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.


Amino Acid Racemization – An Underutilized Relative Dating Technique

There are many types of dating in archaeology, including dendrochronology, radiocarbon, and potassium-argon dating, but most only accurately measure back about 50,000 years. Amino acid dating, also known as amino acid racemization, is a dating technique capable of measuring backwards up to three million years. It works by extracting proteins from a deceased organism and separating them into categories of amino acids. By measuring the exact ratio of two different amino acids, archaeologists can create an estimate of how long ago the specimen died, an example of which can be seen in Figure 1 (Demarchi 2020).  Although this dating technique is usually considered relative and most effective when used in comparison with other dated artifacts, it is also capable of being an absolute method.

Figure 1. Fundamentals of amino acid geochronology. Chart by Dr. Beatrice Demarchi.

Unfortunately, despite its potential, amino acid dating is used more rarely in archaeology than expected. When it was first developed in the 1960s, various environmental aspects caused some fossils to lose their original protein, impacting early studies. After more time was spent studying amino acid dating, more reliable methods were produced, but the previous issues caused it to be pushed aside by many archaeologists. 

Luckily, amino acid dating is now becoming slightly more common. For example, University of York researcher, Kirsty Penkman, has been using amino acid racemization to date molluscs, egg shells, and corals, up to three million years old, as can be seen in Figure 2. Penkman is also currently working on a large project involving using amino acid dating to date hundreds of European sites.

Figure 2. Kirsty Penkman works with fossil shells for amino acid dating. Photo from NEaar lab at the University of York.

Unfortunately, amino acid racemization does present some difficulties. The enclosing matrix is a challenging variable, since it can impact the acids (Method 2016). Temperature is also heavily connected to the accuracy of amino acid dating. Faster reactions occur in the development of the amino acids when it is warmer, so more precise dates are produced. However, these dates go back a shorter period of time. Slower reactions occur when it is cooler, so the dates are less specific, but go back over a longer period of time (Marchini 2020). 

Although there can be some inconsistencies, overall, amino acid dating holds a lot of promise. It can provide insights to human behavior, such as the use of fire and burial practices (Johnson, and Miller 2007). It can be used to date a variety of artifacts, including mollusks, ostrich eggshells, corals, and some sediments. Using the amino acid dating on sediments is invaluable when incorporated into stratigraphy. Amino acid racemization can even be used on tooth enamel, allowing archaeologists to date mammals, including human remains. And because it can cover a large period of time, it is incredibly valuable when looking at human, animal, and technological evolution.


Further Readings 

Identification of Remanie Fossils Using Amino Acid Racemisation

Relative and Absolute Dating of Quaternary Mollusks With Amino Acid Racemization: Evaluation, Applications and Questions


  Demarchi, Beatrice. “Amino Acid Racemisation.” AntarcticGlaciers.Org (blog), June 22, 2020.

  Johnson, B. J., and G. H. Miller. “ARCHAEOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS OF AMINO ACID RACEMIZATION.” Archaeometry 39, no. 2 (September 7, 2007): 265–87.

  Marchini, Lucia. “Expanding Amino Acid Dating.” World Archaeology (blog), May 27, 2020.

  “Method – Amino Acid Geochronology Laboratory – Northern Arizona University,” October 2, 2016.