Curating Angel Update: Freshwater Drum Fish

by Samantha Schlegel

Image of Samantha on the left of the statue which stands several heads taller than her.
Samantha next to statue of Hatshepsut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (July 2019)

Hello Everyone! My name is Samantha Schlegel! I am a new member of the SAT/IMLS funded Curating Angel. I am working as a Curator’s Assistant. I have had a great time wearing a mask and sorting faunal bones for the end part of my summer. I am currently an undergraduate at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis. I am studying Art History and Museum Studies.

This project has given me so much learning experience in what goes on behind the scenes in museums and archaeology labs which I can take into the field once I earn my Bachelors. I am hoping to be back for next summer and cannot wait to continue on the next few parts of this project which includes ceramics and lithics. Personally, I cannot wait to look at the ceramics and see what they used to decorate them, as well as what type of designs may be on the ceramics. There is always something new to find and something new to learn, which is why I am so interested in the rehousing project. Not only do I learn something new about an artifact each day, I get to explore part of history as well.

Sketch of a freshwater drum fish in color
Freshwater drum fish (image via Wikipedia)

As a member of this team, I have gotten to sort through many types of faunal bones and was not quite sure what I would find. We have found tons of different bones and it is always fun to ask Amanda Burtt (Associate Curator for the rehousing project) what bones belong to each animal. But recently, I have found an interesting bone that I had never really seen before. It belongs to the Freshwater Drum fish. These bones are called pharyngeal bones. They include lots of different molar like teeth that help the Freshwater Drum eat its meals. The question that came with this was why do we have so many of these bones among our faunal bones? Also, what did the Mississippians use Drum fish for? So today, you guys get to explore that with me!

Let’s start with some of the fast facts about the Freshwater Drum fish. The earliest written data for the Freshwater Drum fish was created in the late 1800s. Their native range is from the Midwest region straight down through some of the southern region of the United States. They are primarily found in clear water, large rivers and small, shallow lakes. They are “bottom feeders” meaning their diets include mollusks, insects, crayfish, minnows, amphipods, and the younger drum eat zooplankton. Their best known food to eat now is the zebra mollusk which is an invasive species here in the United States. Its predators include bigger fish and humans. The Freshwater Drum fish can range up to 10 to 14 inches in length. They can live around 6 to 13 years. They spawn during May and June laying up to 600,000 eggs. I did find out in some later research that in today’s world, Freshwater Drum fish are not very appetizing. They are not really used for table food due to their meaty consistency and taste. This fact created more questions as expected from such a weird fact.

Moving onto my questions: why do we have so many of the Pharyngeal bones in our faunal bones? What did the Mississippians use Drum fish for? What if the Mississippians didn’t eat the meat, then who did they give it to? Beginning with the first question, we find tons of the Pharyngeal bones among the bone artifacts for the rehousing project. They range in multiple sizes, probably from baby drum to adult drum sizes. From what I have read in other archaeological research, there were two possible hypotheses for the use of Freshwater Drum fish. One of the hypotheses was the usage of their vertebrae; there was a calcium deposit that was used for jewelry. I personally do not feel this hypothesis makes sense, due to the amount of fish vertebrae we find but also the lack of evidence that supported it. The second hypothesis talked about the Freshwater Drum fish otoliths. Otoliths are a unique ear bone. Today people find these otoliths and call them “lucky stones”. They are used for jewelry today, and the hypothesis also suggests that they may be used for jewelry. The issue I am facing is that we have not seen a single otolith among our bone artifacts.

The information I have found has led me to create hypotheses for some of the questions I started with in the beginning. One hypothesis I have thought of is that because Freshwater Drum fish are not known for eating, they may have fed that meat to their domesticated animals (dogs). My second hypothesis is that we may find the otoliths among the stone artifacts. We sadly won’t know this until we get into those artifacts, which may be next summer, but it will be on our radar! Hopefully we will have more updates on the Freshwater Drum as we continue the rehousing project and definitely will find more interesting bones as we go!


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