Archaeology is a frustrating discipline at times. Its public perception is hampered by films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which have presented the public with fantastic, sensationalized, and incorrect images of what archaeologists actually do. Whenever I tell people that I study archaeology, they constantly exclaim, “Oh you want to be like Indiana Jones?” or “We have our own Lara Croft in here, haha.” I do an inward “palm-to-the-face” each and every time because archaeology is not about treasure hunting, or, for that matter, destroying the structures and artifacts we are supposed to be analyzing. A culture or society is not defined by its shiniest and most expensive objects. One has to remember that it is people who we are studying and their relationships with each other and with their world, their material culture being a reflection of those relationships. Over the years, I have come to learn that frequently the most mundane-looking artifacts can reveal the greatest amount of information and the most significant facets of a culture or site.
Figure 1. The objects catalogued as “quill flattener” in the Cattle Oiler collection. Photo: Nicole Coscolluela
Like Meghan mentioned in the previous post, I am studying the gendered use of “quill flatteners” from the Cattle Oiler site (39ST224). I use the quotation marks because scholars are still in disagreement as to what they are. Their simplicity in construction and similarities to other tool types have produced a number of hypotheses in this regard. The lack of ethnographic data on Hidatsa and Mandan people makes it all the more challenging to ascertain what role these objects played in their lives. Furthermore, modern ethnographic literature on the tribes also lacks references to quill flatteners, thus adding to the mystery behind their presence at Cattle Oiler.
Examples of Quillwork in Native American Objects. Left: Quillwork bag from the National Museum of the American Indian, catalog number 5/3105. Right: Quillwork cradle from the National Museum of Natural History, collected by George Catlin, catalog number E73311-0.
My first research task was to determine their true function. A tall and sometimes frustrating order, I must admit, since even seasoned archaeologists have not been able to determine this (Lehmer 1971: 88). However, I like a good challenge so I pressed on. As mentioned above, the Hidatsa and the Mandan are not known to have utilized quill flatteners. Instead, their use has been attributed to the Arikara, Sioux, Arapaho, Blackfeet, and Menominee, of which there are both archaeological specimens and ethnographic data (Orchard 1916: 101-102, Skinner 1921: 275). Archaeologists have labeled these prehistoric objects quill flatteners due to their close resemblances to these historical specimens (Lehmer 1971: 88). As the name suggests, quill flatteners did just that – flatten quills, specifically porcupine quills – during the process of quillwork crafting. In the Menominee tradition, the quills were flattened after they were sewn into the leather (Skinner 1921: 275). In other North American tribes, the artist would take the tool, manufactured from either bone or antler, and glide it along the length of a softened quill in preparation for embroidery (Orchard 1916: 9). In my search to ascertain their true identity, I initially aimed to read through Hidatsa and Mandan ethnographies and modern quillwork practices in the hope that I would find something the other archaeologists missed. However, I was going nowhere. There really was nothing that could help me. Fortunately, I began to take more seriously the descriptions and images of other bone tools from the Middle Missouri because I noticed the stylistic affinities those tools had to my quill flatteners. Thereafter, I explored the possibility that they were one and the same, the only difference being their perceived functions.
There was brief mention of quill flatteners as multifunctional tools (Lehmer 1971: 88). It bears noting that archaeologists have an unfortunate tendency to ascribe singular functions to the artifacts they excavate; it is a practice that stems from the cultural-historical approach to archaeology and that method’s desire to classify and categorize. I try to avoid making analogies between the modern day and the past, but it is highly conceivable that bygone peoples may have employed tools for various purposes. Upon comparing the shape, wear, and composition of “bone markers,” “bone spatulas/spatulates,” “bone pottery tools,” and “bone flaking tools,” quill flatteners, then, could have been used for either flattening quills, marking leather, incising pottery rims, or flaking stone. The objects attributed with these functions appear stylistically similar. See for yourself and compare Figures 1, 2, and 3.
