A recent donation to the Castle Museum included dozens of stone artifacts, a few grit-tempered ceramic sherds, and several hundred fragments of animal bones from an archaeological site (assigned the provisional name of SH-200) located along the Shiawassee River in Saginaw County, Michigan. Diagnostic lithic and ceramic artifacts indicate the site was occupied, at a minimum, during the Middle and Late Woodland periods. The large animal bone assemblage includes 22 specimens that were intentionally modified into awls, points, hafts/handles, or scraping tools. The latter category includes 10 fragments of bone beamers.
Beamers are hide-working tools used to scrape hair and tissue from the hide prior to tanning. They functioned in a manner similar to a drawknife. The name “beamer” appears to reference the practice of stretching the hide over a wooden beam during the scraping process. Although other bones were sometimes used, beamers were generally manufactured from the metapodials (cannon bones) of members of the deer family (Cervidae). All of the specimens from SH-200 are derived from White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).
Beamers were made by removing either the anterior or posterior border of the central shaft of a metapodial (metacarpal or metatarsal) and then grinding the two parallel lateral edges into blade-like forms. The specimens from SH-200 include two metacarpal (front leg) fragments modified on their posterior margin, three metatarsal (rear leg) fragments modified on their posterior margins, four metatarsal fragments (three of which refit – see image above) modified on their anterior margins, and one undetermined metapodial modified on its anterior margin.
Over time the blades would dull, necessitating occasional re-sharpening. Eventually the tool would become too thin to support the stresses of use and it would fracture. The specimens from SH-200 were likely used to this point and discarded. In 2002, a nearly complete example (after refitting) was excavated by the Castle Museum archaeology team at the nearby site 20SA1251 (Sommer 2007:4-5). This specimen was made by modifying the posterior border of a White-tailed Deer metatarsal. Two additional bones, the naviculocuboid and cuneiform pes, were found in articulation with proximal end of the metatarsal indicating either this end of the beamer was wrapped in some manner during use, or that connecting ligaments/tissues remained intact during what must have been a relatively short use-life.
Compared with stone and ceramic artifacts, bone tools are relatively infrequent in prehistoric archaeological assemblages from the Great Lakes region. This is especially true of surface-derived collections. The beamer fragments (and other modified bones) from SH-200 bolster our inventory of what is likely an underrepresented technological aspect of local material culture.