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The Beadmaker Archaeological Site: Part I

The Beadmaker site is a Plains Village-era campsite located near the Heart River in Grant County, and was occupied around AD 1600-1650 by Mandan peoples. Unlike the large villages in the Knife-Heart Region of the Missouri River—such as Double Ditch, Larson, and Knife River Indian Villages—Beadmaker was a smaller site that likely served as a base camp from which people hunted and gathered food in the Heart River valley. Bison were an especially important resource, providing meat, furs, and bone for toolmaking. As you may have guessed from the site name, manufacturing stone beads was also an important activity at this camp. Beadmaker is a significant site because it gives archaeologists insight into what Mandan people did when they weren’t living in large villages. Not only does Beadmaker tell us what foods people ate, tools they used, and ornaments they made, but also how they connected with the land and viewed their world.

I am currently cataloging the Beadmaker artifacts, which means I examine interesting objects that tell us about the everyday life of Mandan people living 400 years ago. The most important part of cataloging objects is to maintain provenience—or the specific location the artifact was found within the site. This includes northing, easting, and depth or elevation (you can think of these as X, Y, Z coordinates plotted in 3D space). To maintain provenience, each artifact is assigned an object number, and that number is linked to within-site location data. Without this contextual information, archaeologists lose the ability to perform meaningful research of the objects.

Imagine finding a projectile point (or arrowhead) at a site: not only would you be extremely excited, you would also want to know the context of this find: Is it in a trash pit? Inside a house? Lodged in a deer bone? Bundled with several other projectile points? Each of these examples results in a different behavioral interpretation for what people were doing with that projectile point—if it was in a trash pit, it may have been tossed by someone who no longer needed it; if it was inside a house, maybe it was accidentally left behind when people traveled to another place; if it was lodged in a deer bone, maybe the hunter couldn’t retrieve his or her point even after butchering the deer; if it was bundled with other points, maybe these weapons were cached for future use. See how the story of people’s behaviors and decisions changes with the context of the artifact in question? Without provenience data, we are left with an object that may be pretty, but does not give us much information about how people lived.

So far, the bone tools and chipped stone tools from Beadmaker have been cataloged. Here are some of my favorites:

Bison metapodial (lower leg bone)

This is part of a bison metapodial (lower leg bone) that was scored deeply with a stone tool to facilitate breaking the shaft. The rest of the metapodial was then broken off, and may have been turned into a bone tool such as a flesher. We didn’t find the remaining part of the bone—perhaps its manufacturer carried it with to the next place they camped.

Bison metapodial bone flesher

Example of a bison metapodial bone flesher from the Bede Uses His Arrow site in Sioux County.

Bone beads and beadmaking debris

Bone beads (top row) and beadmaking debris (bottom row). The ends of long bones of small mammals and birds were scored to create a perforation. The beadmaker then detached the shaft from the ends and polished the bone to create a tubular bead or ornament.

Pians Side-Notched and variants projectile points

The most common projectile point form at Beadmaker is Plains Side-Notched and variants of this type. By the time people lived at Beadmaker, the bow and arrow had already been in use in North Dakota for a thousand years.

Projectile point types

Other projectile point types from Beadmaker (left to right): Avonlea-like, Prairie Side-Notched, Plains Triangular, Plains Triangular, and oversized side-notched point. The Avonlea-like point is made from obsidian, and probably comes from west of the Dakotas where obsidian outcrops. Even though Avonlea points are generally from an earlier time period, they also occur at On-a-Slant Village, a Plains Village site occupied the same time as Beadmaker.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the Beadmaker Site blog, featuring stone bead production!