Ashley Lemke’s upcoming presentation (see previous post) for the Saginaw Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society on “Early Art in North America: Engraved artifacts from the Gault Site, Texas” got me thinking about similar types of “portable art” from the Saginaw Valley. Although I am not aware of any incised objects or other forms of portable art from Paleoindian contexts in the Saginaw Valley, such material is certainly present from later time periods. Without implying any sort of cultural relationship or functional equivalency between the Gault site Paleoindian material and much later local material, I thought it might be fun to share a few examples from the Castle Museum’s and other Saginaw County collections.
Ceramics are the most obvious and familiar example of local prehistoric artifacts that we could consider portable art. However, because the inspiration for this post is incised/engraved stone and bone objects, I’ll limit myself to those materials. Likewise, unembellished gorgets, pendants, birdstones, bannerstones, beads, and similar objects could certainly be considered portable art, but I’ll disregard those as well. Having said that, gorgets and pendants are probably the types of artifacts most frequently decorated or otherwise embellished with incised/engraved lines, hash marks, tally marks, etc. and they comprise the majority of the examples I came up with.
The first example is a ground slate object made into a shape reminiscent of a stemmed projectile point. Given its thick rounded edges, it likely would not have functioned as such. It may have served as a pendant. The only embellishment is a single incised line extending longitudinally along the center of each face from the “shoulder” area to, and around, the tip. This specimen was found on the surface of a multicomponent site with material spanning the Middle Archaic through the Late Prehistoric periods.
The second specimen is a green banded slate gorget or pendant fragment originally from the Golson collection. (Golson is noteworthy for the fact that in the late 19th century she kept a journal, which we have at the museum, describing many of the sites and artifacts she found. Probably a good subject for a future post!) Remnants of a drilled hole are present along the broken edge. Although grinding marks (striations) are present on all surfaces except the break face, the incised decoration is present only on one face. It is pictured here as photographed and with the incised lines traced over in black for better visibility. Unfortunately, although we can assume it was found in Saginaw County, we do not know which site this artifact came from. It could date anywhere from the Late Archaic through early Late Woodland time periods.
Another gorget or pendant fragment was found on the surface at site 20SA1254 in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. This example is made out of a relatively soft, earthy hematite/limonite material. Like the previous example, it displays remnants of a hole along the broken edge. In this case the hole is biconical – it was drilled from both faces and the drill holes are cone-shaped, becoming narrower towards the middle. Also like the previous example, decorative elements are confined to one face. With the exception of the beginnings of a possible drill hole, the face opposite the decoration appears unmodified. Given the soft, weathered, raw material, the incised design is difficult to make out. I traced the lines I could see in black, but others may have originally been present. This site contains Late Archaic through Historic period material in a mixed surface context. Therefore, a more precise date cannot be given.
The fourth example of portable art is a pendant made from a cut, ground, and engraved Black Bear (Ursus americanus) mandible – a left mandible to be exact. The mandible was modified by cutting and grinding away the ramus and the inferior margin of the body. The medial surface of the body and the lingual surface of the remaining teeth (M2 and M3) have been ground flat. The anterior portion of the mandible is broken away and it is not clear what portion would have been present on the complete pendant. A hole was drilled from the lateral surface of the body near the posterior end into the marrow cavity. Grinding of the medial surface on this end of the pendant exposed the marrow cavity so the drilled hole did not need to penetrate the medial surface. Incising is confined to the lateral surface adjacent to the surviving M2 and the no longer present M1. This pendant, which is currently in a private collection, was found on the surface of a site near the Saginaw River in Saginaw County. A canine tooth from a Black Bear was found in the same vicinity, but it could not be refit with the pendant. Late Woodland and Middle Woodland artifacts and at least one Meadowood point are also reported from the site. Several cut and ground bear teeth and mandible fragments, interpreted as the remains of pendants, were recovered from the Middle Woodland levels at the nearby Schultz Site (Murray 1972). I suspect this pendant dates to the same period.
Although its function is not clear, an engraved antler artifact excavated from a trash pit (Feature 11) at the Clunie site (20SA722) may also be a pendant. This object is perforated with a biconical hole 4.40 mm from one end. The other end is missing. The curve of this relatively thin (3.34 – 5.33 mm), strap-like piece of antler follows the natural curve of the tine from which it was split. It tapers slightly outward from the narrow (9.46 mm wide), squared off, perforated end to the wider (13.53 mm) broken end. Decoration consists of three roughly parallel engraved lines extending 60.00 mm from the perforated end to 15.48 mm from the broken end. The perforation goes through the central engraved line. Centered approximately 3.6 mm from the end of the engraved lines there is a transverse row of three “dots” spaced approximately equal to the engraved lines. A second row of dots is centered approximately 6.4 mm further towards the broken end. Remnants of a third row of smaller dots are visible approximately 2.5 mm further towards the end along the break face. This final row of dots is obscured by an incised line extending perpendicular across the artifact. The break face is at/below this line. It is not clear if the artifact was accidentally broken at this weak point or if the transverse incised line was actually an effort to score the antler so it would snap at this point in a controlled manner. In either case, there was no subsequent modification of the break face. Multiple radiometric dates and typological associations place the Clunie site (including Feature 11) securely into the Late Prehistoric/Protohistoric time period.
The final example is, perhaps, the most intriguing. It is an engraved, relatively flat, hard stone (possibly diabase) approximately 7.3 cm long and 1.8 cm wide. Two eye-like spots are pecked into each face of the stone on the same end. Each face of the artifact is also decorated with a pattern of lightly incised lines. The lines were rubbed with chalk in an effort to make the design more visible. Though modified for this image, both the photographs and drawings were originally done several years ago. The artifact is in a private collection and is not currently available for reanalysis. It was found on the surface of a site located near the Cass River in Saginaw County. The full range of occupation of the site is not known, but a number of Late Archaic/Early Woodland (Meadowood) artifacts have been recovered and this artifact may well go with that component.
This is by no means a comprehensive set of portable art objects from the Saginaw Valley. However, even though the selected sample is biased by containing only artifacts (or photos) to which I happened to have easy access, I think it is broadly representative of the types of local, nonperishable objects that were at least occasionally embellished with incising and other forms of decoration.