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 https://igws.indiana.edu/compendium/comp6bhg.cfm

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
2014     AN ARGUMENT FOR ETHICAL, PROACTIVE, ARCHAEOLOGIST-ARTIFACT COLLECTOR COLLABORATION. American Antiquity, 79(3): 385-400. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43184913

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.