By Kendra Young
The Larson Collection contains approximately 6,000 stone artifacts. Among these, we see a wide variety of tools, from tiny flaked stone projectile points to heavy anvils typical of the late Post-Contact Coalescent Variant of the Middle Missouri Tradition. In this post we will explore the different types of stone tools and other artifacts that we found throughout the cataloging process.
Found throughout the Middle Missouri Tradition sites, flaked stone artifacts in the Larson collection represent a continued technology of stone modification for tool making. This technology involves flint knapping and pressure flaking. Flint knapping is the process of reducing a large piece of flint stone into smaller pieces (called flakes) by hitting it with a larger rock (called a hammerstone). Then pressure is applied with another tool, like antler tines, to shape and refine the flakes into precise tool shapes. This process is called pressure flaking. The most common tools made from flint knapping and pressure flaking are arrowheads and spear points. In the Larson collection we catalogued these artifacts as projectile points as we are uncertain if the points were strictly made for arrows or for spears. There are over 1000 projectile points from the site and of these, two basic forms are seen. These forms are typical of the Middle Missouri Tradition: side-notched and unnotched. You can see an example of a side-notched point in the above photo.
The majority of the flaked stone artifacts we see in the collection are made from Knife River Flint -- a mostly dark brown chert that came from central North Dakota and was traded throughout the region by the peoples of the Middle Missouri Tradition (Lehmer 1971). We also see other types of stone used for making points, drills, and scrapers including milky quartz or chalcedony, as can be seen in the image below.
A second form of technology for stone tool making can be seen in the large, heavy objects like hammerstones, anvils, axes and mauls. Constructed out of hard stone such as granite, these tools were made by pecking and grinding shallow grooves with smaller stones in waterworn cobbles. This type of modified stone is called a ground stone tool. In the bottom right corner in the image below is an example of a grooved maul. The groove is very shallow, which may signify it is unfinished. In the upper right corner of the image are two mauls demonstrating shallow and deep grooves. The grooves were made for securing the stone onto a wooden or bone handle.
Another type of stone object found in the Larson collection happens to be the subject of much debate. Made from a porous or vesicular rock, it would wear down surfaces by acting like an exfoliant against the other surface. These abrading artifacts were used to smooth, polish, and sharpen other tools made from stone and bone.
The debate that surrounds abraders concerns the geology of the rock and correctly defining the name of the source material. In the time of the Larson site excavations, the artifacts were cataloged as scoria. Other names have been used to describe them such as pumice, paralava, clinker and floatstone, but each of these names actually implies a different geological source. For example, scoria and pumice are a volcanic rock which is not typical of the Plains region geology. Clinker, paralava and floatstone, however, describe a porous rock that is not volcanic but burnt lignite rock that occurs naturally in the Plains region from prairie fires and was distributed by floating down rivers (Estes et al. 2010, Porter 1962). This may seem like a technical issue, but it is extremely important to archaeological interpretation when understanding how people obtained the material. For instance, if the abraders are volcanic then they must have been traded by people living near volcanic rocks. So even though the abraders look like a volcanic scoria, it is most likely sourced locally from the Plains region in outcrops of clinker. In fact, one of George Catlin’s famous paintings from his travels documenting the Plains Indians depicts a prairie fire that would have produced this porous material:
Speaking of George Catlin, another type of stone artifact we found in the Larson collection is actually named after him. Common in Post-Contact Coalescent sites of the Middle Missouri Tradition are pipes made from a material called catlinite, or pipestone. A reddish soft stone, catlinite pipes were often carved into a prowed or calumet form with a stem and bowl, like those at Larson (Lehmer 1971). Interestingly enough, catlinite also has a debate surrounding its name. There are actually many distinct varieties of red pipestone sourced throughout the Plains. True catlinite refers to the stone specifically found in Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. To determine whether the artifacts are sourced from catlinite, it must be studied at the mineral level (Gundersen 1993). The Larson collection has a few examples of such pipes:
In addition to pipes, the Larson collection has another very interesting artifact made out of catlinite. This circular disc is decorated with an etched linear motif. It is possible that circular catlinite discs were used as a game pieces (Lehmer 1971).
Larson cataloging update: as of June 2017 we have finished numbering all ~70,000 objects in the collection! It has been over a year of hard teamwork but we have been able to ensure this collection will be properly cataloged and stored at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center for future generations. We would like to thank our many volunteers and interns who have donated their time to help us since we started Larson back in 2015. If you would like to search the collection online you can do so at https://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/ under the keyword search ‘Larson’ and/or ‘39WW2’. Or, if you would like to research the collection in person, you can visit https://anthropology.si.edu/cm/research.html for all the information you need.
To read more about other types of artifacts in the Larson collection, check out our previous blog posts in this series:
Estes, Mark B., Ritterbush, Lauren W., Nicolaysen, K. (2010). Clinker, Pumice, Scoria, or Paralava? Vesicular Artifacts of the Lower Missouri Basin, Plains Anthropologist, 55:213, 67-81.
Gundersen, J. (1993). "Catlinite" and the Spread of the Calumet Ceremony. American Antiquity,58(3), 560-562.
Lehmer, Donald J., (1971). Introduction to Middle Missouri Archaeology. Anthropological Papers 1. Washington, D. C.: National Park Service.
Porter, James W. (1962). Notes on Four Lithic Types Found in Archaeological Sites Near Mobridge, South Dakota, Plains Anthropologist, 7:18, 267-269.