nd.gov - The Official Portal for North Dakota State Government
North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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!

Wendi Field Murray's blog

Five of My Favorite Things about the Collections Right Now

Since 2011, I have had the immense privilege of managing the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s archaeological collections, perhaps one of the most spectacular archaeological collections in the Plains. But as you are reading this, I am on the verge of a major cross-country move, and am suddenly cognizant of everything I will not have a chance to talk about in future blogs.  Here are five random and cool things I have been thinking about or working on recently!

1) My Favorite Squash Knife

Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara women were gardeners. But “gardeners” does not quite capture the scale of their agricultural achievements, the significance of their efforts to the economic success of their communities, or the physical and intellectual work that went into growing corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers this far north. Families would have plots ranging from 3-5 acres, so that for any village, the “gardens” might cover several hundred acres.

The squashes grown by the three tribes were typically harvested in the fall. They were sliced with squash knives into rings to be hung and dried for winter. Squash knives are flat, thin cutting tools made from animal bone. Typically, squash knives were made from bison scapulae (shoulder blades), because the scapula is one of the only bones in a bison’s skeleton large and flat enough for the job. The edge would have been ground to a sharp edge to cut through all those squashes after the harvest.

Last year, one of our volunteers was rehousing an older collection into archival materials, and she came across a squash knife. It was cool, but not uncommon. But then someone noticed that the knife had a cranial suture going down one side! That is because the scapula is not the only flat section of a bison’s skeleton. The top of the cranium (skull) is also flat, and was occasionally used to make squash knives as well. This was by far my favorite find of the last year.

squash knife

This is a squash knife made from a bison cranium. Notice the cranial suture (here it looks like a black wavy line) extending from the left margin toward the upper right.

squash knife on bison skull

Here is a picture of the squash knife superimposed on a bison cranium, so you can see what part of the bison was used to make it. (Image courtesy Meagan Schoenfelder).

2.  My Favorite Solutions for Artifact Storage

Decades ago, State Historical Society archaeologists and curators had to work with whatever resources they had, and sometimes their solutions for artifact storage and labeling are pretty creative. These are some recent examples of artifact storage that we have come across as we have been rehousing older collections. Meagan and I often wonder what we do today that will confuse, amuse (or enrage?) future curators.

Curtiss chocolate box

Secretarial Typewriter Ribbon container

Artifacts were donated to us in every kind of packaging you can imagine: cigar boxes, chocolate boxes, medication bottles, chewing tobacco tins, and typewriter ribbon containers .

Calcium bottles filled with shells and shell beads

Hundreds of gastropod shells and shell beads were found inside these calcium supplement bottles.

pill vials filled with beads

These are not actual pills! They are tiny plastic pill vials someone used to store historic glass seed beads.

Bagnell site collection box

This box from the Bagnell site collection (very unhelpfully) tells us what is inside: “Artifacts from a Miscellaneous box, includes just about everything.”

Small artifact with very large tag on it

We are not sure if this artifact has a history of running away, but someone thought it necessary to wrap it in about a mile of wire and attach it to this enormous tag.

3. Volunteers as Pioneers

Mary Seidel, a local volunteer who started processing artifacts and archives in our lab last year, is a pioneer of long-distance volunteer work. She got so excited about lab work in 2018 that she asked for something she could do from her desert home in Nevada, so she could continue to support the State Historical Society mission during the winter. So we introduced her to Ernst R. Steinbrueck, first field officer of the State Historical Society. During the early 1900s he documented and excavated many village sites along the Missouri River. He wrote long (and sometimes ornery) letters back to Society administrators in a beautiful script that we needed transcribed, as many of them contain information about artifact collections and site locations. In less than a year, Mary transcribed scans of more than 100 letters from Steinbrueck’s papers (some of them 11 pages long!) Many thanks to Mary for not letting 1,300 miles get in the way of her passion for preserving North Dakota’s history.

Man's portrait and a letter

A portrait of E.R. Steinbrueck, and one of his many letters curated in the State Archives.

4. Creepy Doll Parts

Historic dolls provide valuable information about everything from consumerism to gender norms to the socialization of children. But as someone who has both excavated and curated artifacts, I can tell you that finding doll parts — eyeballs, legs, or heads, for instance — is also downright creepy. A few of us have bonded about this, and visitors on our tours feel the same when we open the historic toy drawer and disembodied heads are staring back at them. I don’t have much more to say about this — it is just something I think you should know.

Doll arms, legs, and heads

Doll head with torso and a doll arm

Doll parts from various historic sites in North Dakota.

5. Thank You Notes from Schoolkids

I love doing programs for school groups because kids often make excellent observations (important in archaeology!) and ask some pretty insightful questions. But my favorite part of working with school groups is getting the thank you notes a few days later. Here are some of my favorites from the last few years:

Card with drawn weapons and a dinosaur crossed out

Card with drawing of dinosaur crossed out that reads: I didn't know that archaeologists did not study dinosaurs.

Thank you for teaching me so munch about native americans and archaecoligy. You tought me more than I could I am goin. All the stuff you brought was fastanting. Thanks a lot. Sincerely, Izzy

It’s the Little Things: Exhibiting Small Collections with Artifact Photography

As someone who is tasked with increasing public access to our archaeological collections, here is one of the biggest challenges: some artifacts are very small, while exhibit cases can be very big. In fact, archaeological artifacts that tell some of the biggest stories about North Dakota’s past can be measured in mere centimeters. When our average visitor might spend less than 20 minutes in an entire gallery, chances are high that the smallest artifacts could be overlooked.1 In a museum that comprises five galleries, thousands of displayed artifacts, dozens of tech and media installations, and tens of thousands of words of interpretive text — how do you help visitors appreciate some of the smallest representations of our state’s history?

