Collection Notes

Mystery Object from Swan Creek

Regular readers of this blog are aware that, over the past three years, the Castle Museum has conducted an archaeological survey in the Swan Creek Area of Saginaw County. For those who may be interested, you can read more about our work in the Swan Creek Study Area here, here, and elsewhere in the blog. We found the “Mystery Object” pictured below during the 2017 survey. Like other material from the site, it probably dates between the early 19th and late 20th centuries.

Mystery Object from the Swan Creek Study Area

The artifact is made of iron. It was badly corroded, but after cleaning appears to be complete. It is 103.32 mm long with a 19.23 mm wide by 21.94 mm thick conical/triangular point on one end and a flat tab expanding from 19.23 mm to 26.93 mm on the other end. The tab is 5.73 mm thick and comprises more than half the length of the object. The conical/triangular end appears to be mostly solid, but has an elliptical hole extending 4.57 mm towards the point. The hole, which can be seen in top view in the image above, may have been deeper originally. If so, it is now filled with corroded material. Other than the hole, there are no perforations or apparent additional means of attaching this object to another.

So, readers, any ideas about what this mystery object might be? Part of some 20th century farm machinery? A foot from a 19th century surveyor’s transit/tripod? Something else entirely? Please comment with your ideas or guesses and help us solve the mystery!


Saginaw Valley Archaeologists: Contributors to the Field IV – Eliza L. Golson

Note: As the title implies, this series of occasional posts is intended to highlight individuals who have made significant contributions, in one way or another, to the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley. Subjects of previous posts in the series include Fred Dustin, Harlan I. Smith, and Ralph Stroebel.

Eliza Golson is less well-known in local archaeological circles than the previous subjects of this series, but she exemplifies the contributions that avocational archaeologists have so often made to the field. And she did so at a very early date! Much of the following biographic information was compiled by the Castle Museum’s Chief Curator, Sandy Schwan and can be sourced to the introduction to a transcription of Eliza Golson’s diary prepared by Golson’s granddaughter, Theo Alice Klisch and great-granddaughter, Margaret Klisch and to conversations with Margaret Klisch.

Born Eliza Martin on December 9, 1853 in Buffalo, New York, she moved to Saginaw with her family in 1863 where they took up residence on a houseboat. Though formal education was precluded by family responsibilities, young Eliza had a curious mind and a desire to learn and she managed to educate herself.

Eliza Golson

In 1871, Eliza Martin married Frank Golson. They resided in South Saginaw and had six children. While raising her family, Eliza developed an avid interest in the prehistoric artifacts she found near her home – many from right in her own flower beds, others from elsewhere in the neighborhood. Although she had no formal training in archaeology, she recognized the significance of her finds and the importance of documenting them.

Eliza Golson’s Journal

Between 1881 and 1906, Eliza Golson kept a journal of her archaeological activities. Entries describe outings with her children and other family members to search for artifacts. They record what the family found and where. She also describes various classes of artifacts in her collection and speculates on how they were made and their possible functions. The journal entries paint a picture of a woman not simply content to amass a collection of objects, but rather, interested in learning about what those objects might mean.

Selected artifacts from the Golson Collection.

One of Eliza’s children, Edward (Edd), was a schoolmate and good friend of Harlan I. Smith. [Smith, of course, later became a celebrated archaeologist/ethnologist most widely known for his work in the Pacific Northwest.] Edd is mentioned several times in Golson’s journal and seems to have been rather adept at finding artifact caches. Edd’s first cache, consisting of 83 Bayport chert cores and/or preforms, was found 26 April 1890 and was donated to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University that same year.

Edd discovered six bifaces from a second cache on 1 May 1892. Over the next two days, he and Eliza recovered 53 additional specimens from the cache. They sent a report on the cache to the Smithsonian Institution on 8 May 1892 and on 28 June 1892, Harlan I. Smith arrived to photograph the cache.

This image is a copy of Harlan I. Smith’s photo of the Golson Cache #2, found in Saginaw in 1892 by Edward and Eliza Golson and exhibited by Smith at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

In 1893, the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley was presented to an international audience when Smith chose to exhibit this cache and several additional items from the Golson collection at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Eliza made note of the loan in a 21 March 1893 journal entry.

March 21st 1893
Today Harlin I Smith came for some of my specimens to take to the Worlds Fair for Exhibition. I let him have in Edds name
1 Cache of 59 Implements
1 Copper Axe
1 Copper Awl
103 Bone Points
4 Deer Horns (Pieces of Deer Horns)
1 large tooth
15 Bear Teeth
58 Horn Points

Her 7 December 1893 entry documents that the artifacts were well taken care of and all were returned in good condition.

