Mystery Artifact Series – You’re the Archaeologist!: Artifact #1

The Mystery Artifact Series blog allows you to step into the shoes of an archaeologist to identify an artifact! Look at the picture below, and try and guess what the artifact might be and what it can tell us about the site it came from. The artifact below was found at a site from the historic period at Fort Sill near Lawton in Comanche County, Oklahoma. To think like an archaeologist, you try answering the questions below:

  1. What kind of material is it made of?
  2. How big is it?
  3. What do you think it was used for?
  4. Who do you think used it?
  5. When do you think it was used?
  6. If you found this at a site, what do you think may have been happening there in the past?

Be sure to write down your interpretation and check back for our answers!

pistol no color_34Cm-Loc 7, FS 226_INV-0052

Welcome to the Archaeology Department at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History!

When presenting archaeology to the public, we often focus on the charismatic archaeologists, exciting excavations, and the breathtaking artifacts, but these are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Have you ever wondered happens to the rest of the artifacts that don’t make it into museum displays? At the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), we not only display artifacts in the Hall of the People of Oklahoma exhibit, but we also house a myriad of collections and artifacts that never make it behind the glass. In fact, these collections make up the majority of the artifacts at the museum. However, they are sometimes out of sight and out of mind to many visitors at SNOMNH.

But no longer! In this blog, we invite you to a virtual behind-the-scenes visit to the museum. Here, you’ll learn more about the rich archaeological record of Oklahoma through the artifacts, sites, and collections that clue us in to how people lived in our state in the past. Stay tuned!

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Family, Heritage, and Archaeology: The Lois Bookout Collection

Some days you really get a sense of the human side of archaeology.  This is the story of a wonderful woman, Ms. Lois Bookout, and the very special gift she made to the Museum.

This past June, Ms. Bookout visited the Sam Noble Museum with two members of her extensive family.  She brought with her a large piece of worked stone, broken into three pieces.  The object was originally found in the 1950s.  Ms. Bookout’s husband’s mother, Evelyn, saw the artifact while she was out collecting wild onions in LeFlore County, near the Poteau River.  She brought it home and gave it to Lois, who kept it safe for the next 60 years.

Ms. Lois Bookout
Ms. Lois Bookout

Lois and her daughters hoped that the Museum would be able to identify the object and tell them about the people who made it.  Archaeology staff identified the artifact as an elongate celt.  It was made of a stone local to LeFlore County that had been painstakingly worked; chipped and ground down until it was just the right shape.

Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate celt in three pieces
Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate celt in three pieces

With growing excitement, the archaeology staff realized the celt was similar to those found at the Spiro Mounds site, the major ceremonial center also located in LeFlore County, along the Arkansas River.  Ancestors of the present-day Caddo and Wichita people once lived at and around Spiro from about A.D. 800-1450, more than 700 years ago.

Lois’ elongate celt is very similar to one in the Spiro collection at the Smithsonian, illustrated on p. 97 (figure 6.21a) of Sievert and Rogers’ recent publication (currently available as a pdf document at http://si-pddr.si.edu/dspace/handle/10088/17285?mode=full).  Both have one end (the bit) that is flared out and rounded.  Both are slanted at the other (proximal) end.  Lois’ celt is large: 46.5 cm long, 11 cm wide at the bit, and 5 cm thick.  This is larger than the Smithsonian celt; indeed, larger than many celts.

Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate Celt
Lois Bookout Collection: Elongate Celt

Some celts were once used as weapons or as tools.  Lois’ celt is so massive, though, that is was more likely used as a ceremonial object – a symbol of office, perhaps, for a great leader.

After sharing this information with Lois and her family, the archaeology staff gave them a tour of the collection, showing them other artifacts made by the people who once lived near Spiro.

