&E Television Networks, February 27, 2019. 

Institute of Medicine (US). “A Brief History of Malaria – Saving Lives, Buying Time – NCBI Bookshelf.” National Library of Medicine. NIH, 2004.

Ktori, Sophia. “Smallpox Found in Viking Teeth Proves Disease Plagued Humans for 1400 Years.” GEN. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, July 24, 2020. 

Page, Michael Le. “DNA from Viking People Reveals the Unexpected History of Smallpox.” New Scientist. New Scientist, July 29, 2020.

Archaeoastronomy and The Role of Celestial Events in Shaping Ancient Native American Societies

Archaeoastronomy is concerned with “how people of the past understood the stars and the sky” (Winston 2012). From the earliest hominids to modern stargazers, there has always been a fascination with the night sky. This fascination has led to the integration of stars and celestial events into ancient religions, stories, architecture, agriculture, and even societal values (Winston 2012). 

Specifically in Native American cultures, ancient myths have been noted to be quite similar among different tribes under the same sky. Many creation stories follow the form of doubles. For example, in Cahokia culture, there is the important duality of the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Many other Native American cultures had a version of this duality, including male vs female, upper world vs lower world, light vs dark, and civility vs chaos (Figure 1). There are references to this theme of twins in Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, and even North Carolina, suggesting that though these tribes were geographically distant from each other, they all arrived at similar conclusions under the unifying blanket of the night sky (Pauketat 2010, 94-95). 

Figure 1. Lodge boy and Thrown Away: representation of twins in Hidatsa culture

Specific celestial events such as the 1054 A.D. supernova provide even greater insight into the importance of astronomy on ancient civilizations. This supernova was visible for close to two years and marked a turning point for several Native societies. It was “visible both night and day around the world” (Pauketat 2010, 20) and was “four times brighter than Venus” (Pauketat 2010, 20). In Cahokia culture, this marked a turning point from Old Cahokia to New Cahokia, termed a “big bang moment” by archaeologists who studied the Mississippian site. Small farm villages were razed to the ground to make room for a new city filled with plazas and mounds with religious and political structures on top. The radiocarbon dating of New Cahokia puts the formation of the city within four years of the supernova, indicating its contribution to the incredible changes (Pauketat 2010, 23). In New Mexico, another Native society, the Anasazi, represented the supernova in cave drawings, indicating it was a major moment in their history worth documenting it.  The Hopi connected astronomical events with their belief in multiple worlds. They believed that the transition from one world to another was indicated by the appearance of a blue star. This could have been the 1054 supernova, as the crab nebula (Figure 2) that developed was characterized by a blue color (Winston 2012). 

Figure 2. Crab Nebula that formed from 1054 A.D. supernova

Archaeoastronomy provides a way of looking into the past through the lens of constellations and celestial events. This interconnected relationship between the stars and humans has resulted in many momentous changes in societies across America. This field of study provides insight into different culture’s religions and values in ways that other methods fall short. 


Pauketat, Timothy

  2010  In Cahokia Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, edited by Colin Calloway, pp. 20-95. Penguin Group, London 

Winston, Grady

  2012  Astronomy and Mythology in Native American Culture.

Links of Interest:

Cahokia’s Progressive Social Structure

The city of Cahokia is known for being a prehistoric site in North America made distinguishable by various earth-like mounds or pyramids spread across the Mississippi river for what is now known as the modern city of St Louis. During the twelfth century, this was a settlement with an ever-increasing population thanks to their advancements in trading, technology, and agriculture. However, before Cahokia became a prominent capital city, it was a series of many villages that regularly interacted, exchanging social and cultural ideas. As time progressed, the city of Cahokia came to be with the relocation of many people from various tribes bringing with them new cultural practices, languages, material culture, and cuisines. Cahokia’s transformation is considered a civilizing social movement, with even references to the “Big Bang” due to its explosive growth and advancement(Pauketat 2009).


  Today Cahokian remains lie along the Mississippi river and are constantly threatened by modern projects and construction allowing for the deterioration of these sites. Archeologists are racing against time in efforts to preserve the monuments and study the great Cahokian city that once was. In its study and interpretation we constantly are questioning what was life like and how did these people live? What was the power dynamic? The power structure of Cahokia perplexes many as it doesn’t pertain to today’s standards and norms. With many concluding as to how welcoming and progressive the city may have seen, there were also signs of a hierarchal system in place.

