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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!

Past Bloggers's blog

Collecting the Everyday: The Most Important Thing You Probably Don’t Know We Do

When you think of a museum collection, what types of artifacts do you think of? Maybe dinosaur bones, antique cars, or a World War II uniform? Something old, maybe even ancient. While collecting from the past is an essential part of the Museum Division’s function, what is just as important is collecting from the present.

Most people don’t know that we actively collect from today’s world, and the typical reaction when they find out is, “Why would you want that?” To many, modern items often seem too insignificant to belong in a museum. However, the purpose of the Museum Division’s collection is to preserve a three-dimensional historical record of life in North Dakota. What do these everyday items say about our values, our technology, and our society? What common stories are captured and preserved from our lives? What will they tell researchers about us in 100 years? 1,000? After all, what is now old and distinctive was once a part of everyday life.

Take a look at five artifacts that we have collected from our contemporary world. Do you have anything from your life that can add to North Dakota’s story?

1. Car Seat (2016.43.1)

Cow pattern car seat

Used by the donor for nine months of 2015, the car seat was a hand-me-down from a friend whose son had grown out of it. Some distinctive things about the artifact include an expiration date, which is a relatively new safety feature. We also know that the print on the seat cover is called Cow-Moo-Flage, which amuses me to no end. Would we have captured those stories had we collected the item 100 years from now? We likely would not have, and it adds a human dimension to the artifact. The advances in technology also say something to me about how much we, as a society, value our kids!

2. Apple iBook G3 Laptop (2016.22.1)

Apple iBook G3 laptop in orange and white

Like many of our more recent artifacts, the laptop came from our State Historical Society staff. It was purchased through a grant in 1999 for $1,599 (nearly $2,500 in 2018 dollars) so the agency could build a website to “take advantage of the public’s growing use of the internet.” Sporting 64 MB of ram and a 6 GB hard drive, its specifications make it practically unusable by today’s standards. It not only demonstrates the advances computers continue to make, but with its distinctive exterior, shows late 1990s fashion. It also documents efforts to adapt to a major shift in society: the proliferation and use of the Internet.

3. Cereal Box (1985.46.4)

Cheerios cereal box

We have a large collection of food containers. It’s something that typically gets thrown out or recycled, so why would a museum want it? How much of our time and money do we spend either preparing or purchasing food? And do you really understand a culture if you don’t understand how and what they eat? This cereal was purchased for the donor’s young children in 1985. How many of us as kids spent a Saturday morning eating a bowl of cereal while watching cartoons? It’s a common childhood story that is captured when we preserve this artifact.

4. Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone (2016.41.1)

Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone

How can you talk about 21st century life without acknowledging the monumental shift brought about by smartphones? We have mobile phones in the collection running as far back as a 1980s car phone. In addition to the stories collected with each donation, each reflects changing technologies and the transition to the all-purpose devices we carry around today.

5. Selfie Stick (number not yet assigned)

Selfie stick

Part of the rise of smartphones is all the accessories that come along with them. Though selfie sticks have been around in one form or another for decades, they became a popular smartphone accessory within the last few years.
Do you have something from your life that would add to North Dakota’s story? Send in a potential donation questionnaire on our website.


Guest Blogger: Geoffrey Woodcox

Geoffrey WoodcoxGeoff Woodcox was an assistant curator of collections in the Museum Division.

Archaeology is Elemental: Geochemical Source Analysis of Obsidian Artifacts from North Dakota

Lithics, or stone tools and flaking debris, are among the most common artifacts found at archaeological sites in North Dakota. They can convey information to archaeologists about the people who made these objects, and they can also tell a much larger story of landscape use and cultural interaction. The rocks people eventually knapped into tools had to first be collected—sometimes this was done directly by the knappers themselves, and sometimes stone was acquired through trade with other groups of people. Lithic materials from North Dakota sites come from a vast area that includes the Northern Plains, Upper Great Lakes, and Rocky Mountains. Obsidian artifacts are occasionally found in North Dakota, but there are no obsidian sources within the state. Obsidian was prized by knappers for its properties. It is a high-quality, reliable stone with hardly any flaws, and it produces very sharp edges. It may have also been favored for its aesthetic value.

Map of regional lithic raw material sources

Regional lithic raw material sources. (State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Obsidian forms during volcanic eruptions when lava flows supercool upon contact with air or water, creating volcanic glass. Each volcanic flow has a distinct geologic and chemical signature, and the chemical composition of the obsidian formed from these flows is uniform throughout the source. Obsidian is composed mainly of silica (which gives it its glass-like appearance), but also contains trace elements such as zirconium, niobium, iron, and manganese. The ratios of these trace elements differ between obsidian sources, distinguishing them from each other on an elemental scale. Archaeologists specializing in geochemical techniques use instruments to analyze geological samples and determine a trace element profile for that source. Think of a trace element profile as a kind of fingerprint—although obsidian sources may be similar, no two are exactly alike. Once a geochemist has a fingerprint of the geologic source, it can be compared with artifacts made from obsidian. One of the most common instruments used to assess trace element composition is an energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence spectrometer (EDXRF). This analysis is non-destructive, which makes it especially useful for testing museum specimens.

Obsidian artifacts

Obsidian artifacts sent for sourcing (left to right: projectile point from Beadmaker; biface from Huff; biface from Shermer). (State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Previous research has shown that North Dakota knappers used obsidian from three main sources in the Yellowstone region: Obsidian Cliff (Wyoming), Bear Gulch (Idaho), and Malad (Idaho)1. This earlier study did not include artifacts from Mandan villages, and we were curious about trade patterns at these sites. The Mandans were key players in an expansive Northern Plains trade network during the Plains Village period, and certain villages may have controlled access to obsidian materials. Obsidian tools and flakes were selected from six Mandan villages and one Mandan campsite that date between AD 1300 and AD 1750. These 76 samples were analyzed by Richard Hughes, Ph.D., at the Geochemical Research Laboratory in Portola Valley, California.

Wyoming obsidian sources

Wyoming obsidian sources (courtesy Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Laboratory, www.obsidianlab.com)

Idaho obsidian sources

Idaho obsidian sources (courtesy Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Laboratory, www.obsidianlab.com)

Using EDXRF, Dr. Hughes concluded the obsidian artifacts from the Mandan sites came from the Obsidian Cliff and Bear Gulch sources. No artifacts were sourced to Malad. All sites but one had a combination of Obsidian Cliff and Bear Gulch artifacts, although in differing frequencies. The outlier was Huff, but only one artifact was submitted, and this was sourced to Obsidian Cliff.

What does this mean for patterns of exchange in the Mandan world? While this is a pilot study—that is, the first step of a larger project—we can hypothesize that use of Obsidian Cliff versus Bear Gulch materials at Mandan sites was not controlled by certain Mandan villages. Instead, obsidian imports into this region of North Dakota were more likely driven by the hunter-gatherers that controlled access to obsidian outcrops in the Yellowstone area. An expanded sample of Mandan obsidian artifacts will help refine our understanding of regional trade networks.


1 Baugh, Timothy G. and Fred W. Nelson (1988) Archaeological Obsidian Recovered from Selected North Dakota Sites and Its Relationship to Changing Exchange Systems in the Plains. Journal of the North Dakota Archaeological Association 3:74-94.


Guest Blogger: Brooke Morgan

Brooke MorganBrooke was an archaeology collections assistant in the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division.