Two months later, we received a sad call from Lois’ daughter, Ms. Kim Manuel.  Lois had passed away on July 15.  One of her wishes was for the celt, which had been with her for so long, to be given to the Museum so that it could be shared with everyone.  Ms. Manuel visited us on August 23, bringing us the celt and sharing reminiscences of her beloved mother.  It was difficult for her to leave this piece of her family history with us, and we promised to take good care of it.

We are very grateful for the gift of Ms. Lois Bookout to the Museum.  More than that, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with Lois and her family.

Ms. Lois Bookout
Ms. Lois Bookout

We have labeled the celt pieces with the catalog number 34Lf0/240, which means that this is the 240th set of archaeological objects from unknown locations in LeFlore County to have entered the Museum’s permanent collection.  We have placed them in an acid-free box and cushioned them with ethafoam and acid-free tissue paper.  We look forward to sharing them with the public.

This story reminds us that objects have many meanings.  Artifacts have research value that teach us about the way people lived in the past.  They are also culturally-significant representations of history that are important to the descendants of those who made and used them.   Artifacts are also, however, cherished pieces of family history, making this donation even more meaningful.  We thank the Bookout family for this special piece of their family history.

(Sievert, April K. and J. Daniel Rogers. 2011. Artifacts from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. Smithsonian Contribution to Anthropology No. 49. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.)

Hamilton Earspool

Ground Stone Ear Spool / 34Lf40 – 692 (written by Alyxandra Stanco)

Among the artifacts found at the Spiro Mounds site in Spiro, Oklahoma was a group of earspools. An earspool is a circular object that adorns extended ear holes, much like a modern day earring, and is decorated with different designs. According to Sievert (2011:105), earspools can be made of various types of material that include stone, copper, wood, ceramic and shell. During the 1930s, the WPA excavated the Spiro Mounds and uncovered a variety of objects that included these earspools.

34Lf40/692
34Lf40/692

This artifact is a non-perforated, pulley-shaped earspool that measures 3 ½ cm in diameter and 7/8 cm  thick. This earspool does not have a center hole and is made of fine gray sandstone, according to Merriam (2004:138). A light copper covering is on its surface. There are 18 protruding knobs that decorate the surface of the earspool, though it looks like it has been reconstructed where a few of the knobs had been rubbed off. There is a rim around the edge of the earspool before the decorated knobs begin. The back of the earspool is quite smaller than the front.

Due to the high theft rates from the period before the WPA excavations took place, many of the earspools within the collection, including this particular earspool, have no match to complete the set. It is unlike the rest of the earspools in this collection. This earspool is very large and the knobs decorating its surface set it apart.

Earspools were widely used by the people of the Spiro Mounds and are depicted in engraved shell pieces, according to Sievert (2011:109). The stone material used to create this earspool was common to southeastern Oklahoma at the time and easily obtained by the people of Spiro. The region was abundant with lithic resources. After rough shaping, the material was finely ground and polished. After creating the shape of the earspool, the surface was covered with a copper coating.

The size and shape of this particular earspool may have been related to the status of whoever wore it within the community. The object was used as an ear decoration and likely had a ceremonial function. According to Brown, (1996:568) these types of ear spool were found only in a few graves at the Spiro Mounds site. This probably indicates that ear spools were only considered appropriate adornment for certain individuals.  This earspool may have been worn by high-ranking, elite members of the community. Chiefs or other high-positioning inhabitants would most likely wear these earspools as a sign of high status. The smaller earspools were most likely for those who were lower in rank.

Ax Fragment

Monolithic Ax Fragment – 34Lf40/1578 (written by Laurel Lamb)

It is clear that this artifact is some type of weapon.  However, due to severe fragmentation, it is somewhat difficult to interpret exactly what kind of weapon it is.  Originally excavated by the Works Progress Administration from the Great Mortuary in Craig Mound the artifact was first identified simply as a mace, while James Brown (1996:480) classifies it as a monolithic ax-form mace fragment.

