Artifact Spotlight: The Negative

Short description of negative-painted pottery sherd from Angel Mounds.

by April Sievert, Director

I spotted this pot-sherd as our curation assistant, Hannah Ballard (IU’18), was inventorying our ‘type’ collection of ceramics from Angel Mounds, the 13th century town on the Ohio River near Evansville. The piece, from the broad rim of a large plate, boasts a signature decorating technique—negative painting. Potters at Angel Mounds made plates of clay tempered with fine pieces of shell, and applied multiple layers of slip or pigment to create designs around the rim in black, red and buff-clay colors.  While I’m used to seeing painted sherds with crossed-circle and geometric designs, this was the first time I’d actually seen one of the two sherds from Angel that sport a bi-lobed arrow/bowstring motif. The red arrow shows through a layer of black. The motif is a very special one for Mississippian people, seen far and wide across the Mississippi Valley and Southeast. Finding the design at Angel Mounds underscores how far afield people of Angel communicated.

Seeing this design reminded me of another Mississippian collection that I documented for the Smithsonian Institution’s Repatriation Office nearly 30 years ago. That site is Spiro, located along the Arkansas River in far eastern Oklahoma. Spiro was infamously looted in the 1930s, and later excavated as part of the Works Projects Administration, just like Angel. At Spiro, the motif had been carved into the outsides of whelk shells that hail from the Gulf of Mexico. Bi-lobed designs also show up also on hair ornaments, rock art, and rendered in native copper spread far across the Southeast.  

But what does the motif mean? Association with the bow and arrow seems pretty clear, with a possibility that the lobes reflect back to the atlatl, or spear thrower. It could also be indirectly reflective of a traditional Siouan culture hero known as Redhorn, or ‘he who gets hit with deer lungs’. Professor Robert Hall was an Indigenous symbolic archaeologist from Wisconsin, and one of my graduate mentors, who had made this connection. Could the two lobes in the design harken back to an image of deer lungs attached to a trachea? We can’t really know for sure, but it is clear is that ancient Indigenous people along the Ohio engaged in a system of ceremony, communication, and artistry that far exceeds the confines of an agricultural site in the central Ohio Valley.

Fall 2018: Work with Wylie House Collections

by Eric Carlucci

The second half of the Wylie House project in the Fall semester of 2018 was focused on analysis of the ceramic materials. Along with students from an Archaeological Lab Methods course occurring at the same time, ceramics would be analyzed and discussed. To prepare, I was tasked with organizing ceramics into like categories (such as unglazed earthenware, porcelain, and many more), then labeling each piece with the Glenn Black account number, category number, and subcategory number. In order to do this, we applied a thin layer of a quick-drying agent called B72 to a part of the artifact, and then would write over this once it had dried with the lab’s account number, the category number, and subcategory number on each sherd.

The account number reflected the number which will be used to file all Wylie House June 2018 artifacts; the category number reflects the artifact type within the field specimen (or level) bag; and the subcategory number reflects the more specific type of artifacts, such as porcelain or unglazed earthenware. This was a long, drawn-out task of labeling hundreds of sherds, and took place over a number of weeks. At this same time, I was preparing for my qualifying exams to pass through into Ph.D. candidacy. Taking some weeks off to focus on that made the task more urgent to complete in a very short period of time. Thankfully, the hard work paid off, and the ceramic sherds were all completed for the students in time.

Once the students were in their groups, they each focused on a different category. I helped the students where I could, discussing the ceramics or clarifying the object categorization. The students looked through both the sherds and related books and articles to help formulate a good overview of the types of ceramics present at the excavation and the site. They were to create a final project presentation based on their research to present during finals week. At the same time the students were performing their research, I began the process of labeling the next major material category: glass. This aspect of the project continued into the Spring semester, as there was far more glass than even ceramics! The labeling and categorizing of the glass was a similar process as the ceramics. Returning to the student analysis, the end of the semester went well, and the projects proved to be well thought out.

Artifact Identification at the Wylie House

by Lauren Schumacher

My name is Lauren Schumacher and I’m a sophomore studying history and archaeology. I participated in the Wylie House field school in summer 2018, and am now working with the Wylie House and the Glenn Black Lab to help process some Wylie collections and develop a mapping system to log artifacts found on the property in the future.

Garden volunteers have been finding artifacts on the property long before the field school excavations took place. Although the most artifacts were recovered during the construction of the Education Center in 2009, bottles, ceramics, buttons, and bones are often found in and around the garden beds. Since these are isolated artifacts found outside of an official archaeological dig, part of my job has been to create a user-friendly digital map and artifact form to allow people to pinpoint where they found an artifact and describe what it is. This is a way to ensure we have information about the artifact from the time it was found and to make future artifact processing more organized. As artifacts begin to be logged, it will be interesting to see the distribution of artifacts on the map and if there are any concentrations of certain artifact types in a particular area.

