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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!

Installing a Traveling Exhibit

Five 53- foot semitrailers. That’s what started arriving at 7a.m. on a recent Monday morning; five semis packed full of crates and carts and tools and equipment that, over the next week, our install team would assemble in the Governors Gallery of the State Museum into an impressive 5,000-square-foot exhibit on the history of chocolate. And despite the years of planning, the diagrams, the scribbled notes, the emails and conference calls, those semis were a daunting sight.

This project began over two years ago. Before the newly built Governors Gallery opened in fall 2014, we had begun looking for a large traveling exhibit to feature in this space, which had been designed for temporary exhibits. We considered a number of factors in our search. The exhibit had to fit the 5,000-square-foot space of our gallery. The exhibit topic and components had to be suitable– supporting our mission, following our code of ethics, and engaging our audience. We also looked at budget, optimal scheduling, and necessary staff.

After many meetings, our exhibits committee decided on Chocolate, an exhibit produced by the Field Museum of Chicago. It’s a topic that we believed could reach a wide audience (Who doesn’t like chocolate?), with a proven track record of success (It’s been constantly traveling for 10 years and multiple venues have hosted it twice), and developed by a respected museum.

Chocolate exhibit entrance

Entrance to the new Chocolate exhibit.

Next came negotiating the contract, developing a unique floor plan, adding insurance, developing new public programming and marketing plans, bringing in new store inventory, and hiring temporary staff. And then, there we were, staring at a line of semis. We had seven days and 10 staff.

Installing a traveling exhibit is akin to putting together a really big Ikea product. Everything on the trucks had to be unloaded, moved to the Governors Gallery, staged, unpacked, and then assembled in a particular sequence.  The Field Museum provided a detailed instruction manual to guide us through the process. Every component was assigned a unique letter and number designation that corresponded to their order on the semis and their final placement in the galleries.

Chocolate semi load plan

Semi load plan.

Chocolate install schematic

Install schematic.

We learned that installing exhibits of this size is physically demanding. The 54 carts that we pushed and pulled into place were 7 feet high and varied in length from 8 to 12 feet.  It took two to three people to move each fully loaded cart. A number of components took six people to unload and move into place.

Carts with chocolate exhibit components

Mark Sundlov and Geoff Woodcox of the Museum Division maneuver an empty cart on its ways to storage, while Genia Hesser contemplates unloading the next in line.

Over the next seven days it came together. More carts were in storage than were in the gallery. Twelve foot walls went up, dividing the gallery into intimate spaces. Media was installed, bringing the rainforest sounds of South America to our northern museum. Soon, we were down to the small final details, a little-touch up paint, wiping down the cases, focusing lights, and vacuuming.

Chocolate the exhibit will be open to the public through September 6, 2017. And then we start the whole process in reverse. I’m going to start my calisthenics program tomorrow.

Revisiting Old Collections: Native American Pottery from the Jennie Graner Site

The most interesting discoveries an archaeologist can make occasionally involve artifacts collected decades earlier. I happened upon such a discovery while preparing to carry out fieldwork on behalf of a federal agency. While conducting background research, I learned the State Historical Society houses a small ceramic assemblage originally collected in 1938. These 73 ceramic rims and body sherds represent the bulk of artifacts collected from site 32MO12, or the Jennie Graner site. My search for information about the pottery itself, as well as the history of previous research at the site, led me on a winding path through archival records and the handwritten notes of Thaddeus C. Hecker, a former archaeologist with the State Historical Society.

Hecker is probably most well-known to archaeologists who have read his and George Will’s inventory of Plains Village sites along the Missouri River in North Dakota1. Previous to this 1944 publication, Hecker and other archaeologists working for the state identified a Plains Village site on the west bank of the Missouri River near the town of Huff. At that time, the site was on the property of Jennie Graner and was named after her. Although Hecker collected pottery in 1938, there is no indication that he conducted excavations at the site:

The first time I visited this site I found a lodge floor in the cut-bank where an unusual amount of pottery of various designs in decoration had weathered out. The rim-sherds were rather thick and all decorations were punch incised; also a number of designs in decoration were different than I had seen before…The pottery of this site is undoubtedly of Mandan Culture.2

Thaddeus C. Hecker

Thaddeus C. Hecker, 1938. (State Historical Society of North Dakota C3717-00001)

Although Jennie Graner is considered an earthlodge village site, no remnants of earthlodges or middens are visible on the surface like they are at other Mandan sites such as Huff and Double Ditch villages. There is also no evidence of a palisade or ditch at Jennie Graner. Perhaps the Mandans who lived there did not need a protective wall around their village—or perhaps evidence of lodges and ditches have been obliterated by farming and construction activities. Even in 1944, Will and Hecker reported that the site was eroding into the river and was severely impacted by modern earthmoving activities.

Aerial view of Huff Indian Village State Historic Site

Aerial view of Huff Village State Historic Site, located south of the Jennie Graner site. Note earthlodge depressions and fortification ditch. (State Historical Society of North Dakota 00630-04)

The age of the Jennie Graner site is unknown, but Will and Hecker referred to it as “Archaic Mandan,” or what archaeologists now call the Extended Middle Missouri. The latest regional chronology of village sites gives the Extended Middle Missouri an age range of AD 1200-14003. Ceramic analysis suggests Jennie Graner would fall toward the end of this age range, possibly in the late 1300s or early 1400s. Pottery styles and designs changed through time, but these changes did not happen overnight. New styles were tested and incorporated slowly, resulting in many ceramic forms occurring contemporaneously. Four types of ceramic “ware” have been identified from this site. The earliest wares are Riggs ware and Fort Yates ware. These are followed chronologically by Stanton ware and Sanger ware, respectively4. Riggs and Stanton wares have straight rims, while Fort Yates and Sanger wares have S-rims. The presence of transitional forms between Riggs and Stanton, and between Fort Yates and Sanger, suggests potters at Jennie Graner may have been experimenting with vessel construction and decoration.

Ware rim

Left: (a) Riggs ware rim. Note the tall rim and location of tool impressions directly on the lip; (b) Transitional form between Riggs and Stanton wares. Rim height is shorter, and tool impressions appear lower on the rim; (c) Stanton ware rim. Addition of fillet with tool impressions well below the lip of the rim. (All specimens SHSND 7123)
Right: (a) Fort Yates ware rim. The juncture of the rim and neck is angular; (b) Transitional form between Fort Yates and Sanger wares. The juncture is less angular and becoming more curved; (c) Sanger ware rim. The juncture between the rim and neck is curved. (All specimens SHSND 7123)

Jennie Graner is on land managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Recent testing of the site by State Historical Society archaeologists will tell us more about the size, age, and occupation length of the village, as well as whether it qualifies to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. We also hope to learn its relationship to the nearby Huff Indian Village State Historic Site and other Missouri River Mandan villages.


1 Will, George F. and Thad C. Hecker. 1944. The Upper Missouri River Valley Aboriginal Culture in North Dakota. North Dakota Historical Quarterly, vol. 11 (1-2), pp. 5-126.
2 Hecker, Thad C. 1938. Morton County Archeology. Manuscript on file at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division.
3 Johnson, Craig M. 2007. A Chronology of Middle Missouri Plains Village Sites. Contributions to Anthropology 47. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.
4 Ahler, Stanley A. 2001. Analysis of Curated Plains Village Artifact Collections from the Heart, Knife, and Cannonball Regions, North Dakota. Research Contribution No. 42, PaleoCultural Research Group, Flagstaff, AZ. Submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.