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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!

Archaeology is Elemental: Geochemical Source Analysis of Obsidian Artifacts from North Dakota

Lithics, or stone tools and flaking debris, are among the most common artifacts found at archaeological sites in North Dakota. They can convey information to archaeologists about the people who made these objects, and they can also tell a much larger story of landscape use and cultural interaction. The rocks people eventually knapped into tools had to first be collected—sometimes this was done directly by the knappers themselves, and sometimes stone was acquired through trade with other groups of people. Lithic materials from North Dakota sites come from a vast area that includes the Northern Plains, Upper Great Lakes, and Rocky Mountains. Obsidian artifacts are occasionally found in North Dakota, but there are no obsidian sources within the state. Obsidian was prized by knappers for its properties. It is a high-quality, reliable stone with hardly any flaws, and it produces very sharp edges. It may have also been favored for its aesthetic value.

Map of regional lithic raw material sources

Regional lithic raw material sources. (State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Obsidian forms during volcanic eruptions when lava flows supercool upon contact with air or water, creating volcanic glass. Each volcanic flow has a distinct geologic and chemical signature, and the chemical composition of the obsidian formed from these flows is uniform throughout the source. Obsidian is composed mainly of silica (which gives it its glass-like appearance), but also contains trace elements such as zirconium, niobium, iron, and manganese. The ratios of these trace elements differ between obsidian sources, distinguishing them from each other on an elemental scale. Archaeologists specializing in geochemical techniques use instruments to analyze geological samples and determine a trace element profile for that source. Think of a trace element profile as a kind of fingerprint—although obsidian sources may be similar, no two are exactly alike. Once a geochemist has a fingerprint of the geologic source, it can be compared with artifacts made from obsidian. One of the most common instruments used to assess trace element composition is an energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence spectrometer (EDXRF). This analysis is non-destructive, which makes it especially useful for testing museum specimens.

Obsidian artifacts

Obsidian artifacts sent for sourcing (left to right: projectile point from Beadmaker; biface from Huff; biface from Shermer). (State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Previous research has shown that North Dakota knappers used obsidian from three main sources in the Yellowstone region: Obsidian Cliff (Wyoming), Bear Gulch (Idaho), and Malad (Idaho)1. This earlier study did not include artifacts from Mandan villages, and we were curious about trade patterns at these sites. The Mandans were key players in an expansive Northern Plains trade network during the Plains Village period, and certain villages may have controlled access to obsidian materials. Obsidian tools and flakes were selected from six Mandan villages and one Mandan campsite that date between AD 1300 and AD 1750. These 76 samples were analyzed by Richard Hughes, Ph.D., at the Geochemical Research Laboratory in Portola Valley, California.

Wyoming obsidian sources

Wyoming obsidian sources (courtesy Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Laboratory, www.obsidianlab.com)

Idaho obsidian sources

Idaho obsidian sources (courtesy Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Laboratory, www.obsidianlab.com)

Using EDXRF, Dr. Hughes concluded the obsidian artifacts from the Mandan sites came from the Obsidian Cliff and Bear Gulch sources. No artifacts were sourced to Malad. All sites but one had a combination of Obsidian Cliff and Bear Gulch artifacts, although in differing frequencies. The outlier was Huff, but only one artifact was submitted, and this was sourced to Obsidian Cliff.

What does this mean for patterns of exchange in the Mandan world? While this is a pilot study—that is, the first step of a larger project—we can hypothesize that use of Obsidian Cliff versus Bear Gulch materials at Mandan sites was not controlled by certain Mandan villages. Instead, obsidian imports into this region of North Dakota were more likely driven by the hunter-gatherers that controlled access to obsidian outcrops in the Yellowstone area. An expanded sample of Mandan obsidian artifacts will help refine our understanding of regional trade networks.


1 Baugh, Timothy G. and Fred W. Nelson (1988) Archaeological Obsidian Recovered from Selected North Dakota Sites and Its Relationship to Changing Exchange Systems in the Plains. Journal of the North Dakota Archaeological Association 3:74-94.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things: Audiovisual History

Images from 00032

Images from 00032, a photo collection that correlates with oral histories in our manuscript collection 10157. The images in this collection encompass a broad view of North Dakota.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us have one (or several) favorite components of our job, or at least have favorite collections or objects that we work with. Patrons and visitors ask us this sort of question frequently, so most of us have probably put some thought into the question. For example, my fellow blogger and coworker Lindsay loves MSS 10190, the Will Family collection.

There are multiple collections and even specific items within them that I truly enjoy and use frequently. But sometimes you work with a collection enough that it becomes part of you. For me, this is MSS 10157, the North Dakota Oral History Project. I often call it “my” collection, though it was created in the 1970s as part of the bicentennial, before I was born. It is a collection that I have been working with for quite some time now, and I am continuously both impressed and proud of it, for all of the history it contains and the use and memories it provides.

You might wonder what makes this collection stand out from any of the growing number of oral history collections we maintain. We do have a few, and I’ll be honest with you—I feel a little bit of love for all of them. They are all fantastic collections, and each time I “discover” a new one, I get drawn into the stories I hear within.

However, whereas many of our other collections are more focused, MSS 10157 is to my mind more of an immense snapshot of what North Dakota was at the time of the interviews and earlier. It is our second-largest oral history interview collection, numbering around 1100 cassettes, typically containing interviews with one or two people to a tape. The scope of these interviews covers the lives of the participants—sometimes their genealogy, sometimes stories about particular contemporaries or events, sometimes just their story of settlement. We have an interview with Ole Abelseth, who was a survivor of the Titanic’s sinking. We have an interview with Harry Roberts at Dickinson, whose father served as foreman of the HT Ranch in the late 1800s. Judge William L. Gipp at Fort Yates discussed his grandfather William Zahn’s service with Custer, as well as his Sioux culture. Nellie Hanson, of Grafton, was a female homesteader and served as a county superintendent of schools for a number of years. We have multitudes of men and women talking about their social activities, their towns, their memories. They cover topics from war to basket socials, and they are fascinating. There are also thousands of photos included, donated by some of the interviewees, or taken of the interview subjects at that time. These images also document a great and vast history.


Ole Abelseth Interview


Harry Roberts Interview


William L. Gipp Interview


Nellie Hanson Interview


My main role in working with this collection has been to digitize files, and, as we have begun moving into a new database system, to work with the item-level descriptions of each file. My other role in this, because I work at the reference desk, is to provide copies to the public. This is also one of my favorite parts of oral histories. These files can be easily located in the index on our website by family members who have never heard of these people or their stories. They can also be found by family who remember the interview taking place. Either way, they are able to listen to them for the first time or once again, to hear the stories, and imagine what it was like to live in North Dakota in a far more difficult time.

There are many cool objects in our collections, and we all work with different items, so it’s good to ask…you might find that little tidbit you never knew existed.


Image 1: J. R. Eide and his bride (name unknown) appear outside the church just after their wedding. While the women in the photo appear fairly solemn, the men are prepared to provide music and fun for the wedding celebration. SHSND 00032-BE-02-00002
Image 2: Members of the Monango Juvenile Band pose for a group portrait while holding their instruments and wearing their band uniforms. SHSND 00032-DI-03-00007
Image 3: Gunder Rust's snowmobile near Alkabo, N.D. SHSND 00032-DV-13-00013
Image 4: Image of interviewee James Driver Sr. SHSND 0032-IR-04-00001