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.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: A Tour of the Big Collections Room

In past blog posts, I gave a sneak peek at the initial processing lab and the main archaeology lab. Today, let’s take a tour of the big archaeological collections storage room.

Comparisons have been made to the warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—but don’t worry, we have much better finding aids. We want people to be able to find the artifacts in the big archaeological collections storage room and use them for research, exhibits, and educational events.

This room was designed to hold at least 20 years of future incoming collections and related materials, with moveable shelving adding extra storage space. This gives us room to store large, oversized objects not currently on display, like this earthlodge model.

This large model of an unfinished rectangular earthlodge shows how it was constructed.

In this room we keep educational, federal, and state collections as well as accession paperwork and storage supplies.

The archaeological educational collection is one of my favorite collections to show people. You don’t just get to peer at items in this collection from afar—you can touch, hold, and look closely at them.

Some objects in the educational collection are replicas, objects that were made recently but from the same materials people used in the past. Because things like wood, hide, and sinew usually do not last long in North Dakota’s environment, replicas are often the only way to show objects made from these materials. For instance, the wooden paddles that were used to shape pottery.

Replica wooden pottery paddles and pottery sherds from the educational collection.

Sometimes replicas are used for experimental archaeology. Experimental archaeology involves using the same kinds of tools used in the past to learn more about how something was done, such as making stone tools. Replicas are often used so the original artifacts are not damaged or destroyed in the process.

A replica flintknapping kit for making stone tools. From left: a leather pad, a stone abrader, a deer antler tine flaker, a hammerstone, and an elk antler billet.

Other objects in the educational collection are cast replicas. Casts are made from a mold or 3D scan of a real artifact. This is useful for artifacts that are too fragile or rare to handle, or for artifacts that come from places outside of North Dakota. Only North Dakota collections are currently accepted into the archaeology collections. But sometimes it is useful for researchers to have access to comparisons from other places. This projectile point is a synthetic cast of a real Paleoindian projectile point from the Mill Iron site in Montana.

A realistic cast replica of a Goshen Paleoindian projectile point from the Mill Iron site in Montana.

The real artifacts in the educational collection have little or no provenience (i.e., we do not know exactly where they are from or what was found around them). While this means they are not very useful for scientific study, they are still useful for learning about objects and material types. Many of these artifacts are donated.

Examples of real artifacts with low provenience. Even though such artifacts might not be scientifically studied, they are very useful for training volunteers and staff to identify different kinds of materials in collections.

Collections from federal lands in North Dakota are kept in this room. We help curate North Dakota’s federal collections for the U.S.  Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This is just part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s North Dakota collections!

Artifacts from projects on state, county, or municipal lands are also stored here, in addition to donations from private landowners.

These boxes hold artifacts from Fort Abraham Lincoln (32MO141) and are part of North Dakota’s state collections.

Filing cabinets and storage supplies might not be too exciting to look at, but they are important. These are the accession files. Accession files tell us who donated a collection or what federal agency owns the collection and where the artifacts came from.

These accession files might not look exciting, but they hold treasures of information, such as where collections come from and who donated them.

Storage space for supplies means we can continue moving North Dakota’s collections out of old acidic boxes and into better materials to preserve the artifacts for the future.

Archival boxes ready and waiting to be put to good use.

If you would like to schedule an in-person tour of the archaeology collections, please contact us.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: A Tour of the Main Archaeology Lab

In past blog posts, I gave a sneak peek at the initial processing lab, and previous staff have also written about the photography station in the main archaeology lab at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. But if you walk into the main archaeology lab there is still more that goes on—so here are a few additional aspects I would show you were you to take a tour today.

Welcome to the main archaeology lab! “Orange” you glad you came?

The area with the orange tables is where our volunteers and staff work on large projects. Currently we are repackaging artifacts from a site called Bagnell (32OL16) into better storage materials. Bagnell is the location of a village in Oliver County, which was excavated during the summers of 1970-73 by the late archaeologist Donald J. Lehmer. The most recent box of artifacts that our volunteers have been working on was full of seeds, corn cobs, charcoal, and wood.

A corn cob, squash stem, and beans from Bagnell village (32OL16). SHSND AHP 2019A.50, F154 H3 and Square H 1973

A long line of cabinets houses several reference or comparative collections. These collections are used by staff, volunteers, contract archaeologists, and researchers who are trying to better identify and learn more about the artifacts they are studying. Our three major reference collections include a faunal collection (animal bones), a lithic collection (rocks), and a shell collection.

