In this post we will delve into the stories behind the objects found at the Cattle Oiler site (39ST224). Click on the embedded links for more blogs from us on the history of the site, as well as for research done by our interns, on gendered objects and ceramic-use analysis. For more on ceramics, see our post on the type collection of Arikara and Mandan pottery sherds from nearby River Basin Survey sites. Finally if you're interested in how we catalog these RBS sites here at the National Museum of Natural History, read more about it in Sherds and Spreadsheets.
Figuring out who people were or how they behaved in the distant past is a complicated undertaking, especially when there are no written historical accounts. This lack of information is one of the reasons archaeologists have continually refined their excavation processes so that not even one leaf or seed in the unwritten story will be overlooked. Archaeologists are archivers of dirt, trees, charcoal, seeds, trash, and broken treasures. Depending on the site and time period, their finds are often underwhelming to the untrained eye-- broken bits of pottery, plant resin, discarded pieces of flint that never quite became arrow points. However, even these mundane objects can take us deeper in the story of a prehistoric site. That plant resin might yield clues on trade connections, or give a date in time using scientific dating methods (See also: 1, 2,). Those broken bits of pottery might have residues that you can analyze to find out what the people who made them ate. Those badly worked, throw-away flint pieces might tell you about how children learned to practice the fine and necessary art of making tools (this study had the best title ever by the way-- "Early Child Caught Knapping: A novice early Mesolithic flintknapper in southwestern Norway"-- so punny).
Examples of unassuming, but information rich objects in the Cattle Oiler Site. From top left, clockwise: yellow paint label; view of yellow paint sample; burned pottery sherds; scapula hoes; chert nodule; and that's right, more sherds! (We have a lot of them...) Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin.
The site that I am working to catalogue now is called Cattle Oiler (39ST224), and it is typical of many prehistoric sites, in that much of what you find does not appear to be very exciting at first glance. However, in addition to those helpful common items mentioned above, there are often a few special objects in the mix if you look closely. In their paper, “Select Exotic Artifacts from Cattle Oiler (39ST224): A Middle Missouri Tradition Site in Central South Dakota”, Ludwickson et al. demonstrate how you can use rare objects to trace trade and culture contact within a given area by tracking those items back to their source (1993). For example, if you find a marine shell in South Dakota, it is clear that it came there from far away.
The columella shells and other marine shell beads found at the site may indicate a long-range trade route with other groups closer to the ocean (Ludwickson 1993). In addition, several of the larger columella shell pendants have been reworked, which Ludwickson et al. contend shows evidence of “down-the-line trading… [with] multiple drill holes and grooves at both ends… suggest[ing] attempts to rejuvenate the pieces” (1993:160).
In order to trade for these desirable items, people living at Cattle Oiler would have been able to offer back gypsum, as well as buffalo meat and hides (Ludwickson et al. 1993).
Tracing the prevalence of exotic artifacts (items not available naturally in the local area), can provide valuable information about corridors of exchange, or the pathways that various groups took to trade, and how far that trading extended. The absence or scarcity of an item might hint at how near or far the site was from a major trade route (Ludwickson et al. 1993).
Examples of exotic artifacts at Cattle Oiler site (39ST224). From top, left to right: Catlinite cuboidal bead; perforated and incised shell (material is possibly local mussel, and therefore not exotic; but may be marine in origin), Cat. No. 583076; tubular shell beads, Cat. No. 582304; disk-shaped shell beads, Cat. No. 582969; a Catlinite tablet, Cat. No.582599. Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin
One of the major problems with the Cattle Oiler site, as Ludwickson et al. (1993) acknowledge, is the poor nature of its documentation coupled with haphazard sampling, and the natural chance of what ended up buried in the first place. It is hard to draw conclusions about an unknown group of people purely based on the scattered remains of their material culture. One sample does not a trade relationship make! You can have oddball items at a site, and not necessarily conclude that the whole village traded significantly with another group. This is similar to you having a souvenir from a faraway place in your house—you may have only been to that place once in your life, or maybe someone you know brought it back for you. It does not prove you had much to do with that place or people throughout your life.
