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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!

Meagan Schoenfelder's blog

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: (Random) Favorite Things

“So what is your favorite artifact?”

It’s something I almost always get asked on tours. I am terrible at making up my mind. And I feel slightly guilty having favorites. (Sarah in Archives knows this, too—see her blog about her favorite things). But I must confess…there are objects that I think are especially cool. Here are a few of them.

I like groundstone artifacts. Groundstone objects or tools are made by grinding or pecking away at the stone material until you achieve the desired shape. It takes time and skill to make something this way. I find grooved axes to be amazing. This axe comes from Barnes County, ND.

Grooved axe

Grooved axe from Barnes County (2015.56, Koch Collection)

Another stunning axe is from a site in Emmons County (32EM104). This axe is made from a light-colored quartzite material. If you visit the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, this axe is on display in the case next to the cyclorama in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples.

Quartzite grooved axe

Quartzite grooved axe from site 32EM104 (80.59.1)

This groundstone bird effigy was a surprise to me when I pulled it out of a box I was inventorying. It wasn’t listed on the old box label—but to me it was definitely worth mentioning! I haven’t seen any other bird effigies made of groundstone in the ND archaeology collections. It reminds me of a grouse. What kind of bird do you think it is? It was found in Stutsman County in the 1930s. I wish I could tell you more about it, but very little information was recorded about where it was found, otherwise known as its context.

Groundstone bird effigy

Groundstone bird effigy from Stuttsman County (5050)
Maybe the stone bird is a grouse? What do you think?

Now for something that isn’t groundstone. This clay pipe bowl clutched in the talons of an eagle is also among my top favorite artifacts. It is from the 19th century site of Fort Rice (32MO102), south of Mandan.

Bird Talon Pipe Bowl

Bird talon pipe bowl from Fort Rice (32MO102) (14657)

Sometimes I like an object because of the small details, like the lily pad motif on this spoon handle. The back of the handle is marked “Sterling Triple” and was most likely originally silver-plated. It is from the former town of Winona, ND (32EM211).

Spoon handle

Detail of the decoration on a spoon handle from Winona, ND (32EM211) (2010.106.767)

The next artifact is astonishing simply because it has survived. And it has survived a lot over the last 400 years or so: surviving the outdoor elements, being excavated, transported, and stored for years in less-than-ideal materials. In 2015 and 2016, excavation projects were undertaken by the Paleo Cultural Research Group (PCRG) at Chief Looking’s Village/Ward (32BL3) in Bismarck. During the project, Mark Mitchell, Ph.D., the project lead, mentioned basketry that had been found at the site in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) excavated there. Curious, I browsed through the CCC artifacts in our collection when I returned to the lab. Sure enough--there were basketry fragments!


Basketry from Chief Looking’s Village (32BL3) (Unaccessioned, no artifact number)

We know people in North Dakota used basketry in the past, but it is rare to find basketry that survives in an archaeological context in North Dakota—the climate and soils here do not usually preserve the plant materials from which baskets are made. Chief Looking’s Village/Ward was occupied during 16th century, making these basket fragments very old. (If you are interested in the recent excavation projects at Chief Looking’s Village, Thunder Revolution Studios and the Northern Plains Heritage Foundation have released a video about the 2016 excavation).

The last item is the paddlefish skull in the faunal comparative collection. We use the faunal collection to compare known animals (in this case, a paddlefish) to bone artifacts. Being able to identify what kind of animal a bone came from tells us about what animals people were hunting, eating, using, or living with and what the environment was like in the past. The paddlefish has a stunning snout (called a rostrum). I think it is a total work of art! It is an intricate lacey mesh of bone. Before I saw this skull I just thought of paddlefish as a funny looking type of fish. But now I can’t help but look at them a little differently. If you ever tour the archaeology lab at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum -- be sure to ask to see the amazing paddlefish skull—we will be happy to show it to you!

Paddlefish Skull

Paddlefish skull from the archaeological faunal comparative collection

Paddlefish rostrum

A close-up view of the paddlefish rostrum

Paddlefish drawings

The amazing paddlefish!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Harold Foreman’s Time Capsules

For the past year, I have been cataloging collections that we curate for the U.S. Forest Service. One of my favorite collections comprised a time capsule buried by a resident of Slope County in 1941 and discovered by archaeologists in 2005. So that has me thinking - if you made a time capsule, what would you put in it? Where would you put it? What would you want people in the future to know?

In 2005, a U.S. Forest Service employee inspecting Forest Service land in Slope County found historic objects stashed inside a rock shelter. The artifacts included a sealed J.R. Watkins bottle containing a note dated 1941.