Dec the 7th 1893
Mr H I Smith Returned my specimens all of them in good condition

Eliza Golson died on 23 February 1923 in South Saginaw. Her memory endures through her continuing contribution to the body of knowledge about the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley. In 1980-1981, her descendants honored her memory and efforts by transcribing Eliza’s journal and distributing copies to various institutions including the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, and the Historical Society of Saginaw County. In 2012, Eliza Golson’s original journal was donated to the Historical Society of Saginaw County. Although much of her collection seems to have been dispersed, portions can be found today at the Peabody Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and in the archaeological collections of the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History.

Collection Notes: A Probable Middle Woodland Vessel from the Caster Site (20SA316)

During the summer of 1969, avocational archaeologists from the Saginaw area conducted a test excavation at the Caster Site (20SA316) in Swan Creek Township, Saginaw County, Michigan. They staked out a 10’X30′ block divided into 5’X5′ excavation units and began their work. They recorded their findings on graph paper scaled 1 inch to the foot and supplemented their records with color movies documenting their progress at the site. According to a brief report published in the Saginaw Valley Archaeologist (Ray and Woodworth 1969:26), by September of that year they had recovered 12 projectile points, numerous ceramic sherds, a few chips and flakes, one celt, much fire-cracked rock, and numerous fire pits, post molds, and bone fragments. Some of the material excavated from this site eventually ended up at the Castle Museum. Unfortunately, maps, notes, photos, or other documentation did not accompany the artifacts and are now presumed lost.

The artifacts from this site now held in the Castle Museum Archaeological Repository include lithics and ceramics typologically consistent with Middle Woodland and Late Woodland occupations. At least nine grit-tempered ceramic sherds (seven after refits) appear to be from a single vessel, probably Middle Woodland in age.



Probable Middle Woodland Vessel from the Caster Site.

The vessel is decorated with bands of oblique and horizontal dentate stamping on the smooth exterior rim and neck and additional dentate stamping on the interior lip/rim juncture. The lower rim also exhibits a row of exterior nodes/interior punctates within the band of dentate stamping. The body/shoulder of the vessel is cord-roughened below the band of horizontal dentate stamping on the neck. From the neck up, this vessel closely resembles the Middle Woodland ceramic type Tittabawassee Dentate Stamped as defined by Fischer (1972) at the nearby Schultz site. Below the neck is a different story. None of the Tittabawassee Dentate Stamped vessels described by Fischer at the Schultz site, or by Halsey (1976) at the (also nearby) Bussinger site, exhibit cord-roughened bodies. When cord-roughening is evident on Tittabawassee Dentate Stamped vessels it is generally well smoothed-over. That is not to say that cord-roughened surfaces are outside of the local Middle Woodland repertoire. Undecorated rim cordmarked (cord-roughened) vessels were present in nearly every stratigraphic level at the Schultz site, including Middle Woodland levels (Fischer 1972:185). Cord-roughened vessels decorated only with a row of nodes around the rim or neck were also present in Middle Woodland levels at both the Schultz and Bussinger sites. At Bussinger, Halsey (1976:193) defined a provisional type, Tittabawassee Cord-marked Noded, to describe such vessels.

Despite the unusual surface treatment, this vessel is probably best described as a variety of Tittabawassee Dentate Stamped. Like other vessels of this type is likely to date within the period of 100 B.C. to A.D. 400.

Random Artifact from the Collection – An 18th Century Buttplate Tang from Saginaw

The archaeology collections curated at the Castle Museum contain relatively few artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries. A gunflint or two, the odd glass bead, and, perhaps, an iron pot hook and two axes described by Spencer (2006) make up the bulk of the pre-19th century Historic period material at the museum. This buttplate tang, which is missing the finial, can be added to the list. Donated to the Historical Society of Saginaw County (HSSC) in 2006, this artifact was found on the surface near the confluence of the Shiawassee and Tittabawassee rivers in Saginaw County.

Buttplate Tang from 20SA600.

Buttplate Tang from 20SA600.

So, what exactly is a buttplate? It is a gun part, brass in this case, that covers the (butt) end of the wooden stock. The tang is the portion of the buttplate that bends over the top of the stock, adding a decorative element, as well as helping to secure the buttplate to the stock. The finial, which is broken off on this specimen, is the end of the tang (the top end in the photograph). The design elements on this buttplate tang from Saginaw include a shell motif and a crossed bow, arrow, and, perhaps, a quiver. A similarly decorated buttplate was excavated in 1975 at Fort Michilimackinac from the bottom of a latrine used by the British ca. 1775-1781 (Hamilton 1976). Other similar examples have been found in a 1730-1775 context at the Little Osage Site (23SA3) in Missouri and in a 1763-1783 context at Spaulding’s Lower Store (Pu23) in Florida (Hamilton 1980, 1982). Hamilton (1980:77) suggests that these buttplates are derived from late 18th century English guns that were imitating the French Type D Trade Gun pattern.

Two Storage Pits from the Clunie Site

In light of Kate Frederick’s upcoming presentation “Holes: A Beginners Guide to Food Storage” at the October meeting of the Saginaw Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society (announced here), I thought I would share photos of two large pit features from the Clunie site (20SA722). The Clunie site is a late Prehistoric/Protohistoric site, ca. AD 1400-1650, located along the Tittabawassee River in Saginaw County. Excavations conducted by the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History between 2005 and 2013 revealed a number of features including two interpreted as having initially functioned as a storage pits with subsequent use as hearths and/or trash pits.

