Dr. Lee Bement

Mystery of the Cooper Skull

Dr. Lee Bement recounts the mysterious story behind unearthing the Cooper Skull in 1994. This bison skull is the oldest painted object ever found in North America.

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Red Lightning Strikes Twice

It's an unassuming sign on a lonely road 20 miles from the nearest town.

IMG_0409_HDR_L.jpgBut just beyond this gate, in 1994, Lee unearthed one of the most significant artifacts found in North America. The object itself would prove as haunting as the site where it was discovered. 

middle_kill.jpgSome 10,000 years ago, the Cooper Site in northwestern Oklahoma was a dead-end gully into which Folsom hunters herded bison for the slaughter. Cooper was unique in it's stratigraphy; bones from three separate bison kill episodes were stacked atop each other like layers of cake. Lee was excavating the lowest bone layer when he made his discovery.

bonebeds copy.jpg

It had been a sweltering summer. The archaeologists were two weeks into their excavation, meticulously brushing soil from femurs and rib cages while exchanging small talk across the sprawling bed of bones.

"Every so often somebody would drop out of the conversation," Lee recalled. "And you knew they found something, usually a projectile point."

On this particular day, it was Lee who went silent. Something peeking out from beneath a couple of leg bones caught his eye. 

"I began cleaning it off, and saw it was this sun-bleached skull with a brilliant red zigzag design on it. Everyone gathered around, nobody said a word, just stood there staring at it, wondering, is this thing real?"

IMG_0196_L.jpgNothing like it had ever been seen. The design, known as a lightning bolt, was unmistakeably man-made.

"When you find something like that, you're very careful in cleaning it up," Lee said. "We took a gazillion photos of it."

Nearby, the crew found the animal's skeleton, suggesting the skull had not been taken to or away from the site. The implications were profound. Lee and his crew wanted other archaeologists to witness the skull where it lay, but this was the pre-cell phone era. They carefully draped a cloth over the skull, covered that with a dustpan and some more soil, and headed back to town to make phone calls.

"It had been absolutely dry for the past month," Lee said. "That night, we got two inches of rain."

Lee and the others feared the worst: that after being buried for 10,000 years, the sudden deluge would wash away the paint.

"When we went back to the site, everything was mud. So we let it all dry out, then slowly peeled off the cloth, and there it was, the red lightning bolt intact."

The skull was taken to a lab, where the red hematite paint radiocarbon dated to roughly 10,500 years ago. That makes the Cooper skull the oldest painted object ever discovered in North America. The image below represents where a Folsom hunter or perhaps a shaman painted several designs. Only the lightning bolt was visible to the naked eye. The story doesn't end there, however.
Skull.jpgSix years passed. The skull was documented, conserved, and studied. Papers and books were written about it. Then, in 2000, the brand new Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History was constructed. The skull would find a permanent home in an exhibit dedicated to the Folsom culture, surrounded by a re-created Cooper site and protected by a plexiglass cube.

"The night before the grand opening," Lee recalled, "a freak thunderstorm came through with such intense rain that it clogged the drain system on the roof. The water was diverted and found its way into the building, where it ran across the ceiling and trickled down, directly on top of the case holding the skull."

Coincidence? Maybe, Lee said. "But that was the only leak in the whole building."

museum_exhibit.jpgThe skull, Lee believes, served a talismanic purpose for the Folsom hunters as a pre-hunt charm placed at the dead end of the gully to draw animals to the kill. Later bison-hunting cultures are known to have conducted ritual bison-calling ceremonies to bring themselves safety and success.

"We can't make a direct connection between modern hunters and what was happening 10,000 years ago," Lee says. "But we can assume that when hunting large, dangerous animals, you wanted as much good luck as you could get."

No other Paleoindian painted objects have been found in North America. But a mammoth skull decorated with geometric designs, including zigzags, was discovered in Russia in the 1980's. Lee hopes the Cooper skull will help archaeologists further link the earliest cultures of North America to the Old World.

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