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.


Steltzriede Farm Site – End of 2018 Field Season Wrap-Up

Well, we’ve wrapped up another field season at the Steltzriede Farm site in Saginaw Township and, in terms of area excavated, it was the biggest one yet! This year, the Castle Museum archaeology team excavated 13 1X1 meter excavation units. This compares with 11 in 2015, 10 in 2016, and six in 2017.

During the 2018 field season, we worked in two areas of the site. We spent the first part of the field season expanding our excavation in the “cabin area” where we had previously found the cellar of the Steltzriede’s original house/cabin. You can read updates from the first part of the field season here, here, and here.

Kiersten and Andy excavating at the Steltzriede Farm site.

The second half of the field season was spent excavating a 2X5 meter excavation block in yard area between cellar and the still-standing 1848 frame house. Shovel-testing in 2017 indicated the presence of early to mid-19th century (and more recent) material in the general area. We were hoping to find midden deposits or a well, privy, or other feature associated with the early-mid 19th century period of the Steltzriede occupation. In addition, we were hoping to learn more about the timing and extent of landscape modification / fill deposition across the site. We were only partially successful in meeting these goals.

Nick excavating at the Steltzriede Farm site.

Unfortunately, features and dense midden deposits were not to be found. Instead we uncovered a light scatter of mid-19th through 20th century debris across the area. Bricks and nails were especially common, but we also found ceramics, bottle fragments, lead shot, a slate pencil, a button or collar  stud, and lots of bone fragments from cows, pigs, and even a cat! Ceramics included a few red paste and yellow paste earthenware sherds, but most were white paste wares. Decorative types present in the white paste ceramic assemblage include blue and green shell-edged, painted polychrome floral, dipt/annularware, and transfer printed.

Slate pencil and button or collar stud from the Steltzriede Farm site.

Ceramics from the Steltzriede Farm site.

In terms of identifying changes in site’s landscape during the 19th and 20th centuries, we had some success – assuming our current interpretations prove correct. Wall profiles in the yard area show the extent of a probable mid-20th century deposit of clay and gravel fill that appears to have been used to level the yard. Immediately below the clay and gravel fill layer is thick layer of sand, possibly derived from digging the basement under the frame house in the mid-late 19th century. The surface of this second fill layer was stable long enough to begin forming an A-horizon (a dark, organic-rich zone in the soil). The bottom of the second fill layer merges with what is probably the disturbed (plowed?) early to mid-19th century surface over a natural, relatively undisturbed, soil profile.

East Wall Profile of units 522-523N 501E.

Our attention now turns to the lab where we have already begun processing artifacts from this year’s excavation. We have many hours of sorting, washing, cataloguing, and analysis ahead of us. A lot to look forward to!

Michigan Archaeological Society Meeting Thursday, 4 October 2018

The October meeting of the Saginaw Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society will be held this Thursday, October 4th, here at the Castle Museum. As always, the public is invited and encouraged to attend! The official announcement from the Chapter is copied below.

When:       Thursday – October 4, 2018
Where:      Castle Museum of Saginaw County History
Time:        7:00 p.m.
Program:  Don Simons will present a slide program of artifact
collections and single finds, several of which were made by 19th
and early 20th century farmers.
Bring recent finds to share & discuss during the meeting.

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.


Steltzriede Farm Update, June and July 2018

Despite some periods of inactivity, much has been happening at the Steltzriede Farm site. Since our previous update in May, we completed the final excavation unit in the cellar, we excavated two additional units adjacent to the cellar, and we have opened a new block of excavation units in an area we shovel-tested last season.

Wood, bricks, and a few sherds were the most noteworthy items encountered in the lower levels of unit 536N 490E in the Steltzriede cellar.

Bricks, wood, and a blue-edgware sherd on the 105 cm floor of unit 537N 490E.


Brad working on the final level of the Steltzriede cellar excavation.

Given the presence of shrubbery and utility lines, there is not a lot of space left to test in the vicinity of the cellar. However, we were able to squeeze in two additional excavation units (536N 486E and 536N 487E) just over a meter  west of its west edge. Although we did find the usual array of nails, flat glass, glass vessel fragments, brick, bone, etc., the amount of 19th century material was surprisingly low. A few small flakes of Bayport chert were a nice supplement to the meager prehistoric assemblage from the site.

After completing our work in the cabin/cellar area, we shifted our focus to an area between the extant house and the cabin/cellar area. Shovel-testing last season indicated the presence of mid-late 19th century debris in this area. Our initial units (522-523N 497E) confirmed the presence of 19th century material in the area. However, much of the material appears to date to the late 19th or early 20th century. Some of the artifacts we have recovered in this area of the site include machine-cut square nails, brick fragments, slag/cinders, coal, a plain brass button with a missing/broken loop shank, faunal remains, glass, and ceramics.

Tooth and ceramics from unit 523N 497E.

Pictured above are a badly worn tooth, probably from a cow, part of an unglazed flower pot, two blue transfer-printed sherds, and the back of a plate showing part of the maker’s mark. The mark is from Glasgow Pottery of Trenton, New Jersey, founded by John Moses in 1863 (Barber 1893:213). Starting around 1895, the company used several marks featuring the British Coat of Arms (Barber 1904:51). The surviving portions of the mark, including the initials J. M. and what appears to be part of a unicorn and shield, closely match depictions of the late 19th century marks from this company.

Nick and Julia working on unit 523N 498E.

As the field season marches on, we will continue expanding this excavation block to the east. Check back often for updates on what we find as we explore this new area of the site.

Steltzriede Farm Site Update, May 2018

After more than a week away, I am catching up in the lab and looking forward to getting back out to the Steltzriede Farm Site. In the meantime, here is a brief update on what we accomplished at the site through the end of May…

Since the previous update, Brad, Nick, and I have continued working in unit 537N 490E, slowly working our way through the cellar fill. We have been finding the usual array of corroded machine-cut (square) nails, chinking, and brick fragments along with a few ceramic sherds, flat and curved glass fragments, bone fragments, a brass tack, and even a slate pencil.

Brad exposing a large piece of unburnt wood in unit 537N 490E.

Starting in the 80-85 cm level, we began to find fragments of both charred and unburnt logs/boards. By the time we reached the 90-95 cm level, much of the floor was covered with wood remnants. A blue transfer-printed sherd with a scalloped rim and a red and black hand-painted sherd were found immediately below the charred board in the western portion of the unit in the 90-95 cm level. Just a bit deeper, in the 95-100 cm level, we recovered a blue-edgware sherd with a scalloped and impressed rim and a nearly complete bowl from a white clay smoking pipe.

Charred and unburnt wood in the 90-95 cm level of unit 537N 490E.


Ceramics from the 90-100 cm levels of unit 537N 490E.


Pipe bowl from the 95-100 cm level of unit 537N 490E.

Next time out, we will continue working on the 95-100 cm level. Based on what we found in previous field seasons, we should be within a level or two of getting to the bottom of the cellar. Check back often for additional updates as season progresses!