J.R. Watkins bottle

The J.R. Watkins bottle that contained the map (2012A.94.3)

The employee notified a Forest Service archaeologist so the finds could be documented, mapped, photographed.1

As an archaeologist myself, I can tell you that it is pretty unusual to find a map accompanying any artifacts you discover. But that is exactly what the Forest Service archaeologists found. The note inside the bottle included a hand-drawn map with instructions to a “grand burial” that “bears treasure.”2

Detail of hand drawn map

Detail of the map (2012A.94.2)

And the map did lead archaeologist to the “treasure”. But this wasn’t Hollywood-style pirate treasure—no silver, no gold, no pieces-of-eight. It was treasure of a different kind—an informal time capsule. The “grand burial” consisted of several bottles, a jar, and a metal lunch box that had been buried in the ground by a local man.

Liquor bottle, Atlas E-Z seal canning jar, J.R. Watkins bottle, unlabeled bottle, metal lunch box

The capsules (from left to right): a liquor bottle, an Atlas E-Z seal canning jar, a J.R. Watkins bottle, an unlabeled bottle, and a metal lunch box (left to right 2012A.76.54, 55, 53, 56, 59)

It included photos and negatives, magazine clippings, handwritten notes, and small objects including popcorn seeds, candy, cigarettes, matches, and election campaign pins.

Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Delano Roosevelt pins

Calvin Coolidge (left) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (right) election campaign pins (2012A.76.90 & 91)

What would you want people who found your time capsule to know about you? Harold Foreman buried the time capsules between January and March, 1941.3 We know his personal details from the notes that he wrote and buried with the objects in the containers. Harold was twenty-seven years old when he buried the objects. He and his wife Pauline lived with his parents in Slope County, ND.4 Harold was the oldest of nine siblings.5

Would you write about current news? When Harold buried his capsules, the United States had not yet entered World War II. But the war was progressing elsewhere in the world, and Harold followed what was going on. He wrote about wondering who will win and hoped that the Lend-Lease bill proposed to send aid to Great Britain will pass U.S. Congress.6

Would you want people to know what technology is like? What transportation is like? Harold enclosed magazine clippings of cars, trucks, tractors, and trains.

Case tractors ad

Case tractors advertisement (2012A.76.21)

My favorite clipping is a glamorous full page color (complete with silver foil!) advertisement for a Streamliner railcar.

Pullman-Standard Streamliners ad

Advertisement for Pullman-Standard Streamliners (2012A.76.52)

Harold listed vehicles owned by family members. In 1941, Harold drove a 1927 Chrysler sedan that needed repair.7 His brothers Warren and Denver owned a motorcycle.8 Harold put two spark plugs in the metal lunch box capsule.

Champion spark plugs

Champion spark plugs (2012A.76.111-112)

Would you write about your dreams for the future? Would you write about your life experiences and adventures? Harold wrote that he planned on going to California to take up detective work.9 Perhaps with this in mind, Harold decided to include a piece of paper containing his own fingerprints.

Harold Foreman's fingerprints

Harold Foreman’s fingerprints (2012A.76.29)

Another object is an “old pocket watch” that traveled with Harold “through the States”.10 On the back of the watch are visible fingerprints—do these belong to Harold?

Pocket watch

Close-up of pocket watch with visible finger prints. Do these fingerprints belong to Harold? Did this watch go with Harold on his trip to visit his grandmother in Missouri? (2012A.76.89)

He described a trip he and his wife took through several states to visit his grandmother in Missouri.11 He even included a letter written to him by his eighty two-year-old grandmother.12

Envelope with writing

Envelope containing letter from Harold’s grandmother in Missouri (2012A.76.37)

Would you include pictures? Harold included photo negatives with scenes from North Dakota including badlands near Waterford City, a wheat field, and a burning coal mine near Ranger.


Butte in badlands near Watford City (2012A.76.72)

Would you include a photo of yourself? Would it be serious? An action shot? Or maybe a funny photo? Harold included a photo of himself making muscle arms and a funny face.

Harold Foreman posing

Close-up of Harold Foreman posing (2012A.76.68)

Would you want to know who finds your capsule? Harold wanted to know. He even offered a reward if the finder contacted him.13 But Harold wasn’t sure how long it would take for someone to find it, so just in case he was no longer living in North Dakota, he left a list of friends and relatives to contact.14 U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Mervin Floodman did look for Harold.

Unfortunately, Harold died in a car accident in the Pacific Northwest in 1972.15 However, Floodman was able to contact his youngest brother, Howard, in 2006. Howard did not know about the time capsule that his older brother had buried.16 But on one of Harold’s notes, there is a doodle Howard made when he was only six.

House doodle

Detail of house doodle by Howard, Harold’s youngest brother (2012A.76.5)

It is rare for an artifact collection to provide details about one individual’s life. That is what makes the Foreman time capsule so intriguing. What would you want someone in the future to know about you?

Special thanks to the U.S. Forest Service for permission to write about their collection. Special thanks as well to photo archivist Sharon Silengo and volunteer Robert Porter in Archives for their enthusiastic expertise in scanning the photos and negatives.

1Floodman, p. 1-3
32012A.76.8-9, 23-24, 31-34, .36, .40; 2012A.94.2
42012A.76.2; 2012A.76.8; 2012A.76.36; 2012A.76.7; 2012A.76.8
15Floodman p. 26
16Floodman p. 25, 26