Friday, February 26, 2010

What Is It? - Part 2

Last week we posted a new blog section titled “WHAT IS IT” where viewers have the opportunity to present their comments about an unusual artifact. Future “WHAT IS IT” postings will include unusual objects of prehistoric and historic age that are not typically found in the archaeological record. Last week’s artifact was the so-called “ceremonial pick”, a unique symmetrically shaped bi-pointed stone tool. We have seen five examples and there are undoubtedly many more out there to be discovered. One of our readers suggested that the “ceremonial pick” is not a prehistoric artifact at all but a sharpening stone manufactured from compressed graphite used to sharpen scythes. Indeed, we at TWIPA agree that the object is a sharpening stone, but a stone, used to sharpen a different type of tool.

We were so interested in this object that we contacted the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Topographic and Geological Survey’s John Barnes, Geologist Supervisor in the Resource Analysis Section to determine the elemental composition of the object. We provided John and his colleague, Steve Shank, with two samples from two different specimens which they analyzed via SEM (scanning electron microscope).

Their findings were amazingly detailed! As it turns out, both samples contained aluminum oxide (corundum); silicon oxide (quartz); iron oxide (hematite) and a trace of manganese. In addition, Steve determined that naturally occurring corundum would not be stable with quartz under geologic conditions. The corundum plus quartz would normally react to form one of the aluminosilicates.

This is where it gets interesting! Since John’s SEM analysis clearly indicated the presence of corundum and quartz in both sample matrices, the parent material must be something other than natural stone. John discovered that “ …… based on the data that we have that indicate the apparent presence of both aluminum oxide and silicon oxide in both sampled stones, I am now leaning toward this being some sort of man-made mixture of quartz and corundum, both which are abrasive minerals, perhaps in some sort of an iron casting”………..

In addition, we consulted with Robert Smith, Geologist DCNR (retired), who has been among the pool of experts called upon in our never ending analytical quest of the “odd and unusual.” He provided insight into a possible method of manufacture and use of these sharpening tools. Bob states, "[the material] was molded and then fired at moderate temperature. Clay is a possible, cheap binder, which would not have required heating to the point where the corundum and quartz would react in a dry system…. Contemporary brand slipstone say they use Japanese corundum and a ceramic [after heating process] binder. They are probably fused until almost a porcelain ..."

Which leads us to solving the mystery of the ceremonial pick featured in last week’s “WHAT IS IT”. The bi-pointed stone tool is a commercially manufactured slipstone used for sharpening a woodworker’s steel gouge!

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, February 19, 2010

? ? ? WHAT IS IT ? ? ? ?

This week’s blog features a new topic ? ? ? WHAT IS IT ? ? ? ?

The idea is to post an unusually unique artifact that fits the “problematic” category of artifact typology. For each WHAT IS IT topic we encourage the readers of TWIPA to comment on the object along with comparable information (i.e. photographs, drawings etc.) that will contribute to the identification of the featured object.

This week’s submission is the artifact category “ceremonial pick”. Although this artifact type is rarely encountered in collections, we have seen examples from private and institutional (museum) collections. In fact, there is a similar example of one in the “Problematic” case on exhibit in the Hall of Anthropology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. However, this particular specimen displays a bit edge fashioned on one end.

All of the specimens that we have seen are complete, quite symmetrical and made from an olive brown to dark brown fine grained stone. Dimensions range from 8.25 inches to 9.5 inches in length with a maximum cross-sectional diameter of .75 inch to 1.00 inch. Weights range from 5.1 to 6.4 oz.

In next week’s blog we will unveil the mystery of the “ceremonial pick” and provide additional information on this unique artifact type.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, February 12, 2010

Symbols of Love

A ring has long been a token of love and affection and this week we showcase an artifact type that exemplifies this symbol of love, the Jesuit heart ring. The Jesuits were French missionaries who traveled throughout the area know as New France (the Great Lakes region) during the fur trade (16th – 18th centuries). Trade objects were often used as currency when negotiating with native peoples and in an attempt to persuade them to Christianity Jesuits would often give “…glass beads, rings, awls, small pocket knives…” which were popular trade items. Jesuit rings have been found at many contact sites in the Great Lakes to the lower Mississippi Valley and many were found here in Pennsylvania at several of the Washington Boro sites.

