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: A Tour of the Processing Lab and the Importance of Provenience

Summer is a fun time with people from different places taking tours of the archaeology lab and collections at the State Historical Society. But since not everyone can come visit us in person, let’s take a virtual tour. Today we will tour the processing lab.

The archaeology processing lab at the State Historical Society.

Archaeologists study the human past by looking at what people leave behind, including artifacts. Artifacts encompass any objects that people made, used, touched, or carried.

Artifacts are sorted into different sizes in the processing lab. This is called size grading. For large projects we use a machine, which looks a bit like a big, motorized sieve.

The size-grading machine in the processing lab is useful in the sorting process.

We separate different-sized artifacts so it is easier to sort these objects by material types like stone, pottery, seeds, animal bone, and shell. It is a little easier for the human eye to distinguish among different materials when everything is closer in size.

The objects in the trays below are size graded. These items are part of the archaeology hands-on educational collection. Although real artifacts, they have low provenience and were found out of context in dirt piles resulting from a road construction project. Provenience is exactly where something is found at a site. Those things found around an object—other artifacts or related features like storage pits or house walls—are the context. Both context and provenience are very important.

Trays of size-graded artifacts.

When archaeologists study artifacts they need to know the provenience and context. Provenience and context give the details and clues needed to piece together the backstories of people living in a certain place and time in the past. This is why archaeologists take careful notes, make maps, as well as photograph and record everything as they excavate. All the recording is to track provenience and context.

Most of the items on the trays in the processing lab are from Scattered Village (32MO31) and the modern city of Mandan. Scattered Village was primarily lived in by Mandan people from the late 1500s to around 1700. The current city of Mandan originated in the 1870s and now covers the site of Scattered Village. Even though we know what village and city the artifacts are from (the general location), we don’t know specifically where on the site they came from (the exact provenience) or what was around or near them (the context).

What do you see on the tray in this close-up photo?

Unprovenienced artifacts from Scattered Village and the city of Mandan.

If you look closely, you’ll see some recent artifacts, like chunks of asphalt from the road that was torn up to be repaired. There also are older items from Mandan’s early days, like an old glass bottleneck. Meanwhile, the bison teeth and pottery sherds from Scattered Village are around 300 to 450 years old. It’s unclear whether the freshwater mussel shell is from Scattered Village or Mandan since it is missing its provenience. Because these artifacts are missing their provenience and context information, they are not very useful for most researchers. But they are good examples of the types of materials and artifacts found at Scattered Village and in Mandan. They provide an opportunity for people to touch and see real artifacts when they visit the lab.

The artifacts revealed.

One of the reasons archaeologists sort everything into different material types is so each kind of material can be sent to people who specialize in the different materials. For example, all the animal bone found at a site will go to a faunal analyst (someone who studies animal bone). The faunal analyst will look at the bones and record what kind of animals they belong to. This can tell us about the environment at the time, the animals people hunted, ate, lived with or cared for, the age or health of those animals, and sometimes even the time of year an animal died.

A faunal analyst studies bones found at a site to identify the animals once living there and provide insight into both the surrounding environment and people’s interactions with the world around them.

Ultimately everything found during an excavation is examined and written up in a report so the information is available in the future to know more about the past.

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


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.,