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: Pottery from On-A-Slant Village

The volunteers and I are back in the archaeology lab, and we continue to work on rehousing artifacts from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26) at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan (for more about On-A-Slant Village, see There are many boxes of ceramics from this site. We are enjoying the variety of quality, sizes, and designs. Traditionally, Mandan potters were women. Here are just a few examples of the pottery that they made. The pottery is found in a variety of sizes. There are a few small decorated vessels like these.

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Incised lines and finger or tool impressions are visible on these small pots from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.6.2, 451; photo by David Nix)

There are also large pots like this.

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Incised lines and finger or tool impressions are visible on these small pots from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.6.2, 451; photo by David Nix)

This example is undecorated, but we know it was shaped using a paddle because you can see marks (called simple-stamping) on the body of the pot. There are many examples of simple-stamped sherds from On-A-Slant—here is a close-up of another simple-stamped sherd.

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A simple-stamped body sherd from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.2.59; photo by David Nix)

The paddles used to shape the pots had grooves like these examples from our educational collection.

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Replica pottery anvil stone and two replica simple-stamp paddles (SHSND AHP educational collection)

To shape the pot, the potter held a smooth stone (called an anvil) on the inside of the pot while she used the paddle on the outside of the pot.

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A replica pot and paddle tool (replica pot by Wade Haakenson, paddle from the SHSND AHP educational collection)

Much of the decorated pottery from On-A-Slant Village is decorated with cord impressions that come in a variety of patterns and designs.

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Cord impressed rim sherds from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.4.707, 1321, 807)

The potter used cords similar to these to decorate the pottery.

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Replica cords – the one on the left is made from sinew, the one on the right is made from plant fiber (SHSND AHP educational collection)

There are also many sherds with incised or trailed designs.

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Incised sherds from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.2.123, 132, 133, 134; photos by David Nix)

A stick could be used as a tool, or it could be carved to create different kinds of lines in the clay.

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Stick tools (SHSND AHP educational collection)

Similar tools could be used to make impressions in the clay as well. My favorite kind of decorations are impressions made by cord-wrapped stick tools. These interesting tools make designs that look like this.

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Cord wrapped stick impressed sherds from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.4.1530, 747, 913; photos by David Nix)

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Replica cord-wrapped-stick tools (SHSND AHP educational collection)

I also enjoy the really fancy designs like this one.

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There are many kinds of decoration on this rim sherd from On-A-Slant Village (83.442.4.799; photo by David Nix)

This pot has almost everything—cord impressions along the rim and under the rim along the neck, tool impressions (the round dots), incised lines, and ridges from shaping the pot using simple-stamping (visible along the broken edge of the pot).

Surveying the Museum Collecting Survey

Last year, the museum collections committee analyzed the current representation within the state collection and noticed there were particular gaps of objects from childhood and teenage years, most significantly those items from the 1960s to the present. The State Historical Society of North Dakota is also looking ahead and considering how much collections storage space we will need as we continue to collect objects into the future.

To help us get an idea of what the people of North Dakota would most like to be collected and preserved from their childhood and beyond, the staff began conducting an online survey in February to gather input from lifetime, current, and past North Dakotans, as well as visitors to the state, about what the State Museum should collect.

We have received many great responses since the survey launched, and here is a little about what we have learned so far. I hope you like stats and nostalgia as much as I do, because here we go!

Here are the results as of Aug. 10:

  • 134 unique responses.
  • Representation from 37 North Dakota counties, with the most responses from Burleigh (34) followed by Morton (8).
  • The highest number of responses from participants born in the decades 1950-1959 (37) and 1960-1969 (32).
  • 230 suggestions for toys.
  • 239 suggestions for clothing.
  • 234 suggestions for activities.
  • 105 suggestions for “other,” i.e., stuff that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

By object category, here are the top responses, as well as an assortment of other interesting answers.


Top responses: Barbie, GI Joe, Cabbage Patch dolls, Hot Wheels, LEGO toys, Lincoln Logs, toy vehicles

Random responses: Chatty Cathy dolls, color-changing toys, homemade toys, lawn darts, water baby dolls, Yu-Gi-Oh cards

orange barbie car with vintage barbie sitting in drivers seat


Top responses: Bell-bottoms, bib overalls, Hash jeans, jeans, jelly shoes, Air Jordans, scrunchies

Random responses: Toe socks, stirrup leggings, skinny jeans, paisley, hand-me-downs, Uggs


Top responses: Bikes, roller skating, baseball, books, board games, video games/game consoles (Super Mario Bros., Space Invaders), phonographs

Random responses: Cartoons on Saturday mornings, 8-tracks, chalk drawing, drive-in movies, local music bands

Duran Duran puzzle


Top responses: CD & cassette Walkman, inflatable furniture, boombox, clamshell VHS tapes, ordering Scholastic books from a catalog, teen magazines (Tiger Beat, J-14, Bop)

Random responses: The ”Macarena,” TV dinners, duck-and-cover training pamphlets, food and drink packaging, hairstyles (the Rachel, mullet, bouffant, etc.)

As someone who falls into the 1990-1999 age range, it has been wonderful seeing the creative, thoughtful suggestions both from my peers and people born in the decades before and after me. Not only are the responses helpful for us at the museum as we look to the future of the collection, they are also a great way to learn about what objects, activities, styles, and clothing have been important to children in North Dakota throughout the decades.

Is there something from your childhood that you think we should collect? Does it look like your county or age group needs more representation? Head to the collections survey here and make your voice heard!

If you would like to donate to the State Historical Society museum collection, be it a My Little Pony, bellbottoms, a boombox or anything in between, you can complete our Potential Donation Questionnaire here.