Collection Notes

Notes on a Recent Donation: Bone Beamers from SH-200

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).

Lateral and anterior view of beamer from SH-200 made from White-tailed Deer metatarsal.

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.

Additional beamer fragments from SH-200.

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.

Lateral and posterior view of beamer excavated at site 20SA1251. Made from White-tailed Deer metatarsal.

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.


Notes on a Recent Donation: a Celt/Adze Cache from the Schmidt Site (20SA192)

First brought to light by avocational archaeologist Bernie Spencer in the late 1950s, the Schmidt site (20SA192) garnered considerable archaeological attention in subsequent decades. Excavations were conducted by Spencer and Fairchild ca. 1962, the University of Michigan in 1964, by Saginaw Valley State College in 1971, and by Western Michigan University in 1973. Accounts of some of this work were published by Harrison (1966) and Fairchild (1977). Although Late Woodland occupations were noted at the site, most of the excavated material is derived from Late Archaic components. Fairchild (1977) argues for a pre-Nipissing Middle Archaic age for at least some of the material, but this interpretation is questioned by Lovis and Robertson (1989).

Recently, some of the material excavated by Spencer was donated to the Castle Museum. Among the donated objects is an interesting cache of three ground stone celts/adzes. The cache was found in the lower (Archaic) level of the excavation (Spencer personal communication August 2018). Although briefly described by Harrison (1966:60), to my knowledge measurements and photos or illustrations of the specimens from the cache have not been published.

The first specimen is a celt/adze made of diabase. It has a well- polished bit, damaged with a single chip, and a lightly battered poll. It is biconvex in cross-section and is slightly flattened on one face. Measurements are as follows: L. 98.41 mm, W. 48.13 mm, Th. 23.39 mm, and Wt. 193.52 g.

adze cache 1

Five views of Specimen 1

The second specimen is an adze, also made of diabase. Both the bit and poll are heavily  battered. The adze is triangular in cross-section with a prominent ridge on one face. Measurements for this specimen are: L. 89.84 mm, W. 49.15 mm, Th. 25.40 mm, and Wt. 178.70 g.

Five views of Specimen 2

The third specimen from the cache appears to be an unfinished celt/adze. I am uncertain of the material, but it may be porphyritic basalt. The preform has a convex/irregular cross-section and is flaked around its margins. It is made on a spall struck from the outer surface of a cobble. The convex face of the preform is the (mostly) unmodified original surface of the cobble. Measurements are as follows: L. 103.87 mm, W. 55.22 mm, Th. 21.38 mm, and Wt. 164.49 g.

adze cache 3

Five views of Specimen 3

Despite containing only three specimens, the celt/adze cache from the Schmidt site provides evidence for the the diversity of forms of these tools produced and used contemporaneously. The Historical Society of Saginaw County is grateful these items were entrusted to our care. Curated in the Archaeology Lab and Repository of the Castle Museum, they will be preserved for current and future generations as part of Accession 2018.029. More information and examples of Archaic Period artifacts can be found here in the Archaeology section of the Castle Museum website and in the Museum’s archaeology exhibit.



The Bear Bones of Field Notes from 20SA1251

Recently, I spent the evening perusing my field notes from the Castle Museum’s 2002 excavations at site 20SA1251.1,2  Although 20SA1251 is a multi-component site with Late Archaic through Historic Period occupations, most of the excavated material is derived from Middle Woodland contexts. A single radiocarbon date places a Middle Woodland component at the site between 40 B.C. and A.D. 120 (Sommer 2003a).

For this particular trip down memory lane, I was looking for unrelated information when I came across the following reference from 19 September 2002:

“… 2 bear teeth from 40-45 cm level of 495N 555E – 1 canine & 1 molar – prob. cut & ground roots.”

It immediately occurred to me that cut and ground bear teeth are not included in my report on the modified faunal remains from the site (Sommer 2007). Either I had missed the evidence of modification during the cataloguing process or my initial in-the-field assessment was incorrect. Clearly, I needed to investigate further…

The two teeth listed in the field notes are a canine (C) and first molar (M1) from the right maxilla of a Black Bear (Ursus americanus). A search through the other faunal remains from unit 495N 555E revealed a right maxillary fourth premolar (P4) and second molar (M2), as well as two small right maxilla fragments and an equally tiny fragment of a right palatine. One of the maxilla fragments contains the socket into which the lingual/medial root of the M1 fits. No additional maxillary teeth or other conjoining fragments were found in the eight surrounding excavation units.

This photo shows the Black Bear teeth, palatine, and maxilla fragments found at 20SA1251 (lower) and their corresponding locations on a modern comparative specimen (upper).

While the C shows no evidence of modification, the lingual/medial root of the M1 has clearly been cut or ground to a flat facet. A close examination of the additional specimens revealed that the two buccal/lateral roots of the M2 are eroded, but appear to have been cut or ground to the same angle. Further, traces of grinding can be seen on the interior surface of both maxilla fragments. When articulated, the ground surface of the M1 root is flush with the ground surface of the conjoining maxilla fragment. No grinding is evident on the P4 or palatine fragment.

This photo shows the locations of modification on the Black Bear teeth and maxilla fragments from 20SA1251.

While not common, modified bear and other predator maxillae do show up elsewhere in the archaeological record (modified mandibles seem to be more frequently encountered). Cut bear maxillary sections from the “Hopewell-influenced” Rector Mound in Wayne County, New York are interpreted as “probably representing animal headdresses (Ritchie 1969:224-225, Plate 778-9). No functional interpretation is given for two halves of a dog maxilla from Knight Mound C°2 in Calhoun County, Illinois. They are described as having been “cut or ground so that the roots of the teeth and associated bone have been removed” (Griffin et al. 1970:28, Plate 20a). Closer to home, in fact less than a mile from 20SA1251, more than 20 ground black bear teeth from both mandibles and maxillae and a cut wolf maxilla were recovered during excavations at the Schultz site (Murray 1972:235-236, Figure 77b,c). The bear teeth “probably represent pendants prepared from ground mandibles and sections of cut maxillae bearing teeth” (Murray 1972:234). The wolf maxilla, too, is thought to have been worn as a pendant (Murray 1972:236). Murray (1972:242) describes the ground carnivore mandibles and teeth (and presumably maxillae) from the Schultz site excavations as “impressively Hopewellian.”

Unfortunately, we can arrive at no firm conclusion regarding the function of the modified black bear maxilla from 20SA1251. Unlike the examples from the Rector Mound in New York and the Knight Mound group in Illinois, there is no evidence that both halves of the maxilla were originally present and conjoined. However, given the highly fragmented nature of the recovered specimens, the missing left half of the maxilla could be a result of taphonomic (preservation) issues. As with all of the examples given, the maxilla from 20SA1251 probably dates to the Middle Woodland (Hopewell) Period.

If nothing else, this exercise highlights the importance of careful field observation and note-taking. It also demonstrates that, despite my tongue-in-cheek warning (see Note #2), field notes are most useful if you actually read them!


1 See Sommer ( 2003b) for a preliminary report on the 2002 excavations at 20SA1251. It can be accessed (here) from the Archaeology section of the Castle Museum’s website.

2 Perusing old field notes, while possibly an aid to insomniacs, can be an arduous activity and is not recommended for the faint-of-heart.


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 1891 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.