The power dynamic between families was shown with the more prominent individuals and families living atop the mounds


Evidence of the hierarchical system is constantly illustrated by the physical organization of the city and the clear disposal of resources that more prominent and wealthier families had. The leaders of the Cahokian society, often religious leaders or chiefs, lived atop the mounds and looked down on the rest of the citizens. They consolidated power not by hoarding but by giving away goods illustrating their access to and surplus of goods. Cahokia developed a ranked society with a chief and elite class overlooking workers in the lower classes(Seppa, 1997). The infrastructure of the city was divided into zones for administrative and ceremonial functions, elite compounds, residential neighborhoods, and even suburbs. One of its largest features was the central plaza encompassing nearly 40 acres which were centered for communal ceremonies and rituals that brought people together (Woods, 2007).

This image is able to illustrate the similar construction of all the houses in Cahokia society

However, despite Cahokias ordinary hierarchical system that is often present in most if not all city-like societies, there was such peace and order in Cahokian society that it was often through minuscule differences that the presence of social classes was known. In the book “Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi”, Pauketat mentions a traveler going through the city of Cahokia at its height to illustrate the structure and organization. From the perspective of the traveler, there’s a mention of very specific styles and “rigidity of orientation”(Pauketat 2009). What can we infer from the uniformity of the houses? Does it illustrate a strict and overarching power structure or does it illustrate Cahokia’s attempt to be fair? It recalled in the book that despite there being a hierarchical system, everyone had access to resources and despite the different placements of homes, they all had very similar sizes, no matter how prominent or influential the family or individual was.


Even with a social divide, Cahokian society was progressive in its nature to provide all its citizens with the necessities of life. Although leaders of Cahokian society had more resources at their disposal, even individuals on the lower end of society had enough to live a stable life. This social infrastructure is impressive as even today’s society, which is often considered as advanced, still has individuals suffering at the hands of a large social divide in which individuals have to tackle aspects such as poverty, hunger, and illness.

Reference list:

  • Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. New York, N.Y., Viking. 
  • Seppa, Nathan. 1997. Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi. The WashingtonPost. 
  • Woods, William I. 2007. Cahokia Mounds. Britannica.


Additional resources:


Underwater Archaeology

Archaeological sites on land have been a source of historical education for archaeologists for centuries. However, there are so many archaeological sites that are inaccessible from land, which is where underwater archaeology must come into play. Whether from wrecked ships, flooding of inhabited areas, or other underlying causes, the water is a treasure trove of archaeological sites that can be excavated to learn more about the past. However, the differences in on land versus underwater archaeology make the transition to learning about the underwater past difficult.

A few decades after scuba was invented, underwater archaeology had a boom in popularity, albeit a small one. From the 60s through the 1990s, archaeologists worked more underwater, eventually creating two schools: one for previously on land submerged sites, and one for ships (Bass, 1998, p. 52).

Archaeological diver excavating underwater (O’Connor, 1989, p. 26)

Despite the growth in popularity, it remained far more difficult, in both resources and labor, because of the sheer difference to on-land archaeology. While they share an end goal, as well as some similarities in process, the overall experiences are starkly different. Underwater archaeology is almost always done in low light situations, with almost no visibility (O’Conner, 1989, p. 28). It also requires archaeologists to be trained in both the schools of archaeology and safe diving practices. In addition to the rigorous training required for diving, underwater archaeologists who investigate wrecks must also be trained in recognizing ships and their design (Bass, 1998, p. 53), a second layer of training and expertise that makes archaeological diving a very niche and difficult to attain profession. Finally, divers using scuba technology to reach the bottom of the ocean must come up very often once the oxygen runs out, which is incredibly dangerous as their bodies depressurize and re-pressurize too many times in short procession (Keith and Frey, 1979, p. 26).

However, one big advancement in underwater archaeology has been made: saturation diving. This technology allows a diver to dive much deeper depths for a much longer time than scuba or other  underwater diving techniques because the diver does not have to decompress from the underwater pressure multiple times. Instead, the diver breathes special chemicals, and is kept pressurized for the entire time that they are underwater, so that they do not have to undergo depressurization sickness (Keith and Frey, 1979, p. 26).

