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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 Archaeology Collections: Sorting an Entire Box

What are the typical artifacts found in North Dakota? What do you usually find when you sort artifacts? What does an average box of artifacts from an excavation look like?

These are all questions I have been asked recently. But they are difficult to answer, mostly because there is a lot of variety in North Dakota’s archaeology. People in different times and circumstances used different tools, technologies, and materials—meaning that depending on the age or type of site, the artifacts found will also be different. Artifacts also come in many different sizes—and the size of the artifacts will effect what kinds of things you are looking for or finding.

So, I might not be able to show you what the “average” box of artifacts looks like. But I can show you what one specific box is like, as I have spent the past week sorting it.

The box I am finishing is from the Larson Village site (32BL9). Staff and volunteers have been helping with this project for several years, and we are almost done with the sorting (for more information on Larson Village, see blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/adventures-archaeology-collections-larson-village). There are only about eight boxes left to finish. All those boxes contain the smallest sizes of objects that we currently sort—size grade 4 (anything that slides through a screen mesh 0.111 inch square) and size grade 5 (anything that slides through a screen mesh 0.0469 inches square).

The cardboard box is the size of a banker’s box.

box with label

A box of size grade 5 artifacts (2012A.13, 32BL9, from Feature 6 South ½)

This specific box has six bags of size grade 5 materials to sort.

bag filled with little rocks or sand

A bag of size grade 5 artifacts. There are six of these bags in my current box.

Would you like to try sorting? Here is your chance! In size grade 5 we sort out only certain types of objects or materials including (but not limited to) identifiable bone, identifiable shell, seeds, and insect parts. What do you see in this photo? (click photo to see larger image)

rocks with bones throughout

Can you spot the aritfacts that need to be sorted out?

Hint, there are nine items visible in the above photo that we would sort out in the archaeology lab, including:
-3 small animal teeth
-1 small animal vertebra
-1 insect leg
-2 shells
-2 seeds

shaped animal bones

Can you find these items in the previous photo?

Can you find them? (The locations are circled at the end of this post).

So what exactly is in this box? Here is everything that has been found so far (minus the half of a bag I have yet to finish).

tub of small rocks being sorted through

This is the last tray of material from this box. I have not yet finished the top half of the tray.

There is a lot of identifiable animal bone. These will be sent to a faunal analyst (someone who specializes in animal bone).

pile of animal bones

All the identifiable bone found in this box so far (2012A.13)

Modified bone is present too—bone that has been used or made into tools. If you look closely, you can see that these tiny, pointy pieces are very polished and smooth. They are tips from bone awls, used to make holes in leather and hide.

animal bones

Two awl tips found in this box (2012A.13)

animal bone

A complete awl from Larson Village—but not from the same box or feature (2012A.13, 32BL9, from Feature 26 North ½)

I have found quite a few gastropods (mollusks like snails). The shells are very difficult to pick out of the tray as they are very fragile. There are also a lot of insect parts—legs, wings, and more.


All the gastropods found in this box so far (2012A.13)

pile of shells

All the insect parts found in this box so far (2012A.13)

Here are chipped stone flakes of obsidian (volcanic glass). Usually we don’t pull out flakes of stone that are this small, but I have set these aside because they are identifiable and have a story. Obsidian does not originate in North Dakota. The closest sources are Wyoming (in the area of Yellowstone National Park) and Idaho. These flakes are evidence of either travel or the extensive trade relationships between the people living at Larson Village and elsewhere.

chipped stone flakes

All the obsidian flakes found in this box so far (2012A.13)

Seeds show the kinds of wild plants that were growing around the village or that people were collecting to use, as well as the types of domestic plants people were growing—like sunflowers, corn, and squash.

pile of seeds

All the seeds found in this box so far (2012A.13)

But what about the leftovers—the pieces we don’t pull out to send to experts to identify and study? You may have guessed: we save it. Why? Because technology and ideas change over time. Technologies that were not possible 50 years ago are possible now—like lipid residue analysis for pottery (to figure out what people were storing or cooking in pots), or obsidian sourcing (to figure out exactly where obsidian material comes from). Even though tiny pieces of unidentifiable charcoal, or fire-cracked rock, or bits of unidentifiable broken bone might not seem useful right now, archaeological methods will eventually change in ways that allow us to draw information from them.

bones outlined in a pile of rocks

Did you find all the artifacts that need to be sorted?

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!