Collection offers window on ancient life

2012-04-01T00:15:00Z 2012-04-02T11:30:09Z Collection offers window on ancient lifeBy MARY PICKETT The Billings Gazette

BOZEMAN — Tiny arrowheads less than an inch in size look like they might be designed to bring down game no bigger than birds or rabbits.

Don’t let their small size fool you, said Nancy Mahoney, adjunct professor in Montana State University’s Anthropology Department.

The delicate points could be deadly when aimed at the largest animals Native Americans hunted.

Holding a bison vertebra, she points to the broken off tip of one of those small arrowheads embedded in the beast’s bone.

Found at what is now Pictograph Cave State Park near Billings, the arrow-struck bone is part of the Joseph L. Cramer and Oscar T. Lewis Archeological Collection at the Museum of the Rockies that Mahoney and her students have been studying.

The 200-300 artifacts in the collection include:

— A shaft buffer, which is a flat stone with a groove down the center used to straighten or smooth wooden arrow shafts.

— A tiny, 1-inch long stone drill that Mahoney thinks was used to drill holes in small shell beads.

— A heavy, oblong stone maul with a groove worn around the center and one of the ends worn away probably from pounding.

— Black sheath coverings of bison horns suitable for carrying water.

— Beads made from bone, antlers or wild fruit pits that may have adorned headgear, bracelets, bags or clothing in a way that identified a particular tribe.

— Shell disks in different stages of being shaped and smoothed by a rock. The shells could be freshwater mussels found in local rivers, like the ones the Musselshell River is named after, said Pat Roath, manager of the museum’s collections.

Exquisitely crafted chert, agate and quartz arrowheads are the most numerous artifacts in the collection.

Most are unbroken and so flawless Mahoney wonders why they were left behind.

One of the most interesting parts of the collection is a ledger in which Joseph Cramer, a retired geologist now living in Denver, documents Oscar Lewis’ work.

Lewis was foreman of several Works Project Administration archeological excavations in Montana in the 1930s and 1940s.

Information and photos fill 400 sides of pages in the ledger. Twenty-seven of the pages have information — neatly written in Cramer’s hand — about Pictograph and Ghost caves at what is now the state park.

The ledger includes Cramer’s careful reproductions of Lewis’ drawings of the pictographs on the walls of Pictograph Cave, including a line drawing of a bird with an arrow in its back, a round face with long hair curving out of the head and shield images.

The ledger also has drawings of barbed, harpoon-like hook found during the project.

Only a few of those kinds of hooks have been found in Montana or Wyoming and are more common in Idaho and nearer the Pacific Coast. They may have been used for catching larger fish in Montana or been a trade item.

Mahoney has digitally scanned each page of the ledger, so it is available to researchers. Her students also typed the text of the ledger into a searchable database.

While the collection is significant, its artifacts have limited scientific research potential. “It is a wonderful historical document of archeology in Montana,” but isn’t the most perfect archeology record, Mahoney said.

Lewis recorded where artifacts were found but not their context — what other artifacts were found with them — so researchers today have difficulty figuring out those artifacts’ date and use.

Lewis was interested in how artifacts were made, but not in big questions, such as how they fit in to their makers’ lives.

That can be a good lesson for anyone collecting artifacts today. Removing artifacts from a site before it is professionally studied is like ripping pages from a book. Reading one page is hard to figure out the meaning of the entire book.

In April, two of Mahoney’s students will give presentations on their research on the Cramer-Lewis Collection at the Montana Archeological Society meeting in Helena.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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