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Spiro Mounds site shell engravingOklahoma's Past

Cherokee County

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The Harlan Mound Site

Large earthen mound at Harlan site

Excavation at the largest of the Harlan mounds

The Harlan Site is the Oklahoma center and western edge of a development beginning at the end of the first millenium, the formation of an elite ruling class of priest/leaders who held sway over farming villagers occupying fertile river valleys in much of eastern North America. These leaders lived at mound centers where religious ceremonies were performed. The communities of farming people, growing corn, squash and beans, brought tribute to their leaders and provided the labor for the building of earthen mounds where temples and mortuary houses were built and in which elaborate burials of the honored dead were placed.

The first mound at Harlan was built around AD 700. However, the main mound-building began around AD 900 and continued for around 300 years. During that period, four more mounds were built up of dirt carried in from the local area. The largest mound is 130 by 160 feet in outline. Four different mound-building events over the period of Harlan's occupation brought the mound to its eventual height of 14 feet. The earliest mound covered a burned structure; the following building periods did not appear to cover structures but rather to provide a heightened stage where rituals were performed by the Harlan chiefs or priests.

Stone structure at base of oldest mound

Stones of structure buried under oldest mound at the Harlan site.

The other mounds were devoted to the care and treatment of the Harlan dead. Mortuary structures served as temporary houses for the dead. At four different periods of time, the mortuaries were completely cleaned out and the skeletal remains of the Harlan ancestors were reburied in a burial mound. Over time, the ceremonial offerings placed with these burials increased in number. They indicate the growing status of the leaders and increasing trade with other areas on the continent. Copper from the Great Lakes, conch shell from the Gulf Coast and galena, a mineral used to form grey pigment, from eastern Missouri show a vibrant community with extensive contacts with other chiefdoms throughout North America.

The people who actually lived at the site were few in number. Perhaps only the principal chief and a few retainers or perhaps only a caretaker lived at the site. Most of the structures excavated at Harlan were devoted to housing the dead.

Over the 300 years of its political power, the Harlan site chiefs extended their influence throughout the Arkansas River valley and perhaps even to the Ozark drainages in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. However, by AD 1250 the Harlan site had been abandoned. The Norman site in Wagoner county became ascendant for a short-lived period and then the Spiro site on the Arkansas River about 50 miles away became the most powerful and prestigious community in the area.


1972 Bell, Robert E. The Harlan Site, Ck-6, A Prehistoric Mound Center in Cherokee County, Eastern Oklahoma. Memoir 2. Oklahoma Anthropological Society, Norman

Number of Prehistoric Sites in Cherokee County Identified to Time Period

Paleo = ?-8,000 BP / Archaic = 8,000-2,000 BP / Woodland = 2,000-1,000 BP / Village 1000-500 BP
BP (before present)


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