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!

Reflections on a Rare Fluted Stone Tool from Stutsman County

One of the most important artifact types found in archaeological sites are ground stone tools. These include tools such as stone axes, manos, metates, pestles, abraders, figurines, and hammerstones. Most ground stone artifacts were created by pecking, grinding, and polishing. Additionally, drilling was used to create holes in scarcer ground stone artifacts such as smoking pipes, stone gorgets, and stone pendants. In contrast, artifacts like manos, metates, and hammerstones could be selected from natural cobbles and slabs and used with little or no modifications. While manos, metate, mortars, and pestles are often used to process substances (e.g., plant and animal products, pigments, clay, and tempers), hammerstone, abraders, and polishers are mainly used to manufacture and shape tools (Adams 2014; Morrow 2016).

Stone hammerheads, called grooved mauls, are common ground stone artifacts found in North Dakota. Grooved mauls are hafted percussion tools, and the maul head represents the stone part of the tool. In July 2021, a landowner donated a uniquely shaped grooved maul to the State Historical Society’s Archaeology and Historic Preservation Department. This grooved maul measures 8.6 inches (22 cm) in length, 10.6 inches (27 cm) at its widest circumference, and weighs 7 pounds (3.2 kg). According to the donor, the maul head was found in Stutsman County, south of Plow Lake.

The longitudinally arranged channels, or flutes, pecked into the surface of the maul and extending from the handle groove to the working end make this one of the most unique mauls ever found in North Dakota. The handle groove goes almost all the way around the maul. The parallel flutes are common to grooved axes, and they are less likely to occur with grooved mauls.

A grooved maul with additional parallel fluting pecked into the surface from Stutsman County. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

Grooved maul heads vary in size, weight, and grooving pattern. For example, based on the grooving pattern, maul heads can be classified as either full grooved or three-quarter grooved. While a full-grooved maul head has a groove that completely encircles the object’s circumference, a three-quarter grooved maul head has a groove that encircles three-fourths of the circumference. Grooved maul heads were usually made on a selected cobble that already possessed a spherical or ovoid shape. Grooved maul heads were mostly made of granite, basalt, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks. They were hafted with either split stick or twisted rawhide. Handles were attached to the pecked groove and often placed closer to the poll end or near the midpoint of the maul.

Grooved mauls were essentially the sledgehammers of their day; they could be used for any activity requiring impact force (Adams 2002; Morrow 2016, 324). They were used for food preparation tasks, including breaking bison bones to extract marrow, as well as pounding dried meats and chokecherries (Fedyniak and Giering 2016). Additionally, they could be used for hammering stakes into the ground, driving wedges through wood, and even killing small animals (Adams 2014). According to Highsmith (1985, 69), the rarity of fluted ground stone artifacts may suggest their special function in a non-utilitarian context. Fedyniak and Giering (2016, 77) have described the use of stone mauls in healing ceremonies. Experimental studies and use-wear analyses can provide insights regarding the possible functions of grooved mauls.

Distal, left, and proximal ends of the grooved maul. Evidence of use-wear is more visible in the working, battered distal end of the maul head. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

Most grooved mauls are found on the surface of archaeological sites and often are collected by landowners and avocational collectors. Very few grooved mauls are recovered from secure archaeological contexts. Most of our grooved maul artifacts were acquired through gifts and donations, and we have little-to-no provenance information for these collections.

Moreover, grooved mauls could be used/reused for a longer time—hundreds and possibly thousands of years—and this makes it difficult to accurately date them (Fedyniak and Giering 2016). In the case of the maul head from Stutsman County, we do not know its archaeological context. In general, grooved mauls appear to be associated with the later part of the Native American occupation of North Dakota, but they could be also found in the earliest time periods; a temporal range of Early Woodland to Historic times seems most likely (Deaver, Deaver, and Bergstrom 1989; Morrow 2016, 324). For example, a grooved maul recovered from the Bull Ring site (32ME166) may date back to the Early Plains Woodland Tradition (circa 400 B.C. to 100 B.C. in North Dakota). On the other hand, South Cannonball (32SI19) grooved mauls temporally may represent the Extended Middle Missouri Plains Village occupation, dating roughly from A.D. 1200 to 1400 (Griffin 1984, 95; Johnson 2007). Grooved mauls were recovered from controlled excavations at the South Cannonball site, where 15 massive grooved mauls were found (Griffin 1984, 59). The presence of a large number of grooved mauls in the northern Plains may indicate the importance of this artifact in the day-to-day activities of the Native people.

Examples of grooved maul heads from South Cannonball. SHSND AHP 92.2.720, 3590, 4689, 6393, 6453, and 6770

Replicas of full-grooved hafted mauls. A handle creates more leverage and force. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

Size comparison of the grooved maul head from Stutsman County, right, with one of the replicas. SHSND AHP Educational Collection


References

Adams, Jenny L. 2014. Ground stone analysis: A Technological Approach. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Deaver, Ken, Sherri Deaver, and Mike Bergstrom. 1989. Onion Ring, 32ME166, A Tipi Ring Site in Central North Dakota. Report prepared for The Coteau Properties Company, Bismarck, ND.

