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.

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