Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 4, No. 2
June, 1926

J. B. Thoburn

Page 143

Our work began in the latter part of May, 1925, in Delaware County, Oklahoma, which is in the northeastern part of the state and which borders on both Arkansas and Missouri. In its area is embraced a part of the western extremity of the Ozark Uplift. It is rich in prehistoric remains, since there are numerous caves, caverns and overhanging shelter ledges in the Boone Chert formation which were used as habitations by the Stone Age man. Mounds of the true Mound Builder type are to be found along several of the valleys and the smaller tumuli (domiciliary) of the comparatively recent Caddoan era are fairly common in certain localities. Thus far, we have not found any chert quarries within the limits of Delaware County, though there are some very extensive quarries of this class in the neighboring county to the north (Ottawa), which were examined and explored by Dr. William H. Holmes, of the Bureau of American Ethnology more than twenty-five years ago.

The particular objects selected for excavation and examination during the season to be spent in that locality were (1) a cave, situated about three miles west and slightly south of the town of Grove, and (2) a mound located five miles north of the same place. My principal assistants were Mr. Otto F. Spring, whose boyhood and early youth had been spent in the community in which this work was to be done, had been educated in the University of Oklahoma, where his major

Page 144

course was in geology, and Mr. Harry C. Robertson, of Blackwell, Oklahoma, who had just received his bachelor’s degree from Phillips University, at Enid. As a boy not yet through with his highschool[sic] course, Mr. Spring had worked with me in the summer of 1916. Mr. Robertson had done considerable work on his own account in his home county, with some advisory assistance from me. We had a number of voluntary helpers, nearly all of whom were college and university students. We also employed the services of several laborers who were secured locally.

With a small group of student helpers, I had worked out the mouth of the same cave, in the summer of 1916, when the interior was also partially explored. At that time, I succeeded in gaining access to a rather large chamber, situated at a distance of about 200 feet from the mouth of the cave by a very circuitous passage, though but a fraction of that distance in a direct line. This interior chamber had evidently been inhabited but the original entrance had been sealed up and all surface traces thereof had disappeared. In arranging for the resumption of work in this cave, in 1925, it was my hope to be able to locate and reopen the former entrance to this chamber. Unfortunately, the remote and rather tortuous passage, through which I had gained entrance to this chamber in 1916, proved to have been entirely filled with a drift of clay during the intervening period. An effort was therefore made to drive a tunnel through to this chamber by a direct course from the mouth of the cave, the distance between the two being estimated at from forty to fifty feet, with the material to be excavated consisting of a mixture of broken stones and heavy clay. Because of the excessive moisture due to a low temperature in the cave and the consequent condensation of water from the humid air currents passing through from the exterior, the work had to be discontinued until a cooler season and it has not since been resumed.

Another chamber of large floor area, but with a very low roof, was explored and found to be much more readily accessible. Its floor contents we a removed and carefully sifted, resulting in the finding of good collection of specimens of Stone Age arts and crafts. The roof and floor of this chamber were so close together as to suggest that, unless the former

Page 145

had settled, this part of the cave could scarcely have been used far domiciliary purposes. It therefore seemed possible that the implements, weapons and utensils found therein might have drifted thither, especially as the floor seemed to slope downward in a direction toward the side of the chamber which was farthest from the edge of the bluff. Then, when further excavation revealed the fact that the edge of the chamber next to and parallelling the face of the bluff ended in a fault or perpendicular slide, it became apparent that the chamber itself had once been a backward extension of a much more roomy rock shelter, the front of which might be found to have collapsed as the result of some sort of a cataclysm. Accordingly, we started a cutting from the face of the hill or bluff in front of this chamber, back to the outer edge of the same. This resulted in fining abundant evidence to the effect that there had been just such a collapse of the roof of a rock shelter which had been inhabited, its floor now being buried beneath a deposit of from six to fifteen feet of rock and drift material from further up the slope.

The specimens secured from this cave included implements and weapons of chert and other forms of silicious rock, polished stone ornaments, bone implements and ornaments, beads fashioned from shell, bone, ivory and from teeth of animals, earthenware pottery (in fragmentary condition), bones and teeth of many game animals, bones of game birds, bivalve shells of many species, and bones and teeth of human beings, some of the human bones being in such fragmentary or charred conditions as to be suggestive of cannibalism. Nearly all of the bones of game animals had been cracked or broken for the evident purpose of extracting the marrow.

In cutting the passage from the main corridor of the cave into the low chamber a few feet to one side, it became necessary to remove by blasting with small charges of dynamite a large rock, sixteen inches thick and having about thirty-six cubic feet of material. It was evident that this rock had been embedded in the floor of the chamber for ages, yet, when it was removed, the clay underneath was found to contain fragments of bone which had been artificially broken, thus indicating that there had been an era of occupancy much more ancient than that which we were then investigating.