Fedyniak, K., and K.L. Giering. 2016. “More Than Meat: Residue Analysis Results of Mauls in Alberta.” Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper 36: 77-85.

Griffin, D.E. 1984. “South Cannonball (32SI19): Extended Middle Missouri Village in Southern North Dakota.” Submitted in fulfillment of Contract CX 1200-7-3554, Rocky Mountain Region National Park Service. Colombia, MO: Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri.

Highsmith, G.V. 1985. The Fluted Axe. Amherst, WI: Palmer.

Johnson, Craig M. 2007. A Chronology of Middle Missouri Plains Village Sites. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, no. 47. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

Morrow, Toby A. 2016. Stone Tools of Minnesota. Anamosa, IA: Wapsi Valley Archaeology, Inc., https://mn.gov/admin/assets/stone-tools-of-minnesota-part1_tcm36-247478.pdf

The Sitting Bull Robe Saga: Exploring the Lifecycle of an International Loan During a Pandemic

Part of museum work is loaning objects to other institutions. The State Museum currently has 22 active loans, most of which are in-state and straightforward. But when an international border and a pandemic are involved, the situation can get a bit more complicated. Here’s what happened when an art gallery in Canada requested a rare artifact for an exhibit a few years back.

Birth: In late 2018, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, requested the loan of a significant piece of our shared history: a buffalo robe painted by Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull painted the robe between 1877 and 1881 while seeking asylum in what is now Saskatchewan. It is the only known buffalo hide painting by Sitting Bull in existence. The robe, which Sitting Bull initially gave to Canadian trader Gus Heddrich, entered the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s collection in 1945 after Heddrich and his wife died.

Buffalo robe painting by Sitting Bull. SHSND 10117

When institutions request loans from the state’s collection, some boring but important paperwork must be completed. Collections staff reviewed the reason for the loan, the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s exhibit plans for the painting, and details about the gallery’s light levels and climate control. The loan request noted: “This artwork could be considered one of the most significant Indigenous paintings completed within Saskatchewan but has never been exhibited in Saskatchewan. It would be of enormous interest to the descendants of Sitting Bull’s people as well as the larger community.” State Historical Society staff agreed—the loan was approved, and its journey began.

Transport: Some not-so-boring paperwork followed. Our registrars (aka paperwork gurus) exchanged over 100 emails with the gallery’s customs broker, U.S. and Canadian customs officials, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to complete all the forms required to transport the robe safely across the border. Due to the robe’s cultural and historical significance it required a courier, that is, a personal escort on its travels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cost of international fine art couriers is a bit prohibitive, so State Historical Society staff decided to make the trek with the robe themselves. The robe was carefully packed in a large shipping crate, and in June 2019, two staff members made the six-hour drive from Bismarck to Regina, Canada.

All packed up and on the road.

Exhibit: From June 2019 to April 2020, Sitting Bull’s hide painting featured prominently in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibition. The exhibit explored the diverse ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the province related to land, and how objects carry histories and stories. You can learn more about the exhibit on the MacKenzie’s website. Staff at the art gallery developed a variety of programming around the buffalo robe, including public talks with First Nations members. Artist and Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill was at the gallery to welcome the robe on behalf of the Lakota people of Saskatchewan. He also shared some of the meanings behind the images on the hide painting in this video.

View of Sitting Bull’s robe in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibit. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Opening event with Lakota Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill on June 20, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Extension: The loan’s original end date was set for May 30, 2020. Agency staff had their passports ready, but the universe had other ideas. The U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel for nineteen months. Between March 2020 and November 2021, the State Historical Society and the MacKenzie signed two loan extensions. This additional time led to unique opportunities, including extra months for visitors to view the robe. During the robe’s extended stay, the gallery’s “Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth” class used it as inspiration for a video game project that combined Indigenous oral storytelling with interactive design. From December 2020 to April 2021, the robe and the students’ work were showcased in the exhibit Travelling Memory: Sitting Bull’s Robe, The Mackenzie’s Art School, and the Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth.

The Travelling Memory exhibit highlighted a video game project by eighth-grade students at the MacKenzie Art School. The project gave audience members an interactive way to experience the story of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Return: Since every North Dakotan and Canadian knows that safe travel in the winter (or even spring) is no guarantee, arrangements to pick up the robe were made for early June 2022. Once again, the registrars emailed and traded paperwork like crazy to ensure a pain-free border crossing.

Reunited, and it feels so good! The robe was patiently waiting for agency staff at the MacKenzie Art Gallery collections storage area.

Sitting Bull’s buffalo hide painting returned to Bismarck on June 4, 2022. Previously, it was exhibited at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum for over thirty years. But continuous display, exposure to light, and repeated handling is stressful on natural materials. So for the foreseeable future it will be resting in storage to help preserve the colored pigment and the condition of the hide.