Occasionally, archeologists excavate small objects made and used for personal ornamentation from archeological sites in Arkansas. Two earspools excavated from a Caddo site in the Ouachita Mountains give us a glimpse at the type of object that may have been used for everyday adornment or as part of ritual regalia.
In 1975 and 1976, Dr. Ann Early led excavations at the Standridge site (3MN53), an ancestral Caddo site near Caddo Gap in Montgomery County. Initially thought to be a residential location that would provide information on Mississippi period foodways and domestic life in the Ouachita Mountains, the site instead was a low earthen mound that contained a series of buildings, most of which were burned (Early 1988). The final event at the mound was a circular grave (Feature 9) for the burial of three people (the NAGPRA inventory was completed and published in the Federal Register in 2002, and the human remains and associated funerary objects from the grave have been repatriated to the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma).
The earspools were found in the structures, not in the grave. A circular structure (Feature 12) was the earliest building in the sequence; interpreted as domestic in function, it had not been burned. Six fragments of a stone earspool and a small piece of a second similar one were scattered on the floor of the building. Adjacent to Feature 12 was a special-purpose burned structure, Feature 18. These likely dated to the AD mid-1200s to 1300s. Later, additional square or rectangular special-purpose buildings were constructed in the same location (Features 8, 17, and 1) and used for ritual activities, and then burned and buried in the mid-1300s through 1400s. An earspool made from animal bone was on the floor of structure Feature 17. Another earspool, a fragment of a Foster-type ornament of sandstone, was excavated in an off-mound test unit (Early 1988).
The stone earspool, carved from tripoli (a weathered form of novaculite), is shaped like a ring with flanges on front and back. There are striations on the exterior surface of the ring or core, the part that would have been covered by the ear lobe when worn. The interior surface and the front flange have traces of red pigment. The earspool is 18mm wide and has a diameter ranging from 37 to 41mm.
The bone earspool is a smaller oval ring, measuring 11mm wide and 21 to 25mm in diameter. Made from animal bone, it forms a ring with flanges on front and back and a curved surface between forming the core. The earspool has been burned (calcined), either during the production process or, more likely, when structure Feature 17 burned.
Between AD 1000 and 1700, Caddo Indians living in what is now western Arkansas wore earplugs and earspools of varying sizes and styles made from bone, stone, ceramic, shell, and copper-covered wood (for examples, see Erickson 2018; Girard and Perttula 2016). These kinds of ornaments have been found in both mortuary and non-mortuary contexts. Three fragments of bone earspools, of similar form but smaller in size than the Standridge examples, were excavated from burned structural debris next to the main mound at the Hughes site (3SA11) in Saline County.
Nowadays, this type of flanged ring ear ornament would be called a “tunnel.” In the past—as today—people used hair styles, clothing, and body ornamentation to show their individuality, their community membership, and their social identity.
Early, Ann M.
1988 Standridge: Caddoan Settlement in a Mountain Environment. Research Series No. 29. Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.
Erickson, Denise Renée
2018 An Archaeological Study of the Earspools of the Arkansas River Valley and Surrounding Regions. Master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma, Norman. [https://shareok.org/]
A first principle of archeology is that the significance of artifacts depends upon documented information about the context of their discovery. At what site was the artifact found? Can we figure out the age of the artifact? Where was it found in relation to site features (houses, trash deposits, activity areas, etc.) and the distribution of other artifacts? Only with knowledge of those facts can we assess further information about the manufacture and use of artifacts, and their role in other spheres of activity such as social organization, trade and exchange, and religious practice.
In this series, we feature select artifacts that are extraordinary both for the context of their discovery and for their unique qualities that contribute exceptionally important information about Arkansas culture and history. New artifacts will be added monthly. Find the list of artifacts here.