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Archive for the ‘Bone Tools’ Category

Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, California

In November of 1793 a British naval expedition commanded by Captain George Vancouver arrived at the small Spanish settlement of Santa Barbara on the coast of California.  Vancouver’s primary mission was to explore and map the poorly understood northwest coast of North America, building on the more preliminary information provided earlier by Captain James Cook.  He was quite successful at this, and the detailed maps produced by his expedition greatly enhanced British understanding of this area, which was becoming very important geopolitically as a result of its potential resources and increasing competition among Britain, Spain, and Russia to claim it.  When he arrived at Santa Barbara he was headed south, having spent the spring and summer exploring the area around the island that now bears his name and bound for Hawaii to spend the winter.  He anchored off of Santa Barbara for eight days to rest and resupply, and his men took advantage of the opportunity to trade with the local Spanish and Chumash inhabitants.  Mission Santa Barbara was only a few years old, having been established in 1786, and the presidio where Spanish soldiers were garrisoned was only four years older than that.  Although the Chumash had been in contact with the Spanish since the Cabrillo expedition of 1542, the permanent Spanish presence in their territory dated only to the establishment of Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772, and at the time Vancouver’s expedition stopped by they were only just beginning to move to the missions and experience the profound and complicated cultural changes that would result.

Chamber of Commerce, San Luis Obispo, California

George Goodman Hewett, Surgeon’s First Mate on Vancouver’s flagship, HMS Discovery, was among the members of the expedition who did some trading with the locals at Santa Barbara.  Hewett apparently had a strong interest in the customs and lifestyles of the various peoples the expedition encountered, and he collected from them various items of material culture whenever possible.  Over the course of the four years that the expedition ended up taking he acquired a substantial collection.  While the greatest number of items in the collection were from the places the expedition spent the most time, particularly Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, the items from Santa Barbara were (and are) of particular interest to later anthropologists, since Hewett collected them at a time when traditional Chumash culture, now known primarily from the very detailed but nevertheless retrospective ethnographic fieldwork of John Peabody Harrington in the early twentieth century, was still mostly intact and only beginning to be affected by missionization and Spanish contact.  Hewett’s collection remained in his family until 1891, when it was acquired by the British Museum, where it remains.  A description of some of the most significant items was published by Charles H. Read in 1892.

Hill, San Luis Obispo, California

Read’s description included two atlatls.  One is an elaborately carved example from southeast Alaska, where use of the atlatl is known to have persisted into modern times, perhaps because of its usefulness in fishing and maritime hunting compared to the bow.  The other is from Santa Barbara.

First Bank of San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo, California

The Santa Barbara atlatl, as it has been known ever since Read’s publication, is very odd for a number of reasons.  For one thing, just at the outset, the idea of the atlatl being used at Santa Barbara in the late eighteenth century is odd.  California is one area where the replacement of the atlatl by the bow and arrow, whenever it happened, is widely agreed to have been complete by long before then.  While atlatl hooks have been found in early archaeological contexts in various parts of the state, including the Chumash area, there is no evidence of atlatl use from later prehistoric contexts, and the copious ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature on the Chumash nowhere mentions the atlatl, whereas the importance of the bow and arrow is discussed many times.  Read was not in a position to know any of this, of course, since this understanding of the culture history of the area came long after his time.

San Luis Surf, San Luis Obispo, California

Furthermore, the form of the atlatl itself is odd.  While archaeological and ethnographic examples from North America, including the Alaskan ones from the Hewett collection, are typically long and thin, the Santa Barbara specimen is short and thick.  While most atlatls are about half a meter long, this one is only 15 cm long, and nearly as wide.  Furthermore, while North American examples typically have either attached leather finger loops or none at all, this one has two large holes carved out of the wood itself.  The wood seems to be a local type, and no one has questioned the authenticity of the specimen or Hewett’s account of its origin (Read notes that Hewett’s record-keeping was pretty good by the standards of his time), but it’s all very odd and hard to explain.  If it represents a survival from a local atlatl tradition, this tradition is suspiciously absent entirely from both the archaeological and ethnographic records.  While it’s true that atlatls, being made of wood, rarely survive archaeologically, this one does have a bone hook, so if it represents a survival of an ancient atlatl type that continued in use after the adoption of the bow and arrow it would be reasonable to expect at least one similar bone hook to survive somewhere, and this still doesn’t address the lack of ethnographic evidence.

