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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!

Doug Wurtz's blog

Experimental Archaeology: Flintknapping, Firing, and Fabricating Early Gadgets

I don’t like to shop. My idea of shopping is to know exactly what I want at the store and the aisle that contains the product I need. In, out, done.

I was recently in need of a new set of kitchen knives. Over the years I have sharpened and resharpened the set of Chicago Cutlery knives that my wife and I received as a wedding present. Replacement of the worn-out set was not a problem for me. There is a retail store where I have “shopped” on numerous occasions, and I knew where the knives were located. In, out—wait.

Unfortunately, I like gadgets.

The knives were displayed next to the latest and greatest knife sharpener. I have a number of sharpeners, but I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

Across the aisle from the knives was a display of spaghetti canisters; glass and stainless steel with a screw-top lid. I like spaghetti. It seemed only right that our noodles be kept in the latest kitchen storage innovation.

In, out (not as fast as I had anticipated), done.

Where am I going with this story?

I take it for granted that the store down the street has everything I need. Imagine, if you will, that it was the year 1717 and not 2017, and I needed a new knife, a new knife sharpener, and a food storage container. If the store wasn’t there and I had to craft these items, how would I begin?

The State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) and the North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA) are collaborating on a project that explores these questions and more. Every other Friday at 10 a.m., an “Experimental Archaeology” program is conducted at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Experimental Archaeology tools

Some of the tools being used during "Experimental Archaeology"

In public learning spaces in and around the museum, flintknappers, potters, fire-starters, jewelry makers, and other skilled artisans replicate the processes that produced knives, storage containers, fire, personal adornment, and more before retail stores were available for replenishment.

Removing bark from willow branch

Using a piece of Knife River flint to remove bark from a willow branch to make a willow basket.

Consider the knife that I so cavalierly replaced in our kitchen. If I had to make that knife myself, where would I begin? What type of material would I use to fashion the blade? Does Knife River flint knap better than Tongue River silicified sediment? Would heating the material before knapping result in a better product? What size and shape of blade would be best for downing and then processing a bison? What kind of handle would I fashion, and what material would I use? How would I resharpen the blade when it became dull? Where would I do that resharpening? (Certainly not in an earthlodge or tipi, where the kids could step on the razor-sharp flakes.)

Flintknapping demonstration

Gary Jochim demonstrating flintknapping

When the bison was ready for eating, how would it be cooked and served? What if, instead of having glass and stainless steel containers, I had to fashion a pottery vessel by hand? Where would I begin? What type of clay would I use? How would it be tempered so that the vessel wouldn’t crack when fired? How would it be fired and at what temperature? How would I achieve the proper temperature? How would the container be shaped for proper heating, serving, and storage? How would the clay pot be incised or impressed for decoration and identification?

These processes and many more will be replicated at the semi-monthly “Experimental Archaeology” sessions. Our sessions are loose, friendly, and inclusive. Everyone is invited, and no question is too trivial.

A visitor recently asked how long it took to complete the pecking of a groove in a stone hammer. The answer was that you peck until it is done—this can take hours or it can take days, depending on the quality of the work and the resources available. Time takes on a different dimension if you are on a hilltop scanning for bison, looking out for the enemy, waiting for your clay pots to fire, or thinking about the angle of your next percussion strike while knapping a stone tool. “Experimental Archaeology” will put you in the same frame of mind.

Demonstrating pecking a hammerstone

Erik Holland, Curator of Education for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, teaching the art of pecking a hammerstone.

Join us for our next free sessions on August 11 and 25, 10 a.m. to noon, in Project Room A of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

After several experiments, it is obvious to me that I will never be able to eliminate shopping from my life. I do, however, appreciate the gadget store down the street a little more.

The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum “By the Numbers”

Life as a volunteer for SHSND is always exciting and challenging. There is always a new project, a new event, or a new group of people to introduce to the many wonders of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

I recently had the great fun of hosting a tour of 40 high school juniors, seniors and faculty from a Minot, ND, high school. The group was trying to pack as much as possible into their road trip to Bismarck. They visited the legislature in the morning and wanted a tour of the Heritage Center before heading back to Minot for a basketball tournament. As a result of their busy itinerary, the time allotted for their tour was short.

My challenge was to share as much information about the Heritage Center as possible in addition to allowing time for a hurried walk-through of the galleries. I decided that the only way to introduce the many distinct areas of the facility was to create and present a “photo tour” of the building.

I started the photo tour with a slide containing the following “teaser” numbers:

52 million
600 million
12 million

52 million - 255,000 - 600 million - 12 million - 1 - North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

I spent the next 30 minutes revealing the meaning of each individual number.

In November of 2014, the newly expanded and renovated $52 million addition to the Heritage Center was formally introduced to the public.

On that day, 97,000 square feet of space was officially added to the Heritage Center to total 255,000 square feet under one roof. To visualize that number, we did some quick math with an example everyone could relate to. Two hundred and fifty-five thousand (255,000) square feet is equivalent to just under 5 1/2 football fields under one roof. As I explained, there is an entire unseen world one floor down from the main galleries that contributes 48,500 square feet to the total.

The challenge for a 1 hour tour was not only in roaming over 5 1/2 football fields, but also the fact that 600 million years of history are on display in the three main galleries.

It became apparent to the students that the only way to get some understanding of the many departments (called “Divisions”) and hidden corners of the Heritage Center in one hour was through the remainder of the photo tour.

In the comfort of the new Great Plains Theater, my photos allowed them to descend to the lower, secured area of the Heritage Center. As I explained to them, the lower floor is the “heart and brain” of the facility. It is here that all the artifacts and objects, as well as the information accompanying them, are prepared for display in the main floor museum galleries.

I spend a lot of my volunteer time in the Archaeology & Historic Preservation division, so I had more facts available for this area of the Heritage Center.

The Archaeology Collections Manager is responsible for 12 million artifacts in this Division alone. At any one time, about 800 of the 12 million artifacts are on display in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. The artifacts in the collections storage area are arranged on 20,000 linear feet of shelves—that is 3.8 miles of shelving! These artifacts represent 13,000 years of human history in what is now North Dakota.

I quickly reviewed the remainder of the lower level consisting of the paleontology lab, the archaeology lab, museum preparation lab, other collection storage areas, the Communications & Education division, museum, security, and staff offices.

From the lower level, photos moved them back to the main floor with a “stop” at the Archives Division with its 30,000 square feet of space. From there, we quickly moved on to the overall organization of the main galleries before our time was up.

I didn’t have time to tell them that we now have 300 percent more Paleoindian artifacts on display, that our annual visitation has more than doubled since we reopened, that another of our volunteers has taken 30,000 digital photos in the past 16 months, or that in addition to our 90+ paid staff, we have 200 volunteers that keep the State Museum and our state historic sites ticking.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a personal visit must be worth at least a thousand pictures. We hope to see you at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Please allow more than one hour to see everything!