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Spiro Mounds site shell engravingCultural Resource Management





Since its establishment some 35 years ago the Oklahoma Archeological Survey has been involved in a number of managerial activities concerning our state’s archaeological resources. Initially as a state agency and later as a partner in the federal review process, the Archeological Survey has participated in reviewing federal and many states activities that have the potential to affect Oklahoma’s cultural heritage. Here, the concern is with Oklahoma’s prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, federal agencies must take into account the potential affect of their actions on “cultural resources”. These actions are broadly defined to include activities by federal agencies on their land, the funding of activities on federal, Indian, state, or private land, the regulation of activities though federal permits, and where federal agencies render other kinds of assistance. The Archeological Survey also serves as the centralized repository for information on archaeological sites documented throughout Oklahoma, assigning state numbers to each site.

After participating in such a process for over three decades, it is prudent to inventory what has been accomplished during this time. The following represents an atlas of maps, charts, and tables documenting the extent of this work. Needless to say, not all these data are of the same level of accuracy or detail. The procedures we have used in our management practices have evolved over the years. For example, in the past, we did not keep track of the title of surveys being undertaken, this only started in the 1990s. The diversity of information has also expanded enormously in the 35 years of involvement.


A December 2004 inventory of reviews conducted under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act revealed that 41,640 projects or re-iterations of projects have been examined since 1977, the year that the Survey began to evaluate the effect of these projects (Table 1). If we include the 20,000 site file reviews completed for the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation since the 1990s, the total number is roughly 61,000 projects. Analyses of these undertakings reveal considerable variation at the county level. The average number of projects proposed at the county level from 1977 – 2004 is 517 with Harmon County having the lowest number (74) and Tulsa County, the greatest number (1679). When viewed as a county level distributional map, there are some general patterns in where more activities are represented (Figure 1). These include large federal land holdings (e.g., Le Flore, McCurtain, Roger Mills, and Comanche counties), counties where tribal governments are actively pursuing federal funds, and counties that have either large metropolitan areas (e.g., Tulsa, Oklahoma counties) or that have city planners that aggressively pursue development funds. Today, actions reviewed under the NHPA are derived from some 30 federal and state agencies and tribal governments. However, these can be broken down into five basic groups: oil and gas wells, gas pipelines, mining, road programs, and an umbrella of development related activities of numerous agencies (Figure 2). The workload conducted under the federal review program has grown steadily over the years. Although there are some gaps in studying these rates, the following chart documents substantial increases especially in the decade of the 1990s.

Section 106 Activities

While most activities submitted for review are cleared with no further concerns, some of these projects merit further consideration and a cultural resource survey is conducted. The survey is typically recommended when the activity will result in substantial ground disturbance and takes place in a setting that is sensitive for the potential presence of significant cultural resources or where a previously identified archaeological site is within the project area. Nine thousand one hundred seventy surveys were conducted between 1977 and 2004. (Since December 2004 the number of surveys has surpassed 10,000.) These range from a low of 31 surveys conducted in Harmon County to 494 surveys completed in Le Flore County, with an average of 199 per county (Table 2). These survey data by county are mapped in Figure 3. Counties with large numbers of surveys are broadly distributed around Oklahoma. However, these represent counties that contain large federal land holdings where surveys are more uniformly undertaken. Acreage examined in these survey totals some 426,132 acres or 665 square miles (Table 3). However, the average acreage per survey is only approximately 46 acres pointing to the fact that much of this work involved small tracts of land (frequently an acre or two). Mapping of survey efforts by acreage also reveals that counties that have the greatest number of field examinations do not always have the greatest acreage (Figure 4). For example, Comanche County has had only 106 surveys over this roughly 30 year span but the inventory efforts have covered 60,287 acres. The acreage survey also represents a remarkably small percentage of Oklahoma’s surface area (Table 4, Figure 5). If the area examined is calculated as a fraction per square mile, the average is .009117 square mile. Even Le Flore County which has the greatest number of surveys (494) and acreage examined (74,913) has but .074 square mile or less than one tenth of the county’s surface area surveyed for cultural resources. This number, of course, does not include the acreage examined by WPA archaeologists or archaeologists working for the Oklahoma River Basin Survey who inspected Oklahoma’s lakes built during the 1950s-1970s. It also does not include surveys for strictly research purposes or those that cross over between research and preservation planning. For example, it is estimated that Survey and Planning efforts sponsored by the State Historic Preservation Office/National Park Service over the past 25+ years have covered some 112,000 acres or roughly 175 square miles. These additional numbers, though, would not significantly increase the fractional square miles of surface area examined in most counties.


There are some 19,000 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites documented for Oklahoma (Table 5). Approximately 68% are strictly prehistoric sites, 24% represent exclusively historic sites, and 8% contain both prehistoric and historic components. The number by county range from a low of 19 in Alfalfa County to a high of 1318 in Le Flore County with a county average of 248 sites. When viewing the distribution of sites by county (Figure 6), there are some recognizable patterns. Counties that had few cultural resource investigations often also have few sites. An example is Alfalfa County where only 68 surveys have been accomplished; Alfalfa County also has the lowest number of recorded sites. Le Flore County, with the greatest number of surveys also has the largest county site total. There are some counties that are exceptions to this pattern. For example, counties in the panhandle and extreme northwest Oklahoma have high county site numbers as the consequence of Survey and Planning work over the past 10 years. Generally though, an increased number of investigations for federal actions has resulted in more sites being identified. Unfortunately, we cannot directly examine this relationship because there are sites that were recorded prior to the beginnings of the federal requirements for surveys as well as sites reported by private citizens or archaeologists conducting academically based research. Despite the substantial number of sites recorded, they probably represent but a fraction of those that exist in Oklahoma. Current sites densities per square mile are quite low, ranging from a low of .02/square mile in Alfalfa County to a high of .831/square mile in Le Flore County, with an average of .28/square mile (Table 6). This is depicted graphically in Figure 7.

Tallies for prehistoric sites by cultural period are also available for Oklahoma counties. These totals were derived from the computerized archaeological site data base OASIS a couple of years ago. The recording of cultural periods at prehistoric sites was based on narrative information in older site records and cultural period designations on newer forms (since 1982). Thus, these numbers may not be precise but they provide some general indications for the presence of prehistoric cultures in Oklahoma at given times in the past. It also must be cautioned that these numbers do not correlate well with the total number of prehistoric sites. This is because some prehistoric sites may be multiple component and contain evidence for two or more cultural periods. Or, in other cases, a prehistoric site may give no evidence of occupation by cultural period. The numbers may also contradict intuitive knowledge of some counties due to the manner in which some archaeologists defined cultural affiliation. For example, James Shafer considered sites with crudely made Ogallala quartzite dart points to be Archaic sites. However, this assumption may be unfounded and at least some of these sites may be of Woodland age. There are also cases where the researcher’s bias for a certain time period affected the documentation of a site. A site might contain Archaic and Village Farming components but if the archaeologist was only interested in the Village Farming culture, they might not mention the presence of Archaic materials.

The archaeological site files hold records of 228 sites with Paleoindian components dating to some 8000 to 20,000 years ago (or longer). It is not surprising that this reflects the lowest site density by cultural period (an average of 2.96 sites per county). The postulated low density of Paleoindian populations as well as the potential for these sites to be buried by natural processes has undoubtedly affected site densities compared to later cultural periods. However, the presence of greater numbers of Paleoindian sites in western Oklahoma may be a real phenomena rather than an artifact of this analysis. The tabulation of Paleoindian sites by county is presented in Table 7 and graphically portrayed in Figure 8.

There are 2193 sites that contain evidence of Archaic period occupation (Table 8). The large number of sites is exceeded only by that of the Village Farming period. However, it must be considered that the Archaic period lasted for some 6000 years. During much of this time, Archaic groups were mobile hunters and gatherers who moved to seasonally available resources. From this perspective, the number of Archaic sites is probably underrepresented. At least some Archaic sites have been lost as a consequence of natural processes operating during and at the end of the Altithermal (a period of warm, dry conditions some 4000-7000 years ago). Other sites within stream valleys were undoubtedly buried by some of these same natural forces bringing about deep alluvial deposits in valleys. The average number of sites is about 28 per county although the distributional map depicted in Figure 9 attests to their being substantially greater numbers of Archaic sites in eastern Oklahoma than in the western part of the state. This also may be a function of environmental conditions forcing people to move to more favorable settings in the woodlands of eastern Oklahoma from around 7000-4000 years ago. It probably required considerable time for western portions of the state to recover from the effects of the Altithermal and permit Archaic groups to repopulate the region.

The Woodland period is one of the shortest prehistoric eras, lasting for roughly 800 years (2000 to 1200 years ago). This, to some extent, accounts for the relatively low number of sites documented (942; Table 9). This averages to a remarkably low 12 sites per county. There may be factors, though, that are affecting these numbers. Woodland cultures are generally identified by the presence of arrowpoints and/or ceramics. There are probably numerous cases where such “labeling” has led to Woodland sites being identified as earlier Archaic occupations or subsequent Village Farming settlements. For example, sites that lack ceramics and rely on stylistic attributes of dartpoints may be identified as Archaic period sites. This is because numerous dartpoint styles were in use for thousands of years, having their origins in the Archaic and continuing into the Woodland. In other cases, sites with arrowpoints and ceramics may have been misidentified as Village Farming sites. In viewing the distribution of Woodland sites by county (Figure 10), the greatest densities are in eastern Oklahoma, especially in the southeastern part of the state.

The Village Farming period represents the most recent prehistoric occupation of Oklahoma (1200 to 450 years ago). Sites of the Village Farming period are the most frequently documented in Oklahoma. There are 2524 Village Farming sites with an average of approximately 33 per county (Table 10). The greater frequency of Village Farming sites for such as short duration of time is a function of the large population of native peoples at this time and also the relatively limited time that natural processes have had to mask the evidence of these sites. Sites of the Village Farming period also tend to be larger and sometimes to contain artificially constructed mounds, making sites more easily detected. A limited number of protohistoric occupations have also probably been identified as belonging to the Village Farming period. This is because of the similarity in their material culture and the fact that they represent a transition from Village Farming groups into the historic record. The distribution of Village Farming sites is shown in Figure 11. This map clearly depicts the widespread presence of these late prehistoric occupations throughout Oklahoma.

While not discussed here in as much detail as the prehistoric cultures, Oklahoma also has an extensive historic archaeological record. Currently, there are 6301 historic sites or sites with historic components (Table 11). This is a significant under representation of the true number of historic sites. While Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907, native societies from the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, Plains, and even the Southwest were relocated to “Indian Territory” from the 1830s through the 1870s. When Oklahoma Territory was opened to homesteading beginning in the late 1880s, thousands of farms and towns sprang up virtually overnight. Unfortunately, much of the archaeological record resulting from such historic settlement was neglected until legislation providing consideration of all cultural resources was brought into effect in the 1970s. Even then, many Depression and Dust Bowl era sites were not documented because of their relatively recent history (ca. less than 50 years old). The distribution of historic occupations is depicted in Figure 12. This map shows historic sites as a composite rather than by discrete cultural periods as was done with prehistoric sites. This is because of the difficulty in refining many of the historic occupations or there is insufficient data to determine the site’s historic era.

This overview has been compiled to provide archaeologists and resource managers with basic numbers concerning Oklahoma’s management activities and the general character of the archaeological site files that we maintain. These data may be used in your reports and documents as long as they are appropiately referenced and cited. More detailed and specific information on the archaeological site files and management related activities are available from the Oklahoma Archeological Survey and the State Historic Preservation Office, Oklahoma Historical Society.

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Oklahoma Archeological Survey 111 E. Chesapeake Norman OK 73019-5111 (405)325-7211 Contact Webmaster: archsurvey@ou.edu

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