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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!

Wendi Field Murray's blog

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.

Investigating and Assessing Damage to Cultural Resources

At the beginning of May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha office) hosted a three-day training at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on investigating and assessing damage to archaeology sites and other cultural resources. I was excited to receive this training, but expected it to be a bit of a slog, as many trainings tend to be—stuffy room, uncomfortable chairs, and text-heavy Powerpoint presentations. I could not have been more wrong.

So why did we attend this training? The primary objective underlining the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division’s many responsibilities is to preserve North Dakota’s cultural resources. “Cultural resources” is an umbrella term for all types of sites that have historical or cultural significance. This includes (but is not limited to) archaeological sites, historical sites, architectural sites, and cultural heritage sites. There are various federal and state laws that were written to protect these resources. For example, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), passed in 1979, states:

No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on public lands or Indian lands unless such activity is pursuant to a permit issued under section 4 of this Act…” [Sec. 6(a)]

It also prohibits the sale, exchange, transport, or receipt of (or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange) cultural resources if the resource was excavated or removed from public lands or Indian lands in violation of federal law.

ARPA applies to federal and Indian lands, but you may not know that North Dakota’s state laws protecting cultural resources are quite robust compared to those of other U.S. states. (I was well aware of the state laws that protect cultural resources on state lands, but I had no idea how far ahead of other states we are in this regard.) The North Dakota Century Code (55-03 Protection of Prehistoric Sites and Deposits) requires individuals to have a state-issued permit to investigate or evaluate cultural resources on state land. In this context, “cultural resources” include prehistoric or historic archaeological sites, burial mounds, and unregistered graves. Violations of this law are punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.

Sign that reads the following: Preservation of this site depends on you. Digging and collecting artifacts and fossils on state land without permit is illegal. North Dakota Century Code Sections 55-03 and 54-17.3

This sign reminds site visitors of the state laws protecting cultural resources in North Dakota.

I don’t have the space to go into great detail about the training, but here are a few highlights:

1) I can’t say enough good things about the instructors. They were from Northland Research, Inc., a contract firm in Arizona. The instructors are trained archaeologists and investigators who work in Northland’s Heritage Protection and Emergency Management division. Specializing in cultural resource protection, these are the folks who travel all over the country to investigate crimes relating to archaeological and other cultural resource sites. They record sites, work closely with law enforcement (since a damaged site is also a crime scene), write archaeological damage assessment reports, and act as expert witnesses in courtroom trials. Their slides were of actual work they have done—hardly the mind-numbing Powerpoints I expected!

2) The class was huge (45 people!) and represented nine U.S. states. And it wasn’t just archaeologists. Other students included natural resource specialists, representatives from tribal historic preservation offices, police officers, assistant U.S. attorneys, historic site managers, and park rangers. One of my favorite aspects of the class was hearing other students’ questions; each one spoke to that person’s expertise  and the unique role he or she plays in the investigation of a cultural resource violation.

3) There was a field component (a sure way to make any archaeologist happy!). For one afternoon, the instructors created ten “mock” crime scenes at fabricated archaeological sites near one of our off-site storage facilities. They divided us into teams, each of which had a law enforcement officer as the head investigator. The “site” had holes dug into it and artifacts scattered across it (the artifacts were borrowed from the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division’s educational collections). We had to use what we had learned in the class to document the damage and collect evidence. I really appreciated the fact that all of the documents we had to create (site map, evidence log, photo log, field notes, etc.) were critiqued after—it helped us to take the exercise seriously and ask a lot of questions about proper protocols.

Staged crime scene

The “staged” crime scene, which included disturbed areas, scattered artifacts, footprints, and modern trash. The yellow flags were placed by our team to mark different pieces of evidence.

4) Forensic sedimentology! Forensic sedimentology is based on the fact that soils in different areas (even very limited areas) are mineralogically and chemically unique. By using X-ray fluorescence and other analysis methods, the mineral and chemical composition of soils from a looted site can be quantified and compared with the particles of soil on the shoes, equipment, and artifacts confiscated from the accused. Scientists can use this evidence to determine with astounding accuracy whether the suspect was actually at the site, or whether the object in question came from that site. The “where” of these cases is important, because different cultural resource protection laws regulate different jurisdictions (i.e., federal land, state land, etc.).

5) We learned how to create a plaster cast of a footprint! The instructors were kind enough to leave multiple bootprints in the soil of each of our test sites so that we could practice. Another important piece of evidence for the prosecution.

Plaster poured into footprint

Plaster was poured into footprints in the dirt. After left to dry for about 30 minutes, they could be removed and brought back to the lab for analysis.

Plaster cast of footprint

A completed plaster cast of footprints left at the mock crime scene.

6) The participation of the assistant U.S. attorneys was unexpected and really beneficial for the rest of us in the class. They value cultural resources enough to spend three days in this training, and it was important to understand the kind of evidence they need to build a case against potential looters and vandals.

As a collections manager who does most of her archaeological work indoors, it was also important for collections staff to be reminded of their role in these contexts. For example, if confiscated artifacts were ever stored here while a case was pending, we would need to be careful about meticulously documenting chain of custody and restricting access to the artifacts. When people come in with artifacts to donate, it is important for us to know whether they were legally obtained. When someone is assessing the cost of the resource damage, we can provide information on curation requirements and costs. We all have a role to play in protecting these resources, and I welcome any training that helps me do that better.

Many thanks to the U.S. Army Corps-Omaha for hosting the training, and to Martin McAllister, Brent Krober, and David Griffel of Northland Research, Inc., and to all participants for a productive and enlightening three days!