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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

Like a Rock: Lithic Comparative Collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota

Artifact identification and analysis is central to what we do in the archaeology lab. But most of us do not always know exactly what we are looking at – and we would not be very good scientists if we pretended we did! So how do we figure it out? What do we do when we do not know, for instance, what kind of lithic (stone) material was used to make a projectile point, or what kind of shell was used to make a bead? That is where our reference collections come in.

Lithic comparative collection

One drawer of many in our lithic comparative collection. The loose tags inside are for use in photography.

A reference collection is a grouping of specimens that have been thoroughly researched and identified by an expert in that field and labeled accordingly. Think of it as a 3D encyclopedia. With anything I can’t identify on my own (or maybe I just want to be more confident about my identification), I could compare to examples in the reference collection until I find the match Okay, it doesn’t always work that tidily, but you get the idea. Over the past few months, I have been working with my co-worker, Amy Bleier, and some of our volunteers to get the lithic comparative collection organized and ready for use by researchers and contractors. But you may be wondering… why would archaeologists find a collection of different types of stone useful?

Lithic raw materials have unique mineralogical signatures that allow you to trace them back to their source (e.g., an outcrop of rock in eastern Montana). So if you know that someone at a hunting camp in eastern North Dakota was making tools from a stone that originates in Colorado, then it tells us something about human mobility during that time, and/or trade relationships between those hunters and groups in distant areas. We can also find patterns – for instance, the raw material that people use may change over time (directing us to look for changes in other behaviors, such as subsistence or settlement). Or people may only use a certain material for particular classes of tools – this helps better understand tool technology and specialized knowledge relating to flintknapping.

Lithic raw material sources map

A map of lithic raw material sources in the North Dakota region. Note the concentration of sources west of the Missouri River.

Physically assembling a collection likes this is the most difficult and time-consuming part. We were fortunate to receive a donation of a completely assembled lithic comparative collection from the late Stanley A. Ahler, Ph.D., whose work in the region laid the foundations for the last thirty or so years of archaeology in North Dakota. Over many years, Ahler, with help from his colleagues and acquaintances, collected more than 280 lithic samples from across the United States. We regularly rely on this collection for lithic analysis. But now we want it to be useful to people who can’t come to our office when they need to compare different types of raw materials.

With the help of SHSND volunteers Doug Wurtz and David Nix, we have taken high-resolution photos of all specimens, written narratives on their origins and characteristics, created finding aids, and compiled a bibliography for the 16 most commonly found materials in North Dakota. The next step will be to create an app for mobile devices so archaeologists and other researchers can take advantage of the collection while they are in the field or doing analysis in their own labs.

Antelope chert

Antelope chert is silicified peat that occurs primarily in non-glaciated areas southwest of the Missouri River. It comprises woody plant materials and can contain whole or fragmented gastropod shells. The type site (and quarry) is in McKenzie County, North Dakota.


Porcellanite is vitrified claystone and shale that forms around burned lignite seams. The source area is concentrated in southeastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and western North Dakota.

Knife River flint

Knife River flint originates in Dunn and Mercer Counties, North Dakota, though cobbles can also be found in gravel deposits in the southwestern part of the state. It is typically brown, fine-grained, and develops a yellowish-white patina on exposed surfaces.

Because there can be a lot of color and texture variability in one lithic type, we will include multiple images when necessary to depict variations. Feel free to make suggestions as to how we can make the app useful to you. We will let you know when it goes live.

New Visitor Viewing Areas Added to our Archaeological Collections Tours

Every museum has education collections. In the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, these are collections of artifacts that we use to teach visitors about the human past. They may be scapula gardening hoes, stone projectile points, or tiny glass beads – basically any object that can help illustrate human behavior, interaction, and innovation in the past. These are the collections we use in educational programs, take to local classrooms, and allow people to handle and touch. This is important because so much of archaeology is tactile – that is, the feeling of the object in your hand is part of the process of identifying and analyzing it. For instance, you might have a hard time feeling the surface treatment on a pot, the smooth finish on a groundstone, or the grinding on the base of a projectile point if you were wearing gloves.  So this collection is an important part of teaching people how we make the dozens of observations that allow us to draw stories from objects.

But these collections are different from our permanent, accessioned collections in one important way. They have little or no provenience. Provenience refers to where the artifact came from (both the site itself and which part of the site). Provenience information is where we learn the artifact’s context – where the artifact was found in relation to other artifacts and features on a site. And context is what lends the artifact its research value. If I found an artifact on the ground and picked it up to take it home (or even to our museum to show someone!) without recording its exact location, I have essentially erased most of that object’s scientific research potential. This is why if you ever visit an excavation, you will see half the people digging and the other half diligently taking notes on everything they are seeing in the ground.

Without this information, we don’t know if (for example) the object was used at a bison kill site or a stone tool manufacturing site. An object taken from the floor of one earthlodge versus another earthlodge at the same site can tell us something about cultural identity or social interaction in a multiethnic community. A bone bead tells us a much different story coming from a Plains Village site than it does coming from a Paleoindian hunting camp.

Ideally, all of our artifacts would be provenienced and become a part of our permanent collection. But for those that aren’t, we can still put them to good use as part of our education collection. For instance, a few months ago I was starting to get a little bored with the tours I was giving of our collections spaces. I talked a lot about the types of things we curate and what they can tell us about North Dakota’s past. But they are all stored in boxes—this is great for the artifacts, but not very exciting for visitors! When tour groups walk in, the sheer number of shelves and boxes can give them a good sense of the volume of the collection. But being able to visualize the content of those boxes is much more difficult. Instead of asking people to just trust me that they were full of artifacts, I wanted to show them.

Storage room

One of the archaeology collections storage rooms.

So I started laying artifacts on a work table in that room before all of my tours. But that was inconvenient, because our staff needs to use that table frequently. That means I had to haul out the artifacts and put them back every time I gave a tour. Our simple solution was to use the new storage drawers that were installed as part of our expansion. Voila! With just a couple days of selecting, arranging, and labeling, Meagan and I were able to create a handy display of the types of things that are in all those boxes. We made separate drawers for groundstone, bone tools, stone tools, pottery, modified shell, and organics. Then for historical objects, we included everything from horse tack to buttons to toys to gun parts. The top drawers are for visitor viewing, and the drawers below contain similar (and unprovenienced) artifacts that our staff can just grab whenever they need them for educational programs.

Storage Drawers

Artifact storage drawers containing our new education collections.

Drawer of objects relating to child's play and toys

Education collection drawer of historical objects relating to child’s play and toys

Groundstone artifacts

Another drawer contains all groundstone artifacts, from grooved axes to stone beads.

Drawer of guns, gun parts, bullets, and ammunition molds

Another drawer contains guns, gun parts, bullets, and ammunition molds.

In addition to these collections, we are also putting together reference collections (made with provenienced artifacts) for researchers that range from ceramics to projectile point styles to military buttons to bullets.  Would you ever guess while you are walking through the galleries that all of this work is going on right beneath your feet in the lower level of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum? I highly recommend that you come and see it for yourself!