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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!

Brooke Morgan's blog

Revisiting Old Collections: Native American Pottery from the Jennie Graner Site

The most interesting discoveries an archaeologist can make occasionally involve artifacts collected decades earlier. I happened upon such a discovery while preparing to carry out fieldwork on behalf of a federal agency. While conducting background research, I learned the State Historical Society houses a small ceramic assemblage originally collected in 1938. These 73 ceramic rims and body sherds represent the bulk of artifacts collected from site 32MO12, or the Jennie Graner site. My search for information about the pottery itself, as well as the history of previous research at the site, led me on a winding path through archival records and the handwritten notes of Thaddeus C. Hecker, a former archaeologist with the State Historical Society.

Hecker is probably most well-known to archaeologists who have read his and George Will’s inventory of Plains Village sites along the Missouri River in North Dakota1. Previous to this 1944 publication, Hecker and other archaeologists working for the state identified a Plains Village site on the west bank of the Missouri River near the town of Huff. At that time, the site was on the property of Jennie Graner and was named after her. Although Hecker collected pottery in 1938, there is no indication that he conducted excavations at the site:

The first time I visited this site I found a lodge floor in the cut-bank where an unusual amount of pottery of various designs in decoration had weathered out. The rim-sherds were rather thick and all decorations were punch incised; also a number of designs in decoration were different than I had seen before…The pottery of this site is undoubtedly of Mandan Culture.2

Thaddeus C. Hecker

Thaddeus C. Hecker, 1938. (State Historical Society of North Dakota C3717-00001)

Although Jennie Graner is considered an earthlodge village site, no remnants of earthlodges or middens are visible on the surface like they are at other Mandan sites such as Huff and Double Ditch villages. There is also no evidence of a palisade or ditch at Jennie Graner. Perhaps the Mandans who lived there did not need a protective wall around their village—or perhaps evidence of lodges and ditches have been obliterated by farming and construction activities. Even in 1944, Will and Hecker reported that the site was eroding into the river and was severely impacted by modern earthmoving activities.

Aerial view of Huff Indian Village State Historic Site

Aerial view of Huff Village State Historic Site, located south of the Jennie Graner site. Note earthlodge depressions and fortification ditch. (State Historical Society of North Dakota 00630-04)

The age of the Jennie Graner site is unknown, but Will and Hecker referred to it as “Archaic Mandan,” or what archaeologists now call the Extended Middle Missouri. The latest regional chronology of village sites gives the Extended Middle Missouri an age range of AD 1200-14003. Ceramic analysis suggests Jennie Graner would fall toward the end of this age range, possibly in the late 1300s or early 1400s. Pottery styles and designs changed through time, but these changes did not happen overnight. New styles were tested and incorporated slowly, resulting in many ceramic forms occurring contemporaneously. Four types of ceramic “ware” have been identified from this site. The earliest wares are Riggs ware and Fort Yates ware. These are followed chronologically by Stanton ware and Sanger ware, respectively4. Riggs and Stanton wares have straight rims, while Fort Yates and Sanger wares have S-rims. The presence of transitional forms between Riggs and Stanton, and between Fort Yates and Sanger, suggests potters at Jennie Graner may have been experimenting with vessel construction and decoration.

Ware rim

Left: (a) Riggs ware rim. Note the tall rim and location of tool impressions directly on the lip; (b) Transitional form between Riggs and Stanton wares. Rim height is shorter, and tool impressions appear lower on the rim; (c) Stanton ware rim. Addition of fillet with tool impressions well below the lip of the rim. (All specimens SHSND 7123)
Right: (a) Fort Yates ware rim. The juncture of the rim and neck is angular; (b) Transitional form between Fort Yates and Sanger wares. The juncture is less angular and becoming more curved; (c) Sanger ware rim. The juncture between the rim and neck is curved. (All specimens SHSND 7123)

Jennie Graner is on land managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Recent testing of the site by State Historical Society archaeologists will tell us more about the size, age, and occupation length of the village, as well as whether it qualifies to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. We also hope to learn its relationship to the nearby Huff Indian Village State Historic Site and other Missouri River Mandan villages.

1 Will, George F. and Thad C. Hecker. 1944. The Upper Missouri River Valley Aboriginal Culture in North Dakota. North Dakota Historical Quarterly, vol. 11 (1-2), pp. 5-126.
2 Hecker, Thad C. 1938. Morton County Archeology. Manuscript on file at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division.
3 Johnson, Craig M. 2007. A Chronology of Middle Missouri Plains Village Sites. Contributions to Anthropology 47. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.
4 Ahler, Stanley A. 2001. Analysis of Curated Plains Village Artifact Collections from the Heart, Knife, and Cannonball Regions, North Dakota. Research Contribution No. 42, PaleoCultural Research Group, Flagstaff, AZ. Submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Archaeology in the Digital Age: 3D Artifact Imaging

Sometimes the methods archaeologists use to preserve artifacts stand in stark contrast to the objects themselves. Using modern three-dimensional (3D) scanning technology to create digital models of ancient stone technology is one of those instances. This type of image capture is becoming increasingly popular in archaeology and museum labs for its relative ease of use and the affordability of commercially available scanners, not to mention the highly detailed models produced. We purchased a 3D scanner in 2011 to aid our staff and researchers in artifact analysis, and to provide the public with better access to our collections.

NextEngine Scanner

NextEngine Scanner ready to create a 3D model of a stone knife in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation division of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

In addition to creating a digital record of an object, archaeologists and others working in cultural heritage fields can use the models to take high-resolution measurements, create exact replicas using a 3D printer, and share high-precision digital data with colleagues.

One of the benefits of digitizing artifact collections is the ability to share those objects in a way that encourages the public to interact with the past. An artifact’s minute features are captured in greater detail with a 3D scanner than with traditional digital photography. There are about 12 million objects in the state archaeology collections. Most of these will not be on display in the galleries, but with 3D scanning, anyone with an internet connection can get a behind-the-scenes look at these collections. From the comfort of your home, you can appreciate the craftsmanship of an artifact that 3D scanning brings to life.

3D scan of stone knife

Screen grab of the finished scan in NextEngine StudioScan software prior to uploading the model to Sketchfab.com.

Sketchfab.com is an open source, free hosting site for 3D models. With a mouse, trackpad, or finger, the user can move and turn the object, zoom in and out, and copy the link to share with others. A user can also “Like” the model and leave a comment. The object can even be observed in virtual reality if the user has VR headset.

Sketchfab.com directions

Navigation directions for the Sketchfab.com viewing window.

This artifact is a stone knife from Griggs County in eastern North Dakota; it was donated by a private collector. The knife was hafted, meaning it was fit into a handle that could give its user better leverage while cutting. We don’t know how old the knife is, but we do know it’s still usable and has only a small break on the base. Why do you think someone left it behind? Was it lost?


Like photographs and videos, 3D scanning is a digital medium that helps us engage with the past. Unlike those types of media, 3D models invite you to interact with an object in an almost tangible manner. So go ahead—give it a spin and feel like you’re holding history in your hand.