Photo exhibit showcasing 8 small artifacts

The first installation of the Small Things Considered artifact photo exhibit, 2016.

When confronting this challenge in 2016 while planning for the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, we opted to display these collections in the form of a photo exhibit. Titled Small Things Considered, the exhibit featured 12 large (11”x17”) color photos of archaeological objects. The exhibit was a hit, and ended up being an effective way to give some of our smaller collections the spotlight. So we decided to plan another one for 2019!

Putting together this exhibit is a team effort. First we need the go-ahead from the Audience Engagement & Museum Division, which schedules exhibit spaces. Once the space is secured, our division director and collections staff brainstorm about what unique or interesting artifacts we have come across lately. Then we either find photos we already have of that object, or we take new photos. Sometimes we find an artifact that is amazing to look at, but we can’t include it — because we don’t know enough about it to write an informative caption, or we feel that it needs more context than this type of exhibit allows. Other times we might find an artifact we know a lot about, but we don’t include it because it doesn’t photograph well, is too big, or we have a similar example on display elsewhere in the galleries. This time around we started out with more than 20 photo possibilities, narrowed it down to 14, but couldn’t get to 12. They were all too good, so we just bought two more frames!

Bone toothbrush

Bone toothbrush recovered from Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s home at Fort Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1872–1876. The holes in the head of the toothbrush would have been filled with tufts of animal hair, usually boar bristles.

While our collections assistant Meagan processes the photos, I start researching each object so that I can write the captions. This is the best part.

I have mentioned before that we manage millions of artifacts, so we always have a lot to do. There are a lot of emails, digital records, databases, paperwork, and phone calls involved in managing a collection this size, which means that there are many days that I do not handle a single artifact. But this exhibit project affords me the luxury of focusing on one artifact at a time. I have always considered it a privilege to take care of these objects, and I take any opportunity I can to get to know each one of them better.

There are objects that I initially think I am not interested in (e.g., coins come to mind), but after a few hours of research, I find myself talking to anyone who will listen about the history of the nickel or the miracle that is a fish scale. And if I am being honest, not all of this is rosy — I also spent an afternoon tearing my hair out trying to identify the Tiffany & Co. design on a silver spoon (extra challenging when the handle — the most identifiable feature of an historic spoon — is completely missing).

My typical approach is to write captions that are too long, because I can’t bear to leave out any of the interesting information I found. Then our curator of exhibits and our editing team rein me back in, and we miraculously condense this research to about 50 words per artifact. Our division director gives final approval on photos and captions, and the rest is up to the exhibit installation team. Here are a few highlights:

1. 1866 Shield Nickel
I’d like to introduce you to my new favorite nickel, which dates to 1866 and was found near Fort Rice. The rays around the “5” were believed to have complicated the striking process when these were minted. The coin’s design broke the dies or resulted in a coin whose features were not as sharp in relief as they should have been. For these reasons, the rays were removed from the design in 1867. This object represents a shift in minting practices after the Civil War.

1866 nickle reading United States Of America 5 Cent

An 1866 Shield Nickel, the first 5-cent piece to be made from a nickel-copper alloy.

2. Clay Horse Figurine
While researching the clay horse figurine from the 19th-century site of Fort Berthold pictured below, I came across a historic photo that explains who likely made it. It closely resembles the clay figurines made by students at the Fort Berthold Indian Mission School during the 1870s. Note the detail in the horse’s mane, and the eye on the side of the (broken) face. Another less complete example in the same collection has holes in the bottom, which appear from the historic photo to have been used to insert small twigs for legs. The founder of the mission (1876), Charles Lemon Hall, learned all three languages (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) spoken by the students who attended the mission school.

Clay horse figurine

Clay horse figurine from Fort Berthold, ca. 1870s.

Multiple mud animals, including a horse, bison, elk, and more

Stereoscopic image of clay or mud animals made by Native American boys at the Fort Berthold Indian Mission School, ca. 1870s. Photo by O.S. Goff. (State Archives 00088.0031)

3. Olivella shell bead
The shell bead pictured below is about ¾” long. In a typical exhibit case (which is about the size of a small closet), its details might easily be overlooked when surrounded by larger or more colorful objects. But in this picture, you can see that the pointed spire at the top has been lopped off, which creates a hole through its body. You can also see the variegated color near the top, and the texture of the whorl. These Olivella shells (Olivella dama) are from the Gulf of California and made their way along trade routes to North Dakota. The presence of Olivella shells in this region demonstrates the extent of trade networks between Native groups long before Europeans arrived.

Olivella shell bead

Olivella shell bead (Olivella dama) from McLean County

It is important to display artifacts in the context of where, when, and with what other objects they were found, and our exhibit cases achieve that. The context of an artifact tells the story. This photo exhibit does not diminish the importance of context, but rather brings the beauty and details of individual objects into focus. Stop by the Merlan E. Paaverud Jr. Gallery outside the auditorium the next time you find yourself at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, and see for yourself!


1Average visitor time tracking statistics can be found in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell, 1996, AltaMira Press.