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 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!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Scattered Village Ceramics, Paleo Points, and an Archaic Donation

A variety of things are always happening in North Dakota’s archaeology collections. Here are just three highlights from the past few months.

In November, I went with several other staff to help deinstall the Scattered Village display at the Mandan Public Library. Scattered Village (32MO31) was a Mandan village. Part of the current city of Mandan is now located on top of this archaeological site. Some of the village was excavated during street work in the 1990s, and the artifacts on display are from that project. The ceramics are a lot of fun to look at up close. For instance, there is an animal effigy on this large pot fragment.

A dark brown piece of broken pottery with horizontal lines at the top and angled lines throughout the rest of it.

A reconstructed straight rim pot with an animal effigy from Scattered Village (32MO31). SHSND AHP 99.10.V9.302.2740

This vessel fragment below is elaborately decorated—you can see the marks from the paddle used to shape the vessel on the lower part, while the top part is decorated with cord-and-tool impressions.

A dark brown piece of broken pottery with thin horizontal lines surrounding thicker vertical lines at the top

A reconstructed Knife River ware rim with cord-and-tool impressions from Scattered Village (32MO31). SHSND AHP 99.10.V2.278.2935

I also can’t help but like the tiny face on this rim sherd pictured below.

A close up of the top of a piece of broken pottery. It is dark brown with angled lines and a face.

Detail of a face-like effigy on a Le Beau ware rim from Scattered Village (32MO31). SHSND AHP 99.10.V6.256.2932

Another highlight was a donation of Paleoindian projectile points from a site in McLean County (32ML1350). The points in this collection are around 9,000 years old. They are very finely made, and the edges are still rather sharp. This kind of point is called an Eden point; it is made from Knife River flint.

An amber and brown colored projectile point

An Eden projectile point, made of Knife River flint, from 32ML1350. SHSND AHP 2020A.3.47

This Eden point, below, is made from porcellanite.

A tan colored projectile point with a dark brown section spanning the width of it in the upper middle portion

A porcellanite Eden projectile point from the McLean County site (32ML1350). SHSND AHP 2020A.3.44

This is a Scottsbluff projectile point. It is also made from Knife River flint.

A dark brown projectile point that looks quite short

A Scottsbluff projectile point made of Knife River flint from 32ML1350. SHSND AHP 2020A.3.41

Another fascinating donation came from southeastern North Dakota. We were excited to receive it since we don’t have many collections from that part of the state. It includes several large trays of projectile points, drills, and other objects.

A dark gray drill made out of stone and a tanish colored point that looks similar to a long tooth

This copper point and stone drill are from southeastern North Dakota. SHSND AHP Maercklein Collection

Many of the points, including the one above, are from the Archaic period, which lasted from approximately 5500 B.C. to 400 B.C.

Six projectile points are lined up in a row. The first three are similar in height with the next two being taller and the last one shorter. The colors in order of the points are gray, tan, tan, tan and gray, tan and gray, and gray.

Here are a few of the many projectile points from this donation. We so appreciate the generosity of these donors. SHSND AHP Maercklein Collection

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 http://blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/adventures-archaeology-collections-…). 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.

artifact detail

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.

artifact detail

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.

artifact detail

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.

artifact detail

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.

artifact close up

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.

artifact details

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.

artifact details

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.

artifact details

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.

artifact detail

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.

artifact details

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

artifact detail

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

I also enjoy the really fancy designs like this one.

artifact detail

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).