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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!

Meagan Schoenfelder's blog

Adventures in North Dakota Archaeology Collections: Amazing Things from Old Boxes

Sometimes amazing things come in old boxes. Unfortunately, those old boxes are not usually archival to best preserve the items inside. As I have been re-housing some of our older collections, I have come across so many amazing things and want to share them with you!

This summer our volunteers in the archaeology lab helped the staff process artifacts owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This involved repackaging artifacts in archival materials, cataloging and labeling artifacts, and archiving paper records and photos. These collections are from sites in North Dakota located on federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife lands.

Some of the pottery sherds in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife collection from Sargent County are net impressed. This means that the potter used a net to finish the outer surface of the vessel. If you look closely, you can see impressions of the knots and diamond-shape pattern made by cords on the sherds. This is not something we see every day, so it was very exciting when Fern Swenson, our division director (and a ceramicist) confirmed that these were indeed impressed with a net!

net impressed sherds

Net impressed sherds from site 32SA211 (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Collection, 2015A.30.1370, 2015A.30.1210, 2015A.30.1207, 2015A.30.1206, 2015A.30.1191)

We also cataloged two barbed fishing spears from the Irvin Nelson site (32BE208) near Devils Lake in Benson County. These are likely made out of bison bone and are the first that I have seen. But as I would find out a few weeks later, these aren’t the only fishing spear tips in North Dakota’s archaeology collections.

While going through a box that was part of an older, privately donated collection, I was excited to find another bone fishing spear tip! This tip is from a site in Burleigh County.

three bone barbed fishing spear tips

Bone barbed fishing spear tips from 32BE208--left and center (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Collection, 2015A.19.21, 2015A.30.20) and 32BL4--far right (SHSND A&HP, 1739)

Another item in the same box worth mentioning is a tchung-kee stone made out of a rock that has been pecked and ground into a smooth doughnut shape. It was broken in half at some point in the past, but the pieces still refit together.

tchung-kee stone

Tchung-kee stone (SHSND A&HP 1736)

These stones were used to play a competitive game of skill. You can see artist George Catlin’s 1832 painting of Mandan people playing tchung-kee at americanart.si.edu/artwork/tchung-kee-mandan-game-played-ring-and-pole-4407. The next time you visit the North Dakota Heritage Center & Museum, take a look at a scene based on Catlin’s painting in the cyclorama of Double Ditch village in the Innovation: Early Peoples Gallery.

illustration of people playing tchung-kee

Illustration of people playing tchung-kee at Double Ditch Village (SHSND, original art by Rob Evans)

Speaking of Double Ditch, I also came across two unique artifacts from that site. This projectile point with notched edges is very thin and skillfully made.

projectile point with notched edges

Projectile point with notched edges from Double Ditch Village (32BL8) (SHSND A&HP, 4607)

Another artifact is this ceramic effigy node—an animal-shaped piece of clay that was part of a pottery rim. The rim sherd is also cord-impressed--a cord or thin rope was pressed into the wet clay to make a pattern or design.

animal effigy node on a pottery sherd

Two views of the animal effigy node on a pottery sherd from Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site (32BL8) (SHSND A&HP, 4488)

The last old box that I inventoried contained a shell pendant. North Dakota’s Chief Archaeologist Paul Picha identified it as a “money cowrie” shell (Monetaria moneta), which likely came from Africa. These were used as trade goods during the 18th century fur trade.

money cowrie shell pendant

A “money cowrie” shell pendant from 32MO29 (SHSND A&HP 13629.X)

This week has been the week of atlatl weights (and that is not something most archaeologists get to say). In the same collection as the shell pendant, I found an atlatl weight. These are beautifully made, but not very common– they usually trump anything else on our “Find of the Day” board in the lab. Yesterday, a volunteer who is helping re-house a privately donated collection found the second atlatl weight of that week.

Find of the Day - Steve's Atlatl Weight! written on a whiteboard

The “Find of the Day” board in the archaeology lab is a fun way to find outwhat interesting things have been seen in the lab recently. If you ever are on a tour of the archaeology lab, be sure to notice what is listed on the board.I If the artifact is still in the lab, we will be happy to show it to you! (SHSND)

Two atlatl weights

Atlatl weights, the bottom weight is from 32MO29 (SHSND A&HP 13629.Z), the top weight is from 32MO37 (SHSND A&HP 1986.226.7595)

Atlatls were used to launch darts in North Dakota before the bow and arrow--from Paleoindian times through the Woodland Period. Weights were attached to atlatls to provide additional stability and balance.

illustration of hunter preparing to throw a dart using an atlatl

This hunter is preparing to throw his dart by fitting it to his atlatl. A stone weight is attached to this atlatl with a sinew cord (SHSND, illustration by Meagan Schoenfelder)

We have hundreds of boxes to re-house over the next few years, so I will share more with you from my expeditions to our collections storage rooms!

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!