However among the exotic artifacts at Cattle Oiler, there are several small stories that we can extract through the literature on the site (Ludwickson et al. 1993; Jones 1969), and consultation with experts here at the museum, notably Eric Hollinger and Bill Billeck, both of the Repatriation Office in the Department of Anthropology. Among the brown, black and white color palette of the rest of the artifacts from Cattle Oiler, the bright red of the Catlinite stone artifacts stands out. Catlinite, or red pipestone, only occurs in nature at its type provenience in Pipestone, Minnesota (Ludwickson et al. 1993). All Catlinite artifacts found at Cattle Oiler have been tested and verified to be true Catlinite (Ludwickson et al. 1993:161). This type of stone was only found in the Extended Middle Missouri (EMM) [For more on what EMM is, read this post] context at Cattle Oiler and one other site (Ludwickson et al. 1993:161). When examining the broken pipe fragment and the seemingly haphazard scratches on the Catlinite tablet/plaque, any evidence of a decorative motif is not readily apparent. It takes an expert eye with a good knowledge of the cosmology of the Middle Missouri Native American groups to be able to see what there is to find there. Eric Hollinger spent time looking at these two artifacts under magnification to examine them for designs. Read on to find out what he discovered!
Field Number, 2467, Catalog Number, 583506: Catlinite Tube Pipe
This pipe is a cloud-blower type pipe or tube pipe ["the rising smoke was intended to call rainclouds" (Source: NPS)]. At first glance it looks like it had been made from a larger broken pipe, but the piece has been drilled from both ends indicating it was originally a tube pipe form. Catlinite tube pipes have also been found on the Oneota Wever Site in southeastern Iowa and on Mill Creek tradition sites in northwestern Iowa.
Not mentioned in the Plains Anthropologist article on the exotic artifacts from the Cattle Oiler site (Ludwickson et al. 1993) is the fact that the pipe is incised with designs that encircle the diameter of the pipe. Near the lip of the pipe is an image of what appear to be two eyes from which lightning bolt motifs are emanating. The bolt from one of the eyes continues to completely encircle the shaft of the pipe and ends when it joins with unidentified circular motif lower on the shaft. The eyes with lightning bolts are commonly associated with thunderbird/thunderer iconography in the Plains and Great Lakes and thunderers are associated with war.
Detail view of obverse side motif on Catlinite Tube Pipe, Catalog No. 383506. Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin
Field Number: 865, Catalog Number: 582599, Catlinite Tablet
This tablet is incised with a number of lines on both faces and they have been heavily chalked in the past, a practice which both damages and obscures incised lines. Chalking used to be a common practice of archaeologists to try to highlight lines on objects and on petroglyphs. They literally rubbed chalk sticks across the object to imbed chalk into the incisions. It actually scratched soft stone like catlinite and rolled down the edges, rubbing it smooth. It is no longer considered good practice.
Both faces are covered with straight line scratches. Most of them appear to be the result of scraping or abrading the surfaces, but there are also a number of more uniformly placed straight lines which run the length of the faces. One face has a series of concentric circles incised on it with no other recognizable motifs. The other face has a series of oval concentric curved lines, one end of which is covered with a series of straight lines scratched over it. A series of regularly spaced parallel lines cross cut the entire surface of the tablet.
Although no clear motifs are recognized on this tablet, catlinite tablets found elsewhere typically depict images of bison, thunderbirds and other figures. See below for some images, and for more great examples, visit these sites: 1, 2, 3.
Most such tablets have been found on Oneota sites dating from A.D. 1400-1700. Dale Henning and Eric Hollinger believe these tablets may have served in medicine bundles as a medium on which images for sympathetic magic, hunting magic and war magic, where drawn. Such tablets were likely used and reused over and over; the older images obliterated or drawn over and newer images incised for each ritual use.
We hope that this post gives you a better look into the past at the Cattle Oiler site. Interpreting prehistoric sites is always difficult, but the objects that people have left behind do have stories to tell. Let us know if you have any questions, and we'll see you next time!
By: Meghan Mulkerin, Collections Specialist Contractor; with object narratives by Eric Hollinger, Archaeologist and Repatriation Case Officer in the Department of Anthropology at NMNH.