Feature 5 was a large deep pit extending 130 cm in length, 90+ cm in width, and 126 cm deep. It was likely circular in plan view, but it was not fully excavated so the exact size and shape is unknown. The bottom and perhaps sides of the pit were lined with thick bark, which was later burned. The burning process may have served to sterilize the pit for reuse. Reddened and blackened soil along the walls of the pit is evidence of the intense heat caused by burning the bark lining and subsequent use of the pit as a hearth. The question of what was stored in Feature 5 during its initial phase of use may be answered in part by the presence of two or three charred aquatic tubers identified as Fragrant Water-Lily (Nymphaea odorata).

Feature 5

Feature 5 at the Clunie Site (20SA722)

Feature 29 appeared quite similar to Feature 5 in form and, presumably, function. Like Feature 5, Feature 29 was only partially excavated so full dimensions are not known. The excavated portion extended 150 cm in length, 50 cm in width, and 115 cm deep. Botanical remains from the flotation samples have not been analyzed and no tubers or other possible stored items were noted during excavation.

Feature 29

Feature 29 at the Clunie Site (20SA722)

It should be interesting to see how insights from Kate Frederick’s experimental work may inform our interpretation of these features from the Clunie site.

HSSC Lab and Field Update – 27 May 2015

Nearing the end of May, I think we’re long past due for an update on what the Castle Museum archaeology crew has been up to…

Swan Creek Township Survey
Fields in the Swan Creek area were being planted during the first week of May, thus ending our surface survey for the season. Lab work on the material we recovered is progressing. In fact, even as I type this, new volunteer Samra Akhtar is busily washing material from one of the mid to late 19th century artifact scatters we documented. As the artifacts get washed and catalogued, I’ll provide another update with some photos of what we found.

Samra, Ken, and John working in the Lab.

Samra, Ken, and John working in the Lab.


Shiawassee NWR Survey
We spent a couple of weeks working on various aspects of a survey project in one of the farm units located in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. The survey area is slated for a future wetland restoration project. Of the few cultural items we encountered, none was temporally diagnostic.

Field Trip!
Last week we spent a day with CMU graduate student Patrick Lawton helping with his shovel-testing project located near Chesaning. It was great to dig some shovel-tests and hang out with Dr. Surface-Evans and the 2015 CMU Field School class. Cultural material was tough to come by, at least while we were there, but we did find a nice clay marble.

In the Lab…
In addition to working on the Swan Creek Township material we’ve been continuing to make headway sorting the 2<4 mm size flot. samples from the Clunie Site (see Ken and John in the photo above) and labeling artifacts from the Stadelmeyer site. We’ve also been fortunate to receive some new donations including another batch of material from the Stadelmeyer site and several flaked stone and ground stone artifacts from a site on the Cass River. Among the flaked stone artifacts in this assemblage is the mid-section of an Agate Basin-like point made of Bayport chert. These late Paleoindian/Early Archaic points are quite uncommon in the Saginaw Valley so finding this one in the assemblage was a nice surprise.

Agate Basin-like point from Saginaw County.

Agate Basin-like point from Saginaw County.

Our comparative faunal collection also received a boost in recent weeks. The first addition was a black bear (Ursus americanus) skull and mandibles with a complete set of dentition. Our other black bear skull is missing both mandibles and several teeth, including all of the canines and incisors, making this donation a welcome and needed addition. (We are completely lacking any black bear post-cranial material so if you have an extra bear skeleton laying around, we would love to have it!)

Black bear (Ursus americanum) skull and mandible.

Black bear (Ursus americanus) skull and mandible.

Finally, just yesterday, we received the generous gift of a mostly decayed and desiccated beaver (Castor canadensis) carcass. This specimen is not quite ready for prime time and will require a bit of soaking, cleaning, and other TLC before joining the comparative collection!

Prehistoric “Portable Art” from the Saginaw Valley

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.

Engraved slate pendant from 20SA357. Private collection.

Engraved slate pendant from 20SA357. Private collection.

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.

Engraved slate gorget originally from the Golson Collection. HSSC collections.

Engraved slate gorget originally from the Golson Collection. HSSC collections.

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.

Engraved hematite/limonite gorget from 20SA1254. USFWS collections curated at HSSC.

Engraved hematite/limonite gorget from 20SA1254. USFWS collections curated at HSSC.

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.

Engraved Black Bear mandible pendant. Private collection.

Engraved Black Bear mandible pendant. Private collection.

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.

Engraved antler object from 20SA722. USFWS collections curated at HSSC.

Engraved antler object from 20SA722. USFWS collections curated at HSSC.

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.

Engraved stone object. Private collection.

Engraved stone object. Private collection.

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.