Street Signs, San Luis Obispo, California

Nevertheless, the Santa Barbara was generally accepted as an unusual but indigenous type of atlatl until 1938, when the prominent California archaeologist Robert Heizer published an article looking at the issue and coming to a quite different conclusion.  Heizer pointed out the lack of any other evidence for this type of atlatl as well as all the oddities of the Santa Barbara specimen compared to other examples, and went a step further by noting that it bore a striking similarity to the atlatls still in active use at that time by the Tarascans of western Mexico (remember them?).  These also have paired finger-holes carved out of the wood, and have the same widening of the body of the atlatl around the holes.  The dimensions are still different; the Tarascan examples are much longer and thinner than the Santa Barbara one.  There is still a remarkable similarity, however, and Heizer goes on to point out that the Spanish were known to use Tarascans and other Indians from previously colonized parts of Mexico as settlers on the frontier, particularly in the northwest, which is where the expeditions that colonized California in the 1770s are known to have started.  Although there is no direct evidence that the Spanish soldiers and missionaries in California were accompanied by Mexican Indians, given typical Spanish practices it would not be a surprise.  This, combined with the striking similarities between the Santa Barbara atlatl and Tarascan ones, leads Heizer to propose that the Santa Barbara example is not a survival at all, but a reintroduction of the atlatl to the area from Mesoamerica, where it remained in use long after the Spanish conquest.  The Santa Barbara one is clearly of local manufacture, however, which suggests that this process did not simply involve Tarascans bringing their own atlatls to California, although that was presumably part of it.  Rather, once the Mexican Indians were there, they apparently showed the Chumash the use of the atlatl, which they used for fishing and hunting in maritime settings, and the Chumash (who were a coastal people very oriented toward the sea) were sufficiently impressed to copy it themselves.  Since it apparently did not become established securely enough to be noticed or mentioned by either the Spanish or later ethnographers, the Chumash don’t seem to have ultimately decided to adopt it as a core part of their culture or subsistence system, but they do seem to have at least tried it out.  Indeed, Hewett may have encountered the Chumash at a time of experimentation connected to the changes associated with the transition to mission life, and his acquisition of the atlatl may have preserved a moment in time, a tentative embrace of foreign technology that was ultimately rejected and that would therefore otherwise be unknown to history.  Along the same lines, it’s worth wondering why the Chumash were willing to part with this obviously unusual and presumably rare item when all the other things they gave Hewett were rather typical and plentiful items such as bows.  Was whoever tried to copy the Mexican atlatls, or whoever had tried to use the copy made by someone else, displeased with how the experiment had turned out and eager to get rid of the item when a foreigner interested in buying random things showed up?  There’s no real way to tell, of course, and it’s also possible that atlatls like this were used successfully for a while around this time then abandoned for some other reason.  This item is, however, an intriguing window into a complicated past, and it shows that it’s important to look carefully at the stories behind artifacts before constructing theories based on their characteristics.
ResearchBlogging.org
Heizer, R. (1938). An Inquiry into the Status of the Santa Barbara Spear-Thrower American Antiquity, 4 (2) DOI: 10.2307/275985

Read, C. (1892). An Account of a Collection of Ethnographical Specimens Formed During Vancouver’s Voyage in the Pacific Ocean, 1790-1795 The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 21 DOI: 10.2307/2842277

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Post Office, Independence, California

Atlatl weights are the most widespread attachments to atlatls that are durable enough to survive in conditions where the wooden parts decay, but they’re not the only attachments known to have been used.  Another type of attachment, of more obvious function though of much more limited range, is the “hook” or “spur” near the back end of the atlatl that cradles the nock of the dart when it is being thrown.  In Mesoamerican and Southwestern examples, the hook is generally gouged out of the wood of the atlatl itself, either flush with the upper surface (with a recessed groove for the dart) or protruding above it with the dart resting at the level of the atlatl surface.  This was probably also the case for most atlatls in areas where they have not survived but their presence is attested by weights.  In a few places, however, hooks were made of stone, bone, or antler, and have thus survived where the atlatls they were attached to have not.

California Welcome Sign

The two main areas where durable hooks were used are widely separated geographically, though not necessarily temporally.  These are California, especially the Central Valley, and the Ohio River watershed, especially the areas south of the river in Kentucky and Tennessee.  In both areas the hooks seem to date to the Archaic period, but beyond that there are few similarities.  The California examples are described in a 1969 article by Francis Riddell and Donald McGeein which classifies them into three types.  The vast majority fall into their Type II, which are shaped like elongated acorns and made usually of bone, although a few examples are of stone.  They come mainly from the Central Valley, especially the Sacramento area, although a fair number come from the San Francisco Bay area and the Santa Barbara Channel as well and a few are reported from other areas such as Los Angeles County and Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.  The examples from documented contexts all seem to be associated with the Middle Horizon period, but many are from undocumented excavations or private collections, and their original contexts are unknown.

Morro Bay, California

Riddell and McGeein also define two other types.  Type I appears to be earlier than Type II and consists of hooks shaped like snake heads and made of stone, perhaps exclusively, which makes them quite different from Type II hooks, which are acorn-shaped and usually made of bone.  Type I examples resemble hooks found in Nevada and are found in the Sierra Nevada area on the edge of the Great Basin, as well as in the Central Valley.  Type III is represented by a single specimen from a private collection which apparently contains other similar examples, all from the San Joaquin Valley.  It closely resembles Type I but is considerably larger and made of bone rather than stone, and Riddell and McGeein note that it may be a variant of Type I rather than a separate type.  They also suggest the possibility that Type III is intermediate between Types I and II, assuming the main difference between them is temporal.

Sierra Nevada, Independence, California

Interestingly, Riddell and McGeein note that Middle Horizon sites tend to lack atlatl weights (which in California are often called “boatstones”), although they commonly have Type II atlatl hooks.  This suggests that Type II hooks may have been used on a particular type of unweighted atlatl.  Since there appear to be no intact examples of this type of atlatl, however, due to the poor preservation conditions in the humid environments where Type II hooks are found, they can only offer this as a tentative suggestion.  Type I examples, however, are often associated with weights, suggesting that they come from a different (earlier?) type of atlatl that was weighted.

Mt. Whitney Administrative Office, Lone Pine, California

On the other side of the country are the rather different atlatl hooks known from well-preserved atlatls found in rockshelters in Kentucky and Tennessee.  These hooks are typically made of antler or bone, and the antler ones are often made from an antler tip only slightly modified to be attached to the atlatl and to hold the dart.  One example from Ohio is illustrated in a short article in American Antiquity, but the JSTOR scan of the page is unfortunately of very poor quality and it’s not possible to see any details in the picture.  Although these appear to be of Archaic date, making them roughly contemporaneous with the California examples, they are sufficiently different in form that there is unlikely to be any connection, and independent innovation in both areas is more likely than any sort of contact or diffusion.  The fact that the idea of a durable atlatl hook seems to have been unknown in the Southwest or on the Great Plains also suggests independent innovation.  The practical value of a strong support for the nock of the dart seems pretty clear, and may explain why at least two separate groups came up with the idea, but the fact that it didn’t spread much further in any case and was not invented independently in more cases suggests that it may not have been a major improvement over the more typical gouged hook.
ResearchBlogging.org
Goslin, R. (1944). A Bone Atlatl Hook from Ohio American Antiquity, 10 (2) DOI: 10.2307/275117

Riddell, F., & McGeein, D. (1969). Atlatl Spurs from California American Antiquity, 34 (4) DOI: 10.2307/277746

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New Mexico RailRunner Express, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Yesterday I went with my mom and my sister on the RailRunner to Santa Fe to check out the New Mexico History Museum, behind the Palace of the Governors.  It was the first time any of us had either taken the train or seen the museum, which just opened in 2009, and we were very impressed with both.  The museum is very well-designed, in a contemporary, interactive way, and unlike many museums it doesn’t overwhelm by putting too many things on display at once.  The items that are displayed are accompanied by extensive, bilingual (English and Spanish) interpretive texts which help to place them in context.  The approach is broad rather than deep, but it gives a good, balanced, and very accessible introduction to the rich history of the state.  Since it’s part of the Museum of New Mexico, the collections available for display are extensive, and the curators have selected some fascinating original items to show.  They have also arranged for loans of other important original items from other museums with extensive collections of material related to New Mexico history.

New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

One such museum is the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sponsored several important archaeological expeditions to the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and thus has a large collection of artifacts, almost all of which remain locked away in storage rather than on display.  The American Museum doesn’t even seem to have a single permanent exhibition showing its Southwestern material.  (I haven’t been there yet myself, so I can’t confirm this personally.)  A lot of this material is from the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations at Chaco, which the American Museum sponsored, and visitors at Chaco would often ask about these artifacts and whether they could see them anywhere.  When I would tell them the answer, that the artifacts were in New York and not on display, they would often get pretty upset, but I would just say that that’s what museums do: they collect things.  They display some things, but they collect much more than they display, so most of the stuff ends up in storage, awaiting future temporary exhibits or loans to other museums.

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

With that context in mind, imagine my reaction when I walked into the permanent exhibition of the New Mexico History Museum and the very first artifact on display was a bone scraper from Pueblo Bonito on loan from the AMNH.  This particular scraper is one of the most famous and most spectacular of the artifacts found at Chaco.  It is inlaid with a band of turquoise and jet mosaic that is just exquisitely done.  It was found by the Hyde Expedition in 1897 in Room 38 of Pueblo Bonito, along with the even more famous jet frog, and it features prominently in the article George Pepper wrote on the artifacts from Room 38.  Being able to see the real thing, in person, is just extraordinary, and even more so for me because it was such an unexpected surprise.  Like I said, the AMNH collections from Chaco are almost completely inaccessible to the general public, which is very unfortunate since they include some of the most amazing artifacts ever found in the Southwest.  The loan of this scraper is a significant step away from that, and I congratulate both the AMNH and the NMHM for arranging for its loan and display.  There are a few other items from Chaco on display in the same gallery, but this is by far the most famous.  The museum doesn’t allow photography, so I don’t have a picture of the scraper, but I highly recommend a visit to see it to anyone interested in Chaco.

Jet Frog Replica at Chaco Museum

Pepper’s article includes a bit more information about the scraper.  It was found in the summer of 1897, the second season of work at Pueblo Bonito.  It was actually one of two similar scrapers found next to each other in the western part of Room 38, which is an unusually large rectangular room in the oldest part of the site, known as Old Bonito and made up mostly of small rooms with an early style of masonry, the most famous of which is probably Room 33.  The two scrapers in Room 38 were probably originally similarly decorated with mosaic inlay, but one of them was positioned in such a way that the inlay was pointed downward and had fallen out when it was found.  The other scraper, however, was positioned so that the inlay was facing up, and it was therefore preserved intact.  This is the scraper now on display in the NMHM.

Shell and Jet Display at Chaco Museum

The inlay consists of a combination of elongated and triangular pieces of turquoise and jet, alternating and arranged in bands in a way that produces a very striking effect.  The mosaic was put into a groove cut into the scraper just below the butt end and apparently attached with piñon gum.  Once all the pieces were in the whole surface was polished to a high sheen, which is very noticeable even today.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

It is unfortunately very difficult to date the artifacts excavated by the Hyde Expedition.  Pepper kept detailed field notes during the excavations, and the work is therefore fairly well documented by the standards of the day, but those standards weren’t very high compared to today’s practices.  There were no absolute dating techniques available at the time, and even the relative dating technique of stratigraphic analysis was still being developed and was not used during the Hyde excavations.  All Pepper had to say about chronology in his article on Room 38 was that there was no evidence of contact with the Spanish.  The NMHM label for the AMNH scraper gives a range of AD 700 to 1130, which is basically the maximum range for Pueblo Bonito as a whole.  Given the very precise dating techniques available to Southwestern archaeologists today, it may be possible to narrow this down a bit, even with the unfortunate lack of context from the early excavations.  I know Steve Plog at the University of Virginia is working on reëvaluating the field notes and other information on these excavations to get more precise information.  The Chaco Archive, which is connected to this effort, has a lot of pictures and documents from the early excavations, and it seems like more stuff is being added to it all the time.

Old Bonito

Dating is particularly difficult for the Old Bonito artifacts, for a number of reasons.  Although the rooms were the earliest to be built at Pueblo Bonito, as suggested by the masonry style and confirmed by tree-ring dates, the artifacts within them probably date to much later, perhaps even to the very end of the occupation of the site.  They are both numerous and exquisite, which suggests that the rooms in Old Bonito may have been reused for storage of fine objects after they were no longer used for their original purpose, which would presumably have been after the expansion of Pueblo Bonito starting around AD 1040.  With objects made of organic materials, such as bone, it would be possible to try radiocarbon dating the artifacts themselves, but to my knowledge no one has attempted this, possibly because they are so fragile and valuable.  Thus, while it may be possible to narrow down the date range for the bone scraper, as of right now the very wide range given by the NMHM is probably the best way to go.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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