These blue cabinets hold several of the archaeological reference collections.

The faunal reference collection is used to identify different kinds of animal bones found at archaeological sites such as villages, farmsteads, and forts. The kinds of animals present at a site tell us how people in a certain place and time lived and interacted with the world around them—what kinds of animals were raised, used, hunted, or living in the area.

These bones are from the faunal reference collection. All three are right scapulae (shoulder bones). The top scapula is from a bison, the middle one is a cast of a horse scapula, and the bottom example is from a white-tailed deer.

The lithic reference collection helps archaeologists confirm the type of rock from which an artifact—such as a scraper or a projectile point—is made. Some kinds of rocks are only found in specific places or regions. Knowing the type of stone used can often tell us something about where and how far people traveled to get certain tool materials or with whom they were trading.

The Eden projectile point on the left was found in McLean County (32ML1350) and is made from Rainy Buttes silicified wood. Examples of this material from the lithic reference collection are in the lower right corner. This rock is found in southwestern North Dakota. SHSND AHP 2020A.3.2

Likewise, the shell reference collection not only assists us in identifying the kind of shell that a pendant or gaming piece is made from but also where the shell was acquired by people or the extent of their connections and interactions with other groups of people. The peoples of North Dakota had extensive trade networks throughout history, and the presence of pendants and beads made from marine (ocean) shells found in archaeological contexts demonstrates this. As a result, we do have marine shells in our reference collection, which sometimes surprises people when they visit the lab. People living in North Dakota also used available local resources such as freshwater mussel shells and even fossil shells.

This photo shows a few examples from the shell reference collection. On the top row are different marine shells; in the middle row are fossilized shells that can be found in North Dakota; and the bottom row has two halves of a freshwater mussel that is also found in North Dakota.

Finally, the lab includes various study spaces for temporary staff, interns, and researchers to examine and catalog artifacts. It also contains equipment, such as microscopes, ready for use.

Room for research at one of the table spaces in the lab. Ceramics being studied are arranged on trays in a cart. The photography station can be seen in the upper right corner.

The lab’s microscope area. The pottery on top of the cabinets are modern replicas.

If you would like to schedule an in-person tour of the archaeology lab and/or archaeology collections, please contact us here.

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.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Deapolis Village and Alderin Creek

We are always working on a variety of projects in the archaeology lab. Here are just a few of the interesting artifacts that staff and volunteers have recently encountered from Deapolis Village (32ME5) and Alderin Creek (32ME4). Both sites are in Mercer County near Stanton.

This ice glider is from Deapolis Village. Mandan people lived at this village in the early 1800s. The ice glider is made from a bison rib bone and is decorated with incised marks. Ice gliders are used to play a game of dexterity. (To learn more about ice gliders, check out Archaeology Collections Manager Ashenafi Zena’s blog.) This object was photographed and cataloged in preparation for an upcoming exhibit loan.

An ice glider with many line marks on it and an X

An ice glider from Deapolis Village. SHSND AHP 2000.1.503

These gunflints are also from Deapolis Village and would have been used with flintlock muskets or rifles. The gunflint on the far left looks like it was reused, possibly as a scraper for processing hides. If you look closely, you can see that someone worked (chipped away) part of the edge to shape it. These were photographed by one of our volunteers who is helping us document artifacts from many collections. Artifacts from Deapolis Village were collected in the 1950s.

The left image shows three gunflints that look like rock cubes. The right image shows a closeup of one with red arrows pointing to three of the sides..

Left: Gunflints from Deapolis Village. SHSND AHP 86.226.14578-14580
Right: A close-up of the reused gunflint. The red arrows point to areas where it has been reworked, possibly for use as a scraper for processing hides.

Most of our volunteers are currently helping us repackage artifacts from Alderin Creek. The artifacts were excavated in 1968 as part of a state highway project. We are rehousing the artifacts in preparation for future study—this collection has not yet been completely analyzed.

Alderin Creek is likely either a Hidatsa or Mandan village and was occupied sometime between 1525 and 1600. We have finished rebagging and reboxing most of the bone tools and ornaments, like this bead.

A small, cyllindrical bead made out of bone

A bone bead from Alderin Creek. SHSND AHP 16000 X109 Fill

These two items are wrist guards used by archers to protect their arms.