Figure 2. From left to right: Middle Missouri bone spatulas (Lehmer 1971: 88), Sioux quillwork tool kit with bone marker in the center (Orchard 1916: plate IV), Breeden Site bone tools (Wheeler 1956: 19)
Figure 3. Scattered Village (32MO31) pressure flakers (Ahler and Falk 2002: 13-18)
In addition to their physical parallels, a trip to the Smithsonian’s collections storage and conservation facility in Suitland, Maryland substantiated Wheeler’s argument that quill flatteners were used for pottery rim decorating (Wheeler 1956:18). Based on the material culture from the Breeden site (39ST16), he opined that the ends of the flattener-like objects fit the incisions on rims with diagonal punctuations. I did the same with the quill flatteners and flattener-like bone tools from the Cattle Oiler collection. And low-and-behold, they fit! See my examination in action in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Seeing if the tool fits the groove. Photo: Nicole Coscolluela
Soon after I made the decision to investigate quill flatteners, I became worried that my choice would not yield enough information, however, I was so wrong. And this is where the gender comes in. I am, after all, studying the GENDERED use of quill flatteners.
"Using Smoother on Quills", from the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. Catalog Number N13627, glass plate negative, date created: 1902.
At Mobridge (39WW1), there was a distinct difference between the burial goods in male and female internments (Wedel 1955). A number of the females were buried with bone spatulas, often by the head. Meanwhile, the men lacked this implement for the most part. Despite the clear sexual demarcation of this tool, two males were interred with bone spatulate tools, one in cemetery 1 (out of 30 burials) and the other in cemetery 3 (out of 6). Although it could be argued that the bone implements could have accidentally found their way into the burial, the bone spatulate with the male in cemetery 3 appears to have been intentionally placed there. It was located behind the head, the same place where the bone spatulate was laid in the female burial in the same cemetery. This apparent intentionality had me thinking as to why a seemingly feminine object was with this male and what that could possibly tell us about his life.
During my research, I encountered an intriguing North American Indian practice. I learned of the existence of berdaches, or two-spirit people. These were men and women who adopted the occupations, roles, and occasionally dress of the opposite sex. Unlike many outlier genders in modern societies, they were not outcasts, but rather recognized as third or fourth genders and participated in the economics and rituals of the 150 tribes known to have practiced this (Gilchrist 1999: 60). This is what makes them unique and fascinating. They were considered gender transformers and gender mixers (Arnold 2002: 245); there was no stigma associated with them, enhancing their status not diminishing it (Roscoe 1988: 144). As some individuals became berdaches after having visions or after Holy Women had visions of them (Callender et al. 1983: 447-451), they had a spiritual association and thus were respected since Plains tribes were vision-complex cultures where instructions had to be followed (Roscoe 1996: 351).
Figure 5. A Navajo berdache on the right (Roscoe 1994: 333)
The Mobridge males buried with the spatulates could have possibly been berdaches. Mobridge is an Arikara site and the Arikara were one of the 150 tribes to recognize the berdache status, as were the Hidatsa and Mandan (Callender et al 1983: 445). The males, if they were berdaches, would have actively participated in craftwork and the domestic realm, the sphere in which quill flatteners are associated (Roscoe 1996: 333). It is possible that berdaches could have lived at Cattle Oiler though there is no firm evidence of this. Nevertheless, the existence of berdaches presents the issue when genderizing any object. Instead of looking at material culture and society through a binary lens, archaeologists should acknowledge the potential for a greater complexity in social composition as was the case with North American Indian tribes. Not only should they allow for multifunctionality in objects, but also for the use of those objects by multiple genders or social groups. Doing so would open new avenues of research for that site or culture and lead to a well-rounded perspective on the many ways society can be constructed.
~Nicole Coscolluela, Summer 2013 Intern. Editor/ Title Credit: Meghan Mulkerin
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Arnold, Bettina. 2002 Sein und Werden. In In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches, edited by Sarah M Nelson and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon, 1:pp. 239–256. Gender 1. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.
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Roscoe, Will. 1996. How to Become a Berdache: Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender Diversity. In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, edited by Gilbert Herdt, pp. 329–371. Zone Books, New York.
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