Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pointing the Way with Points

Tom, responding to yesterday's posting, asked about the sources that I use in identifying projectile points. I'm happy to answer that question, but first I want to reiterate that classifying projectile points in Maryland is very difficult because many of the point types have been identified elsewhere in the Eastern United States. Brewerton points, for example, were first described by the late William Ritchie in upstate New York and archaeologists and collectors have identified them from Maine to as far south as Georgia and at least as far west as Illinois. Is it really possible that scores of groups over the course of a millennium made the same kind of point at the same time? Suffice it to say that this reporter is skeptical.

To develop locally valid, testable typologies we need more excavations of single-component sites (sites where artifacts may be few, but they likely come from a single occupation or series of successive occupations by the same people). Surface collections should be point-provenienced; which is to say, every object found should be carefully mapped to more accurately delineate sites. And, of course, all finds need to be documented in a detailed report.

Okay, putting aside the soap box, here are some of the resources that I use. Carol Ebright--Maryland's whiz kid of point typing--undoubtedly has many other, and perhaps more reliable sources.

1. My head contains a vast amount of trivial information, including a mish-mash of projectile points that I have seen over the years. I draw on this resource, feeble though it is, frequently.

2. William Jack Hranicky's (1994) Middle Atlantic Point Typology and Nomenclature, published by the Archeological Society of Virginia, has its flaws, but it provides lots of illustrations and details. Type descriptions that include such telling attributes as "Base is straight, but could be convex or concave" are maddening, but they do illustrate the point that attributes may be important to archaeologists because they are observable and even measurable, but may have had no meaning to the people who fashioned the objects.

3. Robert L. Stephenson and Alice L. L. Ferguson's (1963) The Accokeek Creek Site: A Middle Atlantic Seaboard Culture Sequence (published by the University of Michigan) and Henry T. Wright's (1973) An Archeological Sequence in the Middle Chesapeake Region, Maryland. Maryland Geological Survey, Archeological Studies Number 1, are useful in terms of both illustrations and in providing baselines for the development of the state's typologies.

4. Carol A. Ebright's (1992) Early Native American Prehistory of the Maryland Western Shore: Archeological Investigations at the Higgins Site. Maryland State Highway Administration, Archeological Report Number 1. (3 vols.) is well illustrated and well-reasoned, Carol drawing on 25 to 30 years of experience. (Sorry Carol if I'm making you seem old.)

5. Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, I think with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has developed a wonderful online resource for guiding the identification of aboriginal and Colonial pottery. They haven't taken on projectile point typologies, possibly in recognition of the difficulties in developing typologies from objects that were often resharpened (hence reshaped) and where the limited plasticity of the material (rock) and required aerodynamics of the tool limit the range of possible forms.

6. Site reports...lots and lots of site reports that I can turn to for comparable examples. Actually, I do not make much use of them for cataloging survey collections. I drag them out when looking at excavated specimens from intact deposits.

There are many other sources, particularly from New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and North Carolina, but I've become increasingly uncomfortable with their use. How about we stick to the Chesapeake region in developing typologies and classifying artifacts, then compare our findings with those from farther afield?


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