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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Parts & Pieces

What do you see in this photo? (click photo to see larger image)

Miscellaneous Metal

Objects from a bag originally labelled “miscellaneous metal” (former 2010.99.3029

On the surface, it is a random pile of metal. But these aren’t just miscellaneous items, even though the bag they were stored in was originally labeled “miscellaneous metal”! They are artifacts that add to the story of a site. They are evidence of the things people used and the activities in which they participated. These are objects that were utilized, stored, discarded, lost, or left by people who lived at, worked at, or passed through Fort Rice (32MO102).

Part of the fun in sorting a bag of small parts and pieces is figuring out what they are—discovering that the pieces are part of something. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the items in that pile.

This plain-looking piece of metal is a tobacco twist or plug tag.

Tobacco twist tag

The artifact: a tobacco twist tag (2010.99.7493)

Both tobacco plugs and twists were used for pipe smoking or as chewing tobacco. Tobacco twists are formed by rolling and twisting tobacco leaves into a tight rope-like form. Cut blocks of pressed tobacco are called plugs. The tags were attached to the twists by a long prong while plug tags were attached with two short prongs. The tags were used to identify the tobacco brand. Any trace of a logo or decoration has worn off of this tag. Most tobacco tags were colorful like this more intact example from the site of Fort Berthold I.

Tobacco twist tag

An example: a tobacco twist tag from Fort Berthold I fort site (12711.144)

Some artifacts are only small parts of a larger object—like this item. It is a bolster (an end piece) from a pocket knife.

Pocket knife bolster

The part: a pocket knife bolster (2010.99.7477)

Pocket knives

Examples: almost complete pocket knives from Fort Rice. See where the bolsters fit? (2010.99.6179 & 2010.99.6187, photos by Doug Wurtz & David Nix – edited SHSND)

These odd looking fragments are pieces of friction primers used to ignite the gun powder in artillery.

Friction primer fragments

Parts: friction primer fragments (2010.99.7480, photo by Doug Wurtz – edited SHSND)

Friction primers

Examples: more complete friction primers also from Fort Rice (1987.85.98-99)

These are pieces of military insignia. There are at least three different types of hat insignia and what appears to be part of a regiment number or company letter in this group.

Military insignia fragments

Parts: military insignia fragments (2010.99.7487)

Cavalry hat insignia

Example: a complete cavalry hat insignia for an enlisted man, from Fort Rice (12003.2445, photo by Doug Wurtz – edited SHSND)

Model 1858 dress hat pin

Example: a Model 1858 dress hat (Hardee hat) pin from Fort Rice (2010.99.6132, photo by Doug Wurtz – edited SHSND)

Cavalry dress helmet insignia

Example: an enlisted man’s cavalry dress helmet insignia from Fort Rice (2010.99.6144, photo by Doug Wurtz –edited SHSND)

This is part of a shoulder scale turnkey or button base.

Button or turnkey base from shoulder scale

The part: a button or turnkey base from a shoulder scale (2010.99.7488)

Shoulder scales (a type of epaulet sometimes called brass scales, or metallic scales) were used as part of military uniform and were worn on the shoulders. The turnkey helped attach the main part of the shoulder scale to the rest of the uniform. Shoulder scales are made from many distinct pieces.

Turnkey or button from shoulder scale

Example: a complete turnkey or button from a shoulder scale from Fort Rice (2010.99.3493)

Attachment parts for shoulder scale

Example: attachment parts for a shoulder scale, right- the attachment pieces, middle - how the attachment pieces fit together, right – how the turnkey looks when fit attached to the complete shoulder scale (all pieces from Fort Rice)

Of course there are many other items visible in the first photo. Other artifacts so far identified in this group of objects include pieces of lead shot, a thumb tack, buckles, buttons, pencil leads, rivets, bell fragments, pocket watch parts, and even part of an earring! Two non-metal items were found in same bag as well. If you are up to the challenge, see if you can find the light blue glass bead and abalone shell fragment in the first photo! I’ll post the answer below.

How do you identify things you don’t recognize? I’ve had a lot of help identifying these and other objects. Asking other people is a good start--other staff at the historical society (museum, archives, education, paleontology, archaeology and historic preservation staff, even custodial staff), researchers, as well as volunteers and members of the public have all helped me. Online sources can also be helpful—like research blogs, re-enactment discussions, and museum websites. And of course, it is still hard to beat a really good book when looking for information (for instance, The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880 by Douglas C. McChristian was very helpful with many of the objects in this post).

Bead and shell pointed out from first photo

Did you find the glass bead and piece of shell in the first photo?

Year of the Plesiosaur


In the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Monkey. If Paleontology had a calendar, it would be the Year of the Plesiosaur! Northeastern North Dakota is well known for its underwater fauna. Mosasaurs (giant marine reptiles) swam alongside Archelon (giant sea turtles), Hesperornis (flightless birds), as well as plenty of fish and squid. Another type of marine reptile lived here that many people identify with the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie) – a plesiosaur.

Cartoon plesiosaur and scupture of Loch Ness Monster

Right: Sculpture of the Loch Ness Monster

Brief science lesson: plesiosaurs are a group of marine reptiles that contain a number of divisions. One group, the Pliosauroidea, had large heads and short necks. The other group, Plesiosauroidea, in general had small heads and long necks. Prior to their descriptions in 1824, they were grouped together with other marine reptiles, and sometimes even fish. Since then many shapes and sizes have been found – but few from North Dakota.

As of 2015, the State Fossil Collection had two elasmosaurid (reaaaallly long neck) vertebrae. One is on display in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time of the North Dakota Heritage Center, and the other is on display in Icelandic State Park. During the National Fossil Day event last October, a private citizen turned in another vertebra found south of Bismarck. In spring 2016, paleontologists Clint Boyd and Jeff Person made a road trip down to the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman. Behold – more! Not just one vertebra, but 15 articulated neck bones, plus bits of a partial skeleton! Then, icing on the cake – During our Pembina Gorge dig, a local brought in some bones to have them identified – yet another plesiosaur vertebra, this time from the body. The creatures were coming out of the woodwork from all across the state – it was amazing.

Plesiosaur vertebrae

Vertebrae from the articulated neck of a plesiosaur. Fifteen were collected; one neck had around 70 vertebrae.

The next steps will be to fully prepare the material found, and then identify who it belongs to. Saying “plesiosaur” is like saying “dog.” It’s a general term that gets a basic body shape in mind (notice the lower-case letter and non-italics). What we want to know are the specifics. Saying “Elasmosaurus” or “Styxosaurus” would be like saying German Shepherd and Scottish Terrier – a narrower description (also uppercase first letter and italics).

It is important to note – plesiosaurs are not dinosaurs. They are marine reptiles. For example, if we take a dog (land mammal), and a dolphin (water mammal) – both are mammals, both can coexist, but they are not closely related. It is the same with a plesiosaur (water reptile), and a dinosaur (land reptile).