Jesuit rings have been described by Charles Cleland (1972) as falling into one of three major prototypes; the L-Heart Series, the double M Series and the IHS Series. These prototypes give way to style drift over time which is attributed to the proliferation of rings as trade items. Because these rings start out being used as rewards for ‘learning ones prayers’ and are therefore tokens of Christianity, it is not safe to assume that the abundance of these artifacts on a given site should be interpreted as a change in religious beliefs. The rings were not typically worn as rings on native sites but more as ornaments, so not necessarily being used as wedding bands or symbols of the adoption of the Christian faith. On European sites they seem to be evidence of a cottage industry to produce trade goods. This substantiates the idea that style drift is caused by the increased production of a lesser product; the early rings being of better quality than those found at later sites.

The Pennsylvania and Historical Museum Commission (PHMC) excavations at Conestoga Town (36La52) in Lancaster County produced a total of 272 rings. Most of these rings (188) are described as plain wedding band types (Kent 1984). Some of the heart rings from this collection are comparable to the L-Heart Series described by Charles Cleland (1972) but many do not fall into that classification. Fewer rings were recovered from the Strickler Site (36La3) but those found were more representative of the L-Heart Series. More common to the PHMC collection of heart rings are the ‘Fede’ or Faith Rings which are derived from an early roman design. This design may be more familiar to some of our viewers as a precursor to the popular Claddagh Ring. Both the Claddagh and the Fede rings are still used today as wedding bands.

What better symbol of the eternal betrothal of love to celebrate Valentines Day!

1972 Cleland, Charles
From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings
American Antiquity, Volume 37, Number 2

1982 Hauser, Judith
Jesuit Rings from Fort Michilimackinac And Other European Contact Sites
Archaeological Completion report Series Number 5, Mackinac Island State Park Commission

1984 Kent, Barry
Susquehanna’s Indians
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Anthropological Series Number 6

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, February 5, 2010

Let' s Make a Mend(s)

close-up slip decorated redware with mend holes

Depicted this week are two examples of mended ceramic vessels, one prehistoric, the other historic. For reasons often defended as simple convenience, in this modern day and age so much of what we consume (and especially the containers it comes in) is ultimately considered disposable. Here we have two examples where an item was spared the fate of the garbage heap, and instead repaired and presumably, continued to function well enough to still be of value to their owners.
slip decorated redware pie plate with mend holes

The slip-decorated red earthenware pie plate is from the Wilson Tract site, 36Ch687, a historic farmstead site where archaeological excavations were undertaken as part of a wetlands mitigation project in conjunction with modifications to route 202 in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County. Notoriously difficult to date because of its ubiquity, this particular specimen of redware, characterized as Philadelphia-style slipware (Affleck et al. 2004, pg.7.85) can be reasonably dated to the mid 18th century.

Owasco horizontal cord marked vessel with mend holes

The other vessel, of indigenous manufacture with a horizontal corded design, was recovered from the Overpeck site, 36Bu5, situated along the Delaware River in Bucks County. Although found at Overpeck, a site attributed to the Delaware or Lenape, this vessel has been described as Owasco in style(PA Archaeologist Vol. 50 No.3, pg.27), a culture-tradition of the Late Woodland Period. The tell-tale characteristic linking these two pottery vessels is of course the mend holes, whereby string or twine would be tied through to hold the sherds in place, repairing the piece to a usable condition.

close-up Owasco horizontal corded pot with 2 pair of mend holes

The identical behavior being exhibited, that of repairing a broken item, in what one would assume to be two very different cultures and across a long period of time, not only illustrates the value placed upon something a simple as a utilitarian clay pot or plate but also emphasizes the behavior as pan-cultural as well as one that has been (at least until relatively recently) temporally enduring.

Today, the prevailing mentality of “just throw that one away and get a new one” represents a significant shift away from the way people have interacted with their material culture throughout the vast majority of human history. Our example highlights just one of the similarities between the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America and early European Americans that we, as their modern descendents, generally speaking do not share with those same ancestors.

2004 Affleck, Richard M. et al.
Life on the Preiphery: Data Recovery Investigations of the Wilson Tract Site (36Ch687), Circa 1780-1820 URS Corporation, Inc. Florence, New Jersey

Forks of the Delaware Chapter 14
The Overpeck Site (36Bu5) Pennsylvania Archaeologist Volume 50, Number 3

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .