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Spiro Mounds site shell engravingOklahoma's Past

Haskell County

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The Tyler Site

The Tyler site represents a two acre area now inundated by waters of the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir. It was excavated in the 1960's during salvage operations before the dam for the lake was completed.

Thirteen storage and trash pits, one burial and several postholes were uncovered during the excavation. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the pits has determined that the site was occupied in the early 1500's, probably just before extensive contacts by native Americans of the Southeast and Southwest with Spanish explorers like DeSoto and Coronado. Archaeologists have named this period which follows the collapse of the great Spiro Mounds center as the Fort Coffee phase.

Artifacts recovered from the Tyler site. The deer rib bone rasp (upper part of the image)
may have been used as a musical instrument.

In the Fort Coffee phase, the centralized leadership of the mound centers no longer holds sway over the outlying farming villages. The close ties to other chiefdoms throughout the Southeast has given way to more localized, independent communities.

The climate has changed so that less rainfall may make agriculture riskier. Some traits common to the Plains areas to the west have become more common at Fort Coffee phase sites including storage pits like those found at Tyler and increasing use of bison. While archaeologists do not understand all the changes occurring during this period of Oklahoma's prehistory, research is continuing and some interesting trends have been noticed.

In the earlier period, when the elite rulers of the area, first at the Harlan site, next at the Norman site and then later at the Spiro site, controlled a centralized society, rituals performed at the mound center are believed to have helped maintain the aura of the ruling class's power. Important among these ceremonies were smoking rituals. Tobacco was a sacred plant and the pipes used during its smoking were elaborate. Effigy pipes and T-shaped pipes were found almost exclusively at the mound centers.

A double-bowl T-shape pipe from the Spiro site

During the Fort Coffee phase, the T-shaped pipes and effigy pipes are no longer in use. They have been replaced by a simpler, smaller elbow-shaped pipe. Dr. Robert Brooks, Oklahoma's state archaeologist, has proposed that this change in pipe form reflects greater changes in society between the two periods. The elbow pipes of the Fort Coffee phase were passed from person to person in a smoking ceremony (this kind of ceremony was documented during historic times for various native American groups). Imagine, though, the difference in a ritual involving one of the large effigy pipes. These pipes were certainly not passed from person to person; rather, the individual approached the pipe and partook of the tobacco. Or, with the T-shaped pipes, perhaps a visiting dignitary from an outlying village was allowed to smoke with a paramount ruler at the mound center thus symbolically conferring power on that person.

A typical elbow pipe from LeFlore county

Two pipes of the simpler form were recovered at the Tyler site. Although the site no longer exists since the excavations and later inundation by the reservoir have destroyed it, the careful archaeology completed in 1966 has left a legacy from which archaeologists will be answering questions about Oklahoma prehistory for many years into the future.



Burton, Robert J., Tyler Bastian, and Terry J. Prewitt, "The Tyler Site" in Archaeological Site Report No. 13, Oklahoma River Basin Survey, University of Oklahoma Research Institute, Norman, OK 1969


Number of Prehistoric Sites in Haskell 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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