The Goldmines of Prehistoric Archeology

This is an update from undergraduate intern Billy on his prehistoric project for Campus Archaeology.

You can’t help but feel excited finding projectile points.  In fact some people have made hobbies around collecting, showing off, and selling these mysterious ancient artifacts that are littered about North America.   But why are these artifacts so valuable to archeologist?

Projectile points give us a glimpse into the lives of the people who used them.  During our dig at MSU we found about 4 projectile points along with many flakes. We can study patterns of the projectile points we found to learn what the environment was like, the time period they were made, cultural identity, and give clues into how the people who settled here at MSU survived and lived.  While they don’t give us all the answers, they are jam packed with things we can learn.

Projectile points excavated near Sleepy Hollow

As time goes on humans have adapted and innovated.  They have been improving their tools to make their lives easier since the dawn of time.   We can see this in the change of stone tools.  The projectile point’s shape, texture, flaking, and material all change with time. Knowing the time period from when the points were made helps complete the picture of what life was like as it helps us understand who was there, and what their life and environment was like. The points we found resemble similar projectile points found in the southern Michigan area that were radiocarbon dated to the late archaic period (Halsey 1999: 100). Points of this kind, almost always small to medium broad-bladed notched points (Halsey 1999:100), are typically around 3500 B.P to 2500 B.P (Lovis 2005: 70). This period actually extends into the Early Woodland period, as there is no clear distinction in projectiles between the two eras until later on.

Every culture makes their mark on history.  No culture does things identical to another culture and they all have their own personality.  Some points are broader, some are smaller, some are symmetrical, and so on.  When we compare points from different areas we get an idea of what group made it. Unfortunately it’s hard to say when looking back this far who made our points. They were most likely from the Algonquin group, which doesn’t necessarily give us a lot of information because these peoples varied greatly by region.

Not all projectile points are just that, projectiles.  Points serve many