34Lf40/1578
34Lf40/1578

The broken edges on all four sides of the artifact support this theory because the ax-forms have separate blades and shafts, while the blades and shafts of a regular mace are combined.  The longest and least fragmented edge protruding from the main body of the artifact was probably the blade, while one of the other fragmented edges was the shaft used to hold the ax.  This exemplifies instances when there is not much left of an artifact, so artifact comparisons and imagination are needed to complete what little is left.  This ax is either made of greenstone or shale (Brown 1996:480).  It is six inches long and four inches wide from the inside curve to the blade.

Since major portions of this artifact are missing, it is difficult to establish how much this artifact was used.  The more worn parts of the ax are, the higher chance they were used for utilitarian purposes, while a less worn ax would indicate a more special function.  It would be easy to assume this ax fragment had a primarily utilitarian function, but there were few axes found at Craig Mound that had much wear on them.  Brown (1996:477) also notes the axes’ “delicateness of form and the exotic of soft material.” Their lack of wear, exoticness of material, and their location in Craig Mound, a site full of high-status burial materials, tells another story of a more symbolic and ceremonial function for this ax.

One possible ceremonial aspect of monolithic axes at Spiro might have centered around political power and warfare.  Successes in warfare were a source of great honor and prestige for Mississippian cultures.  Since weaponry would be needed to achieve such ambitions, a special emphasis was most likely placed on extravagant, exotic symbolic weaponry.  This weaponry would not have necessarily been used in battle, but on special occasions (Sievert 2011:97

More on the Spiro Lace

Lace textile – 34Lf40/1266 (written by Louisa Nash)

(Compact Plain Twining with bands of Bobbin Lace Openwork)

The Works Project Administration (WPA) uncovered this textile fragment in Craig Mound during their excavations at the Spiro Mounds Site. It was found on August 5, 1937. The excellent preservation conditions at Craig Mound have enabled archaeologists to study different styles and manufacturing techniques of textiles.

Spiro "lace" attached to yellowed matboard
Spiro “lace” attached to yellowed matboard

This lace textile fragment is 43 centimeters long and 16 centimeters in width. The two darker horizontal lines on the fabric are a textile type called compact plain twining, defined as “a fabric structure in which one set of active elements (yarns) spiral turn about each other, enclosing successive elements of the other passive set in each turn” (Kuttruff 1993:130).  The lines of compact plain twining run the length of the textile and measure about 4 millimeters in width (Brown 1996:624). The wider, horizontal bands that are about 5 centimeters in width and contain the circular holes are a type of textile called openwork that was produced by the techniques of braiding or plaiting and bobbin lace work. On the textile, the bands of compact plain twining bind together the bands of openwork. The use of bobbins in making this fabric allowed each fine, individual thread to be kept in order and moved by the weaver. The bobbin lace openwork is considered a decorative element (King and Gardner 1981) and is a very refined method of fabric manufacture (Brown 1996).  In the bands of openwork, there are two different styles of circles: one is just a circular hole and the other one is a circular hole with an ‘x’ or cross shape in the center. These circles are about 1 centimeter or less in diameter.

The lace textile is black and charred (Gardner 1980:72). It is now in a clear UF3 Plexiglas mount that protects it from ultraviolet light and handling while allowing it to remain visible. It remains glued to a now yellowed mat board that has not been removed because the fabric is too brittle to attempt to take away the glue and mat board from it (Gardner 1980). Since the textile is charred, it is impossible to determine its original color. Shades of red were most commonly found dyed on Spiro textiles, followed by black, brown, yellow, and gray (Brown 1996).

Textiles were used by people at Spiro in a variety of ways. Sacks and baskets acted as containers (Brown 1996:620). Blankets or capes were also found in Craig Mound, along with skirts, kilts, belts, and sashes, all of which were worn around the waists of both men and women. Headbands have also been found at Spiro; the remains of one were found still attached to a skull. However, items in the category of fine cloth, such as this lace textile are not associated with a particular garment type or function. Most of the fabrics found in Craig Mound were folded when they were deposited in the mound. Conservators, such as H. M. Trowbridge (1938), worked after excavation to unfold and preserve the fabrics.