The mound, mentioned in the beginning of this report,

Page 146

was located in the valley of the Elk, or Cowskin River, within a mile of the confluence of that stream with the Grand, or Neosho River. It had been cone-shaped, originally, with an altitude of fourteen feet and a basic diameter of thirty-three feet. It had been constructed of light-colored clay, in which water-worn pebbles were of frequent occurrence, and, when completed, had been covered with a layer of black loam soil about eight inches thick. It was surrounded by a dense forest growth and trees of varying sizes were found growing on its surface.

Unfortunately, several years before our work began, this mound had been invaded and torn open at the top by vandals, at the instance of a commercial collector. Following the discovery of this trespass, the owner of the property had hired inexperienced and unskilled help and continued the operations for a time. Naturally, the work was more or less clumsily performed and many artifacts were destroyed or lost. Moreover, there was no attempt made to keep any notes or records of the work and its results. Most of the collection—and the best of it—was sent by the owner to an eastern museum. In consequence of all this, we were privileged to excavate only a little more than one-third of the bulk of the mound. As previously stated, the mass of the mound was composed of a light-colored, compact clay. This, with the steep slope of the surface, resulted in an absence of visible moisture throughout the greater part of the mass and its dissection was difficult and tedious in consequence.

That this mound had been built ceremonially was quite evident. On the ground level, and approximately at the center of the base, there was found a group of three small ceremonial stone pipes. From the design of these I was led to the belief that they were of proto-Siouan origin. If so, the construction of this mound must have antedated the settlement of the Siouan peoples on the Atlantic Coast. If such be the case, this should serve as a clue to the prehistoric migrations of at least one important linguistic stock. It did not appear that the mound had been designed for purposes of sepulture. Scattered throughout its bulk were many specimens of earthenware pottery, mostly broken, together with copper implements and ornaments, all seemingly deposited as votive offerings. The earthenware consisted principally of

Page 147

bowls and water bottles, nearly all of which were well made and gave convincing evidence of an artistic taste and skill of a high order. A number of pairs of pulley-shaped, deeply grooved stone ear ornaments were also among the items found. Most of these had had the obverse face or flange encased in a thin sheet of copper which fit perfectly, whether the surface be plain and smooth or ornamented with etchings or rely f carvings, were found, as also several thin, flameshaped or serpentine copper ornaments which might have been used in decorating a shield or a headdress. Among the copper implements were small, double pointed spindles and a tube that might have been used as a blowpipe.

If the mound had not been originally designed for the interment of the dead, it certainly had been diverted to such use in a more recent period. Scattered over its sloping surface were the evidences of not less than fifty shallow, intrusive burials. With several of these were found typical specimens of the modern Siouan ceremonial pipes, thus indicating the presence of people of some one of the tribes which compose the southern division of the Siouan stock—probably Osage. It would therefore seem not unlikely that these intrusive surface burials had been made within the past two centuries.

Although we were not privileged to work out the whole mound, which would have been highly desirable, we secured a valuable collection of artifacts and, with it, a goodly stock of pertinent information which may prove to be equally valuable in comparison with the results attained in the excavation of similar earthworks elsewhere. There are numerous other tumuli of the true Mound Builder type in Oklahoma but whether all of these were of the same cultural origin remains to be determined.

After finishing the work undertaken on the mound and in the cave, the scene of operations was changed to a rock shelter, distant about three miles in a northwesterly direction from the cave. Several weeks were spent in excavating ash deposits at this site. The resulting finds seemed to indicate the remains of two, and possibly three, cultural eras, one being the same as that of the cave and the other still more ancient. The expediency of doing more extended work in other caves and underneath other rock shelters of that re-

Page 148

gion in order to make possible the farther study and the snore complete identification of these several cultures is apparent.

Available funds for the continuance of the fieldwork having been exhausted, the work had to be discontinued for a time. After an interval of a few weeks, limited funds were secured from private subscriptions, whereupon the work was resumed, the scene of operations being shifted to Boone County, Arkansas, where the contents of two caves were excavated and thoroughly searched. One of these, located near the village of Everton and commonly known as the Brewer cave, proved to be of a culture distinct from that of the cave on the bank of Honey Creek, resembling if not identical with that of the rock shelter in Delaware County, while the other, locally known as Saltpetre cave, distant about six or seven miles from Everton, was apparently of the same culture, yet with such marked distinctions as to suggest pronounced variation in habits. The contents of another large cave, distant about twenty miles from Everton, were examined and seemed to be of a culture entirely distinct from either of the others. As the result of our work in the caves and rock shelters, limited though it may seem to have been, we have been impressed with the importance of a concerted effort on the part of several competent investigators in the way of a proper differentiation and adequate identification of the several cave cultures of that region.

In conclusion, I wish to state that, as the result of recently secured subscriptions from private sources, we have resumed work, with the scene of operations again shifted, this time to Kay County, on the Arkansas River, near the Kansas boundary, where several chert quarries and village sites—the latter of Caddoan origin and dating back not much if any more than two centuries—are to be worked. Later on, some time during the summer season, we want to undertake the dissection of a rather large mound which is in reality the ruin of a considerable pueblo, once inhabited by a stock of people who tried to practice agriculture by means of irrigation in northwestern Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas, some centuries since.


Return to top

Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site