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.
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.
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.