Excavations Page

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Introduction to Excavation Photographs

The second section of photographs from Dr. Bell’s collection features pictures of the digging and excavations at the Spiro Mound. The caption for each photograph gives the time period during which the picture was taken, a description of what can be seen in the picture, and an index map showing the direction the photographer was shooting. The photographs are organized in approximate chronological sequence from March 1935 through June 1937. 

We began this project with a stack of photographs in no particular order and wanted to arrange them in chronological order. We also wanted to know exactly what the pictures were showing and that meant determining the direction the photographer was shooting the picture. Dr. Bell researched his correspondence files for letters from home that provided approximate dates for his various visits to the mound. This provided most of the needed chronological data. To determine the direction of the photograph, we located reference markers that would appear in more than one picture. These were normally trees. We created a map of the mound with the reference markers located relative to the mound. In this way we were able to correctly determine the direction the pictures were taken. For the reader who wants to confirm our conclusions, we have pointed out some of the reference markers that we used in the captions. The dark arrow on the map shows were he was standing and the direction he was looking while taking the photo.

Timeline of Excavations

1913 - 1914 Joseph B. Thoburn takes the first photographs of The Spiro Mound.
1916 - 1917 Joseph B. Thoburn excavates the adjacent Ward Mounds.
Summer 1933 Joe Balloun and associates begin digging at the Percy Brewer property.
Summer 1933 Robert E. Bell makes his first visit to Spiro and witnesses Joe Balloun's digging.
Fall 1933 Joe Balloun ceases digging on the Percy Brewer property.
November 28, 1933 Pocola Mining Company obtains two-year lease on the Craig property; digging begins.
Spring 1934 Robert E. Bell and Chuck Aronhalt visit the mound.
Spring 1935 Robert E. Bell takes many pictures of the Pocola Mining Company diggers at Spiro. 
Prior to April 1935 Brown Mound trenched with a mule team and scraper.
July 1935 Commercial digging is halted when new archaeological license law is enforced.
Summer 1935 Digging resumes, main cone is tunneled into and "Central Chamber" discovered. 
November 27, 1935 Commercial digging closes with the expiration of the Pocola Mining Company lease.
April 1936 The Bell family visits Spiro, takes pictures of the mound and visits with some diggers.
June 1936 WPA excavations begin on the Craig property. 
Mid-December 1936 The first WPA field season ends.
January 1937 The second WPA field season begins. 
January 1937 Robert E. Bell visits the site and takes lots of pictures. 
June 1937 Robert E. Bell visits the site and takes numerous pictures.
November 1937 The second WPA field season ends. The Spiro Mound has been leveled.
April 8, 1941 The third WPA field season begins with Phil J. Newkumet as supervisor.
October 6, 1941 The third field season ends. This is the end of the WPA excavations.
1966 Robert Black of the Corps of Engineers recognized Spiro's value and it was conserved. 
1978 The Spiro Mounds State Park was opened.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph 2: March 1935, looking Northwest: After the rain view of the lesser cones

This picture was taken around March 26, 1935, after a big rain. The photographer is looking northwest down the axis of the mound complex. The water-filled holes illustrate the random nature of the Pocola Mining Company digging.

The dark tree to the left is actually off the mound and wasn’t cut down during the WPA excavations. The tree to the immediate right of it is the one on the west edge of the mound seen in Photograph 1. A distant view of this south face of the large cone, with all the trees and brush removed, can be seen in Brown (1996), Figure 1-9c. The stump of the tree on the west edge of the main cone can be seen in that figure with the dark tree still standing just at the left edge of that picture. This tree was important in locating when and where Photograph 22 was taken.

Notice the small cluster of trees on the right side of the main cone. They are at the northeast side of the main cone. Also, notice the roughly rectangular feature slightly right of center in the heavily disturbed area. It can also be seen in Photograph 7.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph 3: March 1935, looking Southeast: After the rain view from the large cone

Another view of the water-filled craters in the lesser cone of The Spiro Mound complex is shown. This was taken around March 26, 1935, from the large cone, looking southeast down the axis of The Spiro Mound complex. The field to the south has been planted. The property line, located on the left, or east, side of the plowed field, if extended to the north, would show that much of the last cone of the complex is actually across that property line on the east. That cone was on the Percy Brewer property and had been leased to Joe Balloun. Joe had it dug in the summer of 1933, but had abandoned his digging before the Pocola Mining Company obtained their lease on the Craig property. This last cone can be identified by its high rim and crater filled with mud and water. It is in the upper central portion of the photo.

To the left in this photograph is a barrel and to its left, out of the picture, sat the caretaker’s tent which is visible in Photographs 5 and 7. The path starting at the left side of the photograph goes from the tent, down the east side of the mound and then crosses over the mound at the saddle between the third and fourth cones from the north. The tree at the left of the path just where it turns to cross over the mound is the same tree seen in Photograph 37 at the east end on the south exploratory trench of the initial WPA work. This tree can be used to better place the location of that trench at the north edge of the saddle between cones three and four.

One of the trees just south of The Spiro Mound complex survived and was still alive at the site in 2003.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph 7: April 1935, looking North: Taking a photo break

A photo-op at the Pocola Mining Company dig, taken in April 1935, looking north along the east side of the mound. The diggers are in a trench in the third cone from the north. Sitting in the back is caretaker Dan. He lived in the tent in the background, where the artifacts were held before being sold, and protected the property from unauthorized digging at night. There is some speculation that he might have done some searching on his own at night. Standing to the left is Bill Vandagriff and Hayden Vandagriff with K. A. McKenzie to his right. Guinn Cooper was interviewed by Dr. James Cherry on April 3, 1985. Parts of this interview are presented in the introductory text. The person sitting on the far right is Dr. Bell’s high school friend Chuck Aronhalt, wearing his distinctive hat seen in Photograph 5. This picture was taken about the time the famous Bell-Townsend-Onken Blade was found. Although the diggers didn’t let outsiders know where specific artifacts were found, it is highly probable that the blade was found in the immediate vicinity of this trench. 

This picture was taken after the heavy rain referred to in Photographs 2 and 3. The rectangular feature seen on the left, three-quarters of the way up the photograph, was also visible in Photograph 2. The large cone can be seen in the background, in the upper left corner. Notice the cluster of trees near the tent in the upper right of the photo. There is an open area with no other trees next to the mound until the upper left part of the picture where there is another group of trees to the left or east of the main cone. These observations were helpful in placing the locations from which different photographs were taken.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph 18: Summer 1935, looking Southwest: Diggers at the entrance into the large cone

Dr. Bell did not take this photograph since he did not visit the mound while the tunnels into the main cone were open. He had received a message telling him they were finding spectacular artifacts from the large cone and that he should hurry down to the site. However, at home in Ohio, young Robert Bell had been in an accident that disabled his car and he didn’t have the money to get it repaired. It would be the following April, in 1936, before Robert Bell, his father, mother and nephew would be able to make the trip. By that time, the Pocola Mining Company lease had expired and the tunnels had been closed by dynamite. (See Photographs 19-21.) This photograph has been credited to H. T. Daniel by some sources. 

This picture was taken in the summer of 1935, looking into the main tunnel into the large or Great Mortuary Cone. The second, smaller tunnel to the left may be for ventilation. The people in the photograph are at far right, Bill Vandagriff and to his left is W. Guinn Cooper, and the McKenzies on the left. John Hobbs stated the main tunnel was on the northeast side of the large cone. (See Hamilton 1, Plates 4 and 5.) Therefore, this photograph is looking to the southwest at the northeast side of the mound. 

From the photograph, all of the trees on the mound are on the right side of the photograph or the east side of the mound. The left, or north, side of the mound is barren of trees. If we compare this observation with Photographs 6, 8 and 9, they show that most of the trees are on the east side of the mound, which would be on the left side of this photograph. This confirms that the main tunnel is on the northeast side of the main cone. The discussion with Photograph 21 also confirms this location for the main tunnel. Hamilton, who visited the mound during the first two weeks of the WPA digging, also placed the tunnel on the northeast side of the main cone.


Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph 32: Early January 1937, looking West-Southwest: Oblique view 3 levels and old tunnel entrance

This oblique view of the excavation profile gives a good perspective of the operation. One can see how that mound is being peeled away in ten-foot layers. Also, it can be seen how the high portions of the mound are being cut back in steps so that the front profile is of a manageable and safe height. In this case, the front profile is at the fifty-foot mark south in the north trench. This view is looking to the west-southwest. 

Using the two people on top of the cone and the man at the base of the mound for scale, the estimated height for the main cone of about thirty-four feet above ground level seems reasonable. On the left side of the photo, halfway up from the bottom, is the old Pocola Mining Company tunnel entrance. It has been dynamited and covered over to prevent entry. This is the northeast location of the tunnel as given by John Hobbs, one of the diggers.

Photograph provided by Phil J. Newkumet

Picture 2 - The Central Chamber Exposed

WPA excavations in 1937 showing the Central Chamber with the Pocola Mining Company tunnel. Photo taken after the upper portion of the large cone had been removed.

Photograph provided by Dr. Robert E. Bell

Photograph 47: June 1937, looking South-Southeast: Morning digging at features of the Great Mortuary

WPA excavations of June 1937 are shown looking down into the trenches. This photograph shows the cedar poles of litter feature XB7. (See Brown (1996) Figure 1-30.) Beyond that is a cache of conch shells located near features B155A and B. The profile wall in the background is Row 15 that runs east and west with the wall facing north. This view is looking south-southeast. Photograph 45 shows a group of women looking down at these features during a work break. A closer view can also been seen in Photograph 46. The conch shell deposits at ground level toward the back, near the profile where the man on the right is working, are shown in Photographs 48 and 49.

These features are on the southern portion of the Great Mortuary found in the middle of the main cone which was located at the north end of The Spiro Mound complex. The Pocola Mining Company originally discovered this when they tunneled into the central chamber cavity in the summer of 1935. Many of the most exotic artifacts came from this chamber. Note the face of the wall where the man is working to the right, near the conch shell cache. This portion of the cache is shown in Photograph 49.

At this time, the profiles were running perpendicular to true north. Therefore, the profile in the background is running east to west. If we look at the shovel handle standing straight up just to the right of center, then we can conclude this picture was taken in the morning because its shadow is pointing to the northwest. Just to the right of the shovel handle is feature B155A. (See Photograph 48.)

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