Analysis of textiles found at Spiro reveals that the principal plant fibers used in textile manufacture were canebrake, paw paw, milkweed, and beargrass (Sibley and Jakes 1986). Milkweed was likely the plant chosen for making intricate fabrics like this lace textile. Milkweed fibers are not very coarse, and so they are better suited to forming fine threads and cords. Scholars have determined that people at Spiro would cover the surface of the plant fibers with animal furs or feathers to make their textiles feel softer (Sibley and Jakes 1986).

Textiles are symbolic because they communicate information such as identity and social standing visually (Kuttruff 1993:126). Since this lace textile is a fine cloth, it could have been associated with leaders or prominent members of the community at Spiro. Similar fabrics have been uncovered in burials at a Mississippian site in Etowah, Georgia, and the manufacture of this textile style at Spiro could indicate its broader cultural ties (Brown 1996).

Crockett Curvilinear Incised Pottery Bowl

Pottery Bowl (Crockett Curvilinear Incised) – 34Lf40/845 (written by Louisa Nash)

This pottery bowl is 13.5 centimeters in diameter and about 10 centimeters in height. Engraved spirals decorate this vessel and lines curve around its body and rim; punctation also occurs near the engraved spirals on the body. The base of the bowl is rounded, and the overall thickness of the vessel is about 5 to 6 millimeters. With no evidence of charring, this bowl does not appear to have been heavily used for cooking.

34Lf40/845
34Lf40/845

Pottery is composed of clay and temper. Based on ethnohistoric analogy, women at Spiro likely made the ceramics. Archaeologists have found that most ceramics from Spiro were made with clay that was fine grained (Sievert 2011:29). The temper of this bowl is likely a combination of grog (crushed pieces of pottery), grit, and possibly small fragments of crushed bone (Brown 1996:358). Temper strengthens a vessel, preventing it from cracking during the firing process and during general use.

This bowl was made by a process called coiling (Sahm and Jelks 1962). Rolls of clay are first made by moving the clay horizontally on a flat surface or by moving clay between the hands (Rye 1981:67). The length of coils formed for making pottery is generally about 10 centimeters to 1 meter. Coils are placed on top of one another to give the vessel its shape, and then they are scraped and smoothed out (Rye 1981:67).

The fully-shaped vessel is then fired. The people at Spiro would have used open firing techniques. Potters would have controlled the rate of heating, the maximum temperature, and to some degree, the amount of air that the baking pottery vessels would have received (Rye 1981:97). Pottery is fired to give vessels the desired characteristics of hardness, porosity, and stability under many different physical and chemical conditions (Rye 1981:97).

The decorative style is classified as Crockett Curvilinear Incised, which is characterized by curvilinear motifs, such as scroll designs and spirals (Sahm and Jelks 1962). This particular bowl has an interlocking scroll motif that also includes doubly entwined spirals (Brown 1996:359). This style of pottery was made at Spiro from about A.D. 1100-1250 (Brown 1996:169).

The spiral and scroll motifs that appear on ceramic vessels at Spiro are believed to reflect wider Mississippian symbolism (Galloway 1989). The image of a spiral can relate to forms of organization and to movement. Ethnographic accounts show that several Southeastern tribes moved in a spiral around a central fire during dances and ceremonies. Dances involving the spiral motion were performed counterclockwise, which was the direction that people believed snakes coiled and was considered to be opposite to the movements of the sun (Galloway 1989:72). The imagery of the sun and serpent, which a spiral design might represent, also is indicative of the Underworld and Upper world in Mississippian mythology. Spiral designs, such as the one seen on this engraved bowl, might also represent the end of a whelk shell (Sievert 2011:32). These shells were important goods traded from the Gulf and were frequently crafted into items such as engraved shell cups, gorgets, and inlays.