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!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Not Your Typical Maul

In the lab the volunteers continue to work with artifacts from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26), a Mandan earthlodge village site located at what is now Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Recently, volunteer Diana came upon this large grooved maul while rebagging artifacts.

A woman wearing glasses peeks above an orange table at a large rock

The largest grooved maul that I have seen (so far) in the North Dakota archaeology collections. SHSND AHP 83.442.71.1

A large rock with a groove in the middle

Another view of the massive grooved maul from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26). SHSND AHP 83.442.71.1

Grooved mauls were so widely used in the past that they are often found throughout what is now North Dakota. They have been discovered by archaeologists in contexts belonging to every period of the state’s history. These tools are heavy-duty hammers. They can potentially be utilized for a variety of purposes—from cracking large bison bones to extracting marrow for cooking broth or making pemmican to driving posts or stakes into the ground.

The diameter of this specific maul is visibly bigger than most grooved mauls—the volunteers in the lab and I were all surprised when we saw it. The circumference of the central groove is 18 inches (45.72 cm), and it is even wider on either side of the groove. Despite its circumference, it isn’t too long at 7 7/8 inches (about 20 cm). But it is quite heavy and weighs 14.5 pounds (6.6 kg).

Grooved mauls do come in quite a variety of sizes. But we are not exactly sure why this one is so hefty. For comparison, a still large but more usual-sized example also from On-A-Slant Village (second from right in the photo below) weighs 6 pounds (2.8 kg).

Four varios sized rocks with grooves in the middle are lined up from smallest at left to largest at right

Here are examples of grooved maul sizes ranging from unusually small (far left) to the extraordinarily large maul discussed in this blog (far right). The two mauls in the center are more typical sizes. SHSND AHP 10168, 83.442.71.11, 83.442.71.9, 83.442.71.1

Mauls are made by grinding or pecking a groove around an ovoid stone. The groove near the center is typically used for attaching the maul to a handle.

Two rocks with grooves in the middle are shown in their wooden hendles that would be used as mauls

Two different examples of replica grooved mauls attached to handles. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

So far, this huge grooved maul has not been analyzed. And we don’t know exactly how it was used—although wielding it would be quite a workout! However, it almost certainly was used by someone since one end is slightly battered and worn.

A large rock with a battered end is shown. There is a spot of white paint on it with 15312-A written in black ink on the white paint.

A close-up of the end of the maul showing evidence of use—this end is battered and appears to be pocked. SHSND AHP 83.442.71.1

But Why? 4 Artifacts in Our Museum Collection That Just Don’t Make Sense

The State Historical Society of North Dakota started its collection in 1895. Over the past 126 years, the museum collection has acquired many artifacts with a unique and important North Dakota story. But every now and then I come across something that really makes me scratch my head. Here are a few that left me asking, “But why?”

1. Samurai armor

Samurai armor, including a helmet, chest plate, and face shield

Samurai armor from Japan’s Bungo Province, 1775-1860. If you look closely under the nose (far left) you can see remnants of a hair mustache. Fearsome! SHSND 2015.59.1-10

What does a Japanese suit of armor have to do with North Dakota history? Not much. So why do we have it? The museum acquired the armor from Henry Horton of Bismarck in 1938. At that time, museums served as places where people who could not travel the world came to see rare and exotic things. Samurai armor is a prime example.

2. Poodle fur hat and scarf

A white hat and matching scarf made of poodle fur

This hat and scarf made of poodle fur are not nearly as cuddly as one would hope. SHSND 1982.139.2-3

This one needs no commentary. I think you will join me in asking, “Why?” In the spring of 1924 and 1925 Carrie Larson, a mother of five from Benson County, collected hair from her poodle and proceeded to wash, comb, card, spin, and knit it into a child’s hat and scarf. Below is a picture of the poodle.

A man in a long trenchcoat and hat stands next to a dark colored car with a white dog on the running board

Carrie’s son Otto Larson and their useful poodle. A very good dog.

3. A broken Thanksgiving turkey wishbone

A wishbone that has been broken in two just below the neck on one side. There is also a note attached to the other side.

I wonder if anyone recalls what they wished for? SHSND 2021.45.1

Museums sometimes have items that are called FICs or Found In Collections. These items have no paperwork, so we don’t know their history or who donated them. The oddest FIC I’ve seen so far is a broken turkey wishbone from 1921. Attached to it is a note that reads: “For Fraziers Turkey Nov. 24, 1921.” While trying to determine why someone would give a wishbone to the museum, I learned former North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier’s last year in office was 1921. Any connection between this wishbone and the Frazier’s Thanksgiving turkey is tenuous at best, but I found out some interesting tidbits about the former governor that I need you to know:

  • He was a member of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a political movement which spurred the creation of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator.
  • In 1921, he became the first U.S. governor removed from office by recall. The next successful gubernatorial recall wouldn’t be until 2003 when voters removed California Gov. Gray Davis from office.
  • Frazier named his twin daughters Unie and Versie. Frazier was a graduate of the University of North Dakota and felt his children’s names were a good way to show his school spirit.

4. Hair art

A framed case that displays flower art made out of hair

Yes, that is hair. SHSND 11668

Hair art is pretty common in museum collections, but that doesn’t make it any less baffling to me. When I asked Assistant Registrar Elise Dukart why making art out of human hair was so popular during the Victorian period, she aptly responded, “Victorians loved weird, slow activities. They must have had so much time and so much hair.” Rosetta Carroll made this wreath out of her family’s hair in around 1890. Rosetta and her husband, Fred, farmed near Ryder. Although it seems bizarre today, hair art was once a popular craft often used to memorialize loved ones.

These days we are a bit more choosey about what artifacts are added to the museum collection. Our primary focus is to ensure donations fit the State Historical Society’s mission: “To identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” We also look for key factors like the item’s condition, whether the donor provided a history of the item, the donation’s similarity to other artifacts already in the collection, and our ability to properly care for it. Still, I am sure we will acquire things that will make future generations ask, “Why?” But then again, asking why is half the fun of exploring the past.