Two bone wrist guards with lines going across them horizontally. the top one is a rougher texture. The bottome one has holes at the ends of the lines.

Bone wrist guards from Alderin Creek. SHSND AHP 16000 X105 F200 & X104 Fill

Bone awls like this one were used to puncture hides and leather so that thread or sinew could be sewn through the holes to make clothes, shelter (such as tipis), and containers (like parfleche bags). There are many bone awls in this collection that are still quite sharp.

A piece of bone with one end sharpened to a point

One of many sharp bone awls from Alderin Creek. SHSND AHP 16000 X103 F212

This bone fishhook is quite impressive—someone was ready to catch a good-sized fish.

A piece of bone that has been carved into a fishhook

A large bone fishhook from Alderin Creek. SHSND AHP 16000 X114 Fill F132

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

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Current Volunteer Projects

The volunteers are back in the lab! Work in the archaeology lab with volunteers was temporarily placed on hold in October 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. It is wonderful to have them around again—we really appreciate all their hard work and dedication.

Welcome back volunteers sign with green and yellow streamers on the sides

We are so excited to have the volunteers back in the lab again!

Here are just a few projects currently underway thanks to their help.

Most of our archaeology lab volunteers regularly assist us in rehousing artifacts. We are always learning about better ways to store collections, and some of the packaging materials used in the past need to be replaced. As this happens, artifacts are removed from non-archival storage materials such as old acidic paper bags and boxes or plastic baggies that chemically off-gas over time. The artifacts are then re-wrapped or packaged in acid-free materials and bags that won’t off-gas. At the moment, we continue our work to rehouse collections from On-A-Slant Village. (For more information about this effort, check out past blogs about some of the artifacts and pottery from On-A-Slant.)

A brown paper bag that reads 83.442.004.23 (arrow pointing to the right) 111 P.001 decorated rimsherds

An older bag of pottery rim sherds from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26) waiting to be replaced with an archival bag.

The volunteers are also re-bagging and re-boxing pottery, animal bone, and more recent historic artifacts from the Ben Standing Soldier site. The site was excavated in 1965 as part of the River Basin Surveys—a large project that attempted to record important places along the Missouri River before they were flooded due to dam building. The Ben Standing Soldier site includes an earthlodge village as well as a more recent 1900s homestead.

The inside of a gray box is shown with many ziplock bags containing glass bottles

A box of glass bottles from the Ben Standing Soldier site (32SI7). These have been re-bagged, boxed, and are ready to be put back in storage.

Among the more curious finds at the homestead were the remnants of this glass bottle seen below. It was shaped like an airplane—originally it had a figure of the aviator Charles Lindbergh in the cockpit and likely contained candy. (A more complete example of this type of bottle can be found on the website for the Brooklyn Museum.)

Part of a glass bottle that resembles an old airplane has goodwill etched into it

A bottle fragment from the homestead at the Ben Standing Soldier site (32SI7). SHSND AHP Field Catalogue No. 1564

One of our volunteers helps us by photographing artifacts. Currently we are photographing the artifacts from On-A-Slant Village that other volunteers have re-bagged.

9 projectile points of varius sizes and shades of brown/red are displayed with their collection number written below each.

These projectile points are all from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26). This quick photo will be used in our database—we often clean up images such as these and use them for presentations, posters, and more. SHSND AHP 83.442.79.1098-1106

These photos will be used in many ways. Most artifact photos are attached to entries in our database—this helps with identifying objects for researchers and tracking the condition of the artifacts for storage and display. Photos by our volunteers also get used for blogs, posters, and exhibits. (For more on past photography projects carried out with the assistance of our volunteers, visit this blog.)

A file viewer with blue menus, small  boxes where image thumbnails would be displayed down the side, and an area to the right display a larger image. The larger image that is displayed is a white teapot.

This is a screenshot of images attached to an entry in our database. The teapot is from the site of Winona, North Dakota (32EM211). SHSND AHP 2010.100.313

A broken piece of pottery depicting a turtle effigy

This photo detail of a turtle effigy on a pottery rim sherd was taken by one of our volunteers. The image is currently part of the "Small Things Considered" exhibit in the Merlan E. Paaverud Jr. Gallery at the State Museum. The sherd is from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26). SHSND AHP 7372

To all our lab volunteers, welcome back and thank you for all the work you do!