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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 Murray's blog

Where Did You Find That?: The Importance of Archaeological Context

“Where did you find it?” This is, without question, the first thing you will hear any of our archaeologists ask when someone shows us an artifact. We are kind of obsessed with the “where” questions – where did you find it? Where did it come from? Where in the excavation unit was it found? What vertical level did it come from? Where was it in relation to (fill in the blank)? Where in the world did I put my trowel? (You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve asked the last one.) The “where” – technically known as provenience or context – is crucial to the artifact’s ability to tell a story. If you are a regular reader, then you already know that the object itself can provide some information about the human past. But if we don’t know its context, then it is pretty limited in terms of scientific value.

Field catalog

A field catalog for artifacts recovered during the 1951 excavation of Like-A-Fishhook Village in 1951 (AHP Archaeology files). Because we know which houses were occupied by Mandan and/or Hidatsa and which houses were occupied by Arikara families, knowing from which houses these objects originated is very important (House 4 was located in the Mandan-Hidatsa section of the village).

Imagine a projectile point that someone found in North Dakota. Perhaps they have mounted it in a frame in their home. From its shape and the technological style, I may be able to tell you that it is from the Archaic period. But that is about it. If it is an Oxbow point (for example), then it merely provides evidence that Oxbow technology is represented in North Dakota. It might be aesthetically beautiful, even ideal for exhibit. But it cannot tell us any more about human behavior and innovation in the past, which is actually what archaeologists are all trying to understand. Because at the end of the day, archaeologists are interested in understanding people, not things.

Now let’s imagine that the same point was scientifically excavated. We know from the additional excavation units around it that the point was found at a large camp site in Bismarck. Its vertical location (where it falls in soil stratigraphy) may tell us how old it is, or where it falls in time relative to other artifacts at the site. The artifacts found around it may help us understand what was going on in that spot. For example, if it was found in a pile of animal bone and cutting tools, we could infer that someone was likely butchering animals for food. If it was found in a pile of stone chipping debris and next to an antler pressure flaker, a different story emerges – perhaps this was a lithic workshop where stone tools were being manufactured. If a piece of charcoal found in its vicinity can be dated, then we can come up with a more exact age for the artifact. All of this information is documented during an excavation through extensive note-taking, sketching, photography, and mapping. And those records eventually make their way to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Field catalog cover

A field catalog from the excavation of the Flaming Arrow Village site (32ML4) in the early 1980s.

Field catalog entry

Entry made by crew member on July 20, 1971, while excavating the Hidatsa village of Amahami in Stanton, ND.

When I tell people that I am an archaeology collections manager, they typically assume that I only take care of artifacts. They are often surprised to learn that a huge and incredibly important part of doing archaeology includes creating, archiving, and referencing these paper records and photos. This also surprises archaeology students, who find themselves spending an inordinate amount of time sweating over notebooks or trying to draw wall profiles while wrestling graph paper in gusty winds during field school. This is actually a big responsibility from a preservation standpoint-- once the excavation is over, these paper records will comprise the most complete existing record of the site (or that portion of the site). In fact, when any archaeology contractor or state or federal agency submits collections for long-term curation, we require all the paperwork associated with their recovery from the field to be included.

General level/feature level excavation form

Plan map to go with general level/feature level excavation form

A general level/feature level excavation form, which is filled out for every excavated level (this one was filled out for the level that was at a depth of 95-110 cm). The associated sketch is the plan map drawn to illustrate what the bottom of this particular level looks like. It documents important observations like soil color and texture, artifact content and density, etc. This feature form is from an excavation at Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site (32BL8), Feature 709, Ditch 4.

We curate these in acid-free, archival folders and boxes and index them now so they are easier for scholars to query when researching our collections. I have never had a researcher request access to collections without also requesting access to the associated paperwork. When we do not have the paperwork providing context for a given collection, the researcher often has to exclude those objects from his/her study. That should give you a sense of their importance!

Detail of House 3 entrance, firescreen (?) and primary fireplace

Cross-section of F28, House 3, firescreen (?) trench.

Photos of features in House 3 at Huff Village (32MO11), 1960.

So the next time you visit our State Museum or state historical site interpretive centers, remember that behind every artifact we are able to say anything about, there is likely a box of associated notes and photos that helped us tell that story.

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.