There were, as of 1979, no archaeologists trained in saturation diving. However, in collaboration with industry, some nautical archaeologists were able to complete the excavation of the Secca di Capistello shipwreck. The divers were able to spend a total of 21 days underwater, and 157 hours completing excavation work, which would previously have never been possible at such a scale, as workers were before only getting about 5.5 hours of work done at a time (Keith and Frey, 1979, p. 27).

Diagram of Secca di Capistello diving setup (Keith and Frey, 1979, p. 31)

Even though saturation diving is far less accessible than scuba diving, its benefits on the field of archaeology are clear. Hopefully the importance of investigating underwater archaeology will inspire more collaborations like the one at Secca di Capistello, or inspire more nautical archaeologists to become trained in safe saturation diving practices.

For more information about saturation diving and underwater archaeology, please visit:


Reference List:

Bass, George F.

  1998  History beneath the sea. Archaeology. Volume 51 (No. 6): 48-53

Keith, Donald H. and Donald A. Frey.

  1979  Saturation Diving in Nautical Archaeology. Archaeology. Volume 32 (No. 4): 24-33

O’Connor, Nessa.

  1989  Underwater Archaeology. Archaeology Ireland. Volume 3 (No. 1): 26-29


The Significance of a North Plaza Discovery in Cahokia

Cahokia was once a native urban settlement on the Mississippi River that still catches the intrigue of archaeologists, scholars, and the public today.  At the center of the city was Monks Mound (Figure 1).  This mound was “Cahokia’s great central pyramid” and was “the largest such monument in North America” (Pauketat 2009, 26).  Surrounding Monks Mound is four plazas, each named for their location relative to the city’s center.  Though experts thought they reasonably understood the mound and plazas, a new discovery complicates matters.

Figure 1. Monks Mound today with a constructed staircase and other structural supports as preventative measures for decay. The mound and its surrounding plazas are near the town of Collinsville, Illinois. Photograph by Emily Dickinson.

In the summer of 2022, geoarchaeologist Caitlin Rankin conducted an excavation in the north plaza.  She did this to test a hypothesis that originated from her observation of the plaza’s low elevation.  During the excavation, Rankin “extracted sediment cores around the four mounds that define the north plaza” (Yates 2022) (Figure 2).  She additionally collected topsoil samples from varying nearby environments so that a comparison could be made.  The different environments included wetlands, seasonal wetlands, and prairie.

Figure 2. Geoarchaeologist Caitlin Rankin standing in an excavation pit at Mound 5, where sediment analysis showed that the north plaza was a wetland in the times of Cahokia. Photograph by Caitlin Rankin.

The comparison between the topsoils and sediment cores revolved around carbon isotopes.  Rankin took stable carbon isotopes, which would include C12 and C13, from the topsoil and compared them to the carbon isotopes within the sediment cores (Yates 2022).  From this comparison, Rankin was able to “establish what kind of plants lived in the area – finding evidence for wetland plants” (Plaza In Ancient City 2022).  This discovery was vital because it meant that the north plaza was a wetland and most likely permanently submerged underwater.

With this new knowledge, archaeologists must rethink the meaning of the north plaza.  They must also try to determine how the underwater plaza could represent the cultural ideologies and practices of the Cahokians.  For the people of Cahokia, nature, the cosmos, and water were large areas of focus within their mythology and religion (Pauketat 2009).  Because of this, Rankin’s discovery may suggest that the plaza was constructed to honor the gods of Cahokia.  Just as Monks Mound was constructed to interconnect society with religion, now it can be seen that there was a potential religious and cultural motive in the construction of the plazas.

Besides morphing the interpretation of the Cahokian religious practices, the underwater aspect of the plaza also implies that the people of the city had techniques and construction methods to build in those conditions.  This, coupled with their calendar and mathematical capabilities, shows that Cahokia was a highly advanced and complex society that should garner the world’s respect today.  

Lastly, this discovery shows that archaeology is an ever-evolving process and that nothing is ever set in stone.  Rankin’s work will inspire more archaeologists to reevaluate Cahokia, leading to a better understanding of the ancient city.

Further Readings:

Rankin’s Official Report on Findings

New Insights Into Monks Mound At Cahokia


Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. New York, N.Y., Viking. 

“Plaza In Ancient City of Cahokia Near Today’s St. Louis Was Likely Inundated Year-Round.” National Science Foundation, sec. Research news.

Yates, Diana. 2022. “North ‘Plaza’ in Cahokia Was Likely Inundated Year-Round, Study Finds.” Illinois News Bureau, sec. Research News.