In addition to the digital map, I’ve been making an artifact identification guide and an animal bone identification guide for the Wylie House. This process has consisted of researching and compiling information about the major categories of artifacts found at the Wylie House: ceramics, bottles, nails, flat glass, buttons, marbles, and bricks. Each of these categories are broken down into more specific types, such as material, decoration, and use. The hope is that this guide will help students and volunteers better identify and describe artifacts. For example, using the guide, one would be able to identify a ceramic fragment as “salt glazed stoneware” instead of just “ceramic.” Similarly, the bone identification guide will help with the identification of animal bones and butcher marks. In this guide, I looked at the skeletal structure of common types of animals raised and consumed on a 19th century frontier farm: horses, pigs, cows, sheep, and deer. This guide proved harder to research, as nearly every search for specific bones or marks just turned up articles on grilling or pictures of modern butchering. However, I also found this research very interesting as I had never studied bones or butchering techniques before.

As the semester goes on, I look forward to helping the Wylie House as they process more artifacts in their collection and prepare for future excavations!

Processing Artifacts from the Wylie House

by Lauren Schumacher

I’ve spent most of the year getting to know the various Wylie House collections. After being introduced to the Wylie House through the summer field school, I’ve started to process the artifacts rescued during the construction of the education center at Wylie, helped process the artifacts collected during the field school, and completed a Wylie ceramic analysis project for a class in laboratory methods in archaeology.

I started processing the collection at Wylie last semester by roughly sorting the artifacts into their types and cleaning them. Once they were sorted into the broad categories of glass, metal, and ceramic, I started to further sort the ceramics into categories based on the type of ceramic, decorations, and type of vessel sherd (rim, body, or base). Once the sorting is finished, we will be able to start labeling the artifacts and entering them into the database. The system for labeling will be a little less complicated than the one we have been using for the summer excavation collection, since these artifacts weren’t formally excavated. Working with the ceramics has been fun, but I’m looking forward to finishing the sorting and start the labeling process as it will be a nice change of pace.

From this work at Wylie, labeling the summer excavation artifacts has been interesting since I’ve been able to recognize many of the pieces through my other work with Wylie artifacts. In particular, there is a set of glass tumblers that I first saw in Sherry’s collection that continue to pop up in the glass fragments collected during the summer excavation. Finding these surprising little connections has definitely made the labeling of hundreds of flat glass fragments more exciting. With that being said, I am looking forward to being done with the glass and starting to label the metal artifacts. After seeing a collection all the way through from excavation to labeling, I’m excited to get back to work on the Wylie collection and see it completely processed after being neglected for so many years.

A Point in Time

February 19, 2018

by Isabel Osmundsen, GBL Archaeological Field Technician

Acknowledgement of State and Federal Assistance
This project has been funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund administered by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. The project received federal financial assistance for the identification, protection, and/or rehabilitation of historic properties and cultural resources in the State of Indiana. However, the contents and opinions contained in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of the Interior, nor does the mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability in its federally assisted programs. If you believe that you have been discriminated against in any program, activity, or facility as described above, or if you desire further information, please write to: Office of Equal Opportunity, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20240.

The process of identifying and dating an artifact can be an elusive one.

Imagine, if you will, being an artifact, a tool, held by a human for the first time in thousands of years. Much has changed from when you were discarded, forgotten, or lost, after you were used for the last time. What do you share about your own lifespan and the era from whence you came from with this person?

In the summer of 2017, the Glenn A. Black Laboratory conducted a survey project headed by Principal Investigator Associate Research Scientist Elizabeth Watts Malouchos, in which I participated as a field technician. The survey covered nature preserves in northern Monroe County across the watershed of Bean Blossom Creek, seeking to find new prehistoric sites. In the many acres of forest and field that we dug shovel test probes or walked over where visibility was high, we found naught a diagnostic prehistoric artifact—yet the effort was not fruitless. As a moderately-sized group carrying buckets, shovels, tarp, and daypacks traipsing through the woods, our work often catches the eye of those observing us from the fringes as they go about their daily business, arousing their curiosity and usually leading to conversation and education about our work.

While surveying in a less-frequented part of the Indiana University Griffy Lake Research and Teaching Preserve (RTP), we ran into IU RTP Property manager, Michael Chitwood. He showed us a projectile point that another IU researcher had previously discovered in a creek bed on the property. Utilizing artifacts for research which were not systematically collected by trained archaeologists can be a double-edged sword; not everyone is aware of all the standard procedures used by professionals, such as maintaining provenience, but they may have finds that contribute to the record and help fill in the blanks. Pitblado (2014) argues that, according to the Society for American Archaeology’s own guidelines, it is actually unethical for professional archaeologists to wholly discount collectors’ finds, and instead should seek out collaboration with them. In our case, we were lucky in that Michael and the IU researcher recognized the importance of the artifact and its provenience, and recorded where it was found.

Once the GBL subsumes the projectile into its collections, the first step is to identify what it is before we can start making interpretations, followed by greater extrapolations about the past, regarding the people who used the point and how they lived. Two markers of identification are: what material it was made from, and what type of projectile it is exactly. This entails utilizing the GBL’s own Type Collections by taking the specimen and attempting to visually or tactilely match it with known specimens, which seems like a cut and dry process—until it isn’t.

One issue archaeologists encounter while doing analysis is, to borrow from Captain Cragen of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, “We don’t get to pick the vic[tim].” The proverbial victim here being artifacts, archaeologists do not have the option to choose to work with the most illustrative artifacts of the past or the ones in the best condition, but we make the best of what we find. Contrary to what Indiana Jones and Lord Carnarvon might have led you to believe, many archaeological finds are not so “sexy.” From the time they are deposited, artifacts have to battle the elements, which can cause wear and tear. This exposure can simulate use wear and overinflate how much an artifact was utilized in its life, skewing our interpretations. Case in point, (ba-dum-tss) the point discussed here was discovered in a creek bed where water and tumbling stones could have polished it, leading us to believe it was utilized more heavily than it was.

Another factor in identification has to do with the classification of different projectile points. The specimen’s identification as a certain type typically demonstrate the peak, distinctive characteristics that define a central group of like artifacts which are associated with a culture. Similar to how law enforcement uses ten points to match fingerprints, an archaeologist tries to match as many observable characteristics in the artifact as they can to those in the type collection. The point discussed here is not the most finely crafted and has been worn by water, hindering this comparison and making it difficult to perfectly match it to a particular type.

This also makes its individual story all the more interesting: was the person knapping this in a hurry? Were they a novice practicing their form? What makes it difficult to tell the story of the deep histories of Monroe County serves to highlight the hand and life of a real individual from long ago, connecting us to them.

After some deliberation, I decided the point seems to be most like a Merom point, of the Terminal Late Archaic culture from 2,000 to 1,000 calibrated BC (Stafford and Cantin 2009) and made of Holland chert, a stone with a waxy to glassy sheen of varying muted colors. This point type is most commonly seen throughout the bottom half of Indiana and parts of Ohio, as far as just across into Missouri, and the upper half of Kentucky (Justice 1987). Holland chert comes from a type of limestone of the Staunton Formation, part of the Pennsylvanian geologic system, named after an exposed outcropping near Holland, Dubois County (Indiana Geological and Water Survey).

Even within this single period, the points greatly vary across time; some have large barbs towards the base, others have a neatly serrated edge. Some are squat and triangular, others are slightly longer and even a bit ovoid.

Around this time, the people of the Archaic started transitioning in the ways they lived. They moved their home bases from creeks and streams to larger confluences and rivers, which could have been due to a change in their environment (Stafford and Cantin 2009). People focused more heavily on collecting and stayed put for longer periods of time, made possible through longer-term plans for the future. Such planning is indicative of a more complex society in which tasks and roles were more delineated, and why such collectors practiced what is termed “logistical mobility,” used in deciding whether to move or stay put, or in other matters such as sending out task groups. (Binford, 1980)

That’s certainly a lot to glean from one diagnostic projectile point! But this argumentation is also what I love about archaeology—our interpretations open up so much about our past that can’t be found in a book. It’s a logical challenge based on the strength of your argument, and cracking that code is an accomplishment that feels like none other.

References cited

Binford, Lewis
1980     Willow Smoke and Dogs’ Tails: Hunter-Gatherer Settlement Systems and Archaeological Site Formation. American Antiquity, 45(1): 4-20. doi:10.2307/279653

Indiana Geological and Water Survey
Holland Limestone Member. Retrieved from

Justice, Noel D
1987     Merom Cluster. In Stone age spear and arrow points of the midcontinental and eastern united states (1st paperback ed., pp. 130-132). Indiana University Press. Bloomington.

Pitblado, Bonnie

Stafford, C. Russell, and Mark Cantin
2009     Archaic Period Chronology in the Hill Country of Southern Indiana. In Archaic societies: diversity and complexity across the midcontinent, edited by Thomas E. Emerson, Dale L. McElrath, and Andrew C. Fortier, pp 287-313. State University of New York Press. Albany.

Wolf, Dick (Writer) and Jean De Segonzac (Director)
1999     Payback. Law and order: special victims unit. NBC.