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Cleveland County

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Cleveland County, Oklahoma

The Thunderbird Dam Site

Various projectile points from the Thunderbird Dam Site

Late Archaic and Woodland projectile points from the Thunderbird Dam Site

The Little River in central Oklahoma flows in a southeasterly direction from its headwaters in northern Cleveland County to its confluence with the South Canadian River in Hughes County. In Cleveland County the Little River flows through the Cross Timbers, that dense stand of forest dominated by post oaks and blackjack oaks that Washington Irving called "forests of cast iron." The river carries a heavy load of iron-rich sediment and is muddy red in color. In the 1960s, the US Bureau of Reclamation dammed the river to form a water reservoir for Norman, Del City and Midwest City known as Lake Thunderbird. The impoundment flooded around 6,000 acres of Cross Timbers.

Construction of the earthen dam disturbed a high terrace about 275 yards south of the river. Later, as the lake filled, the terrace west of the dam was flooded; a portion of the terrace was exposed during dry periods until wave action eroded enough of the terrace to completely submerge it. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, evidence of a prehistoric occupation of the terrace was uncovered as waves battered the terrace remnant. A salvage excavation at the site was undertaken by the Oklahoma Anthropological Society in 1970 and a 1985 excavation east of the dam confirmed that the dam construction destroyed most of the site.

From the information gathered during excavations at this site and others along the Little River, it appears that people lived in this area for many thousands of years including during the four-thousand year drought of the Altithermal which started around 8.500 years ago and turned most of Oklahoma into a vast desert.

The Thunderbird Dam site itself appears to have been used during the Late Archaic and Woodland periods, likely from around 500 BC to 1,000 AD. Hunters found the ridge a good camping spot near water and plentiful game animals including deer and turkey. The period of occupation marked several important transitions in Oklahoma prehistory. Around 1 AD, people began using a bow and arrow rather than earlier darts and spears. The arrows required smaller points and this transition is evident at the Thunderbird Dam site where both dart and arrow points were found. Also around the same time, the technological innovation of fired-clay vessels for cooking and storage occurred in this part of Oklahoma. Cordmarked pottery, characteristic of the Woodland period, was recovered from the site. Cordmarking was accomplished on the surface of the pottery by wrapping a wooden paddle in twine and patting the paddle into the surface of the still damp clay.

Archeologists believe that for around 1,500 years ago, hunting groups frequently camped for brief stays on this ridge overlooking the Little River. While the impoundment of Lake Thunderbird effectively destroyed the site, excavations and analysis of the materials collected from the site give us a glimpse into the lives of these hunter-gatherers of central Oklahoma.

Knife Blades from the Thunderbird Dam Site

Chipped stone knife blades from the Thunderbird Dam Site

For further reading: Archeological Investigations within the Central Little River Drainage Basin, Cleveland and Pottawatomie Counties Oklahoma by Michael C. Moore, Archeological Survey Report No. 31, Oklahoma Archeological Survey, University of Oklahoma, 1988.

Number of Prehistoric Sites in Cleveland County Identified to Time Period

Chart showing distribution of prehistoric site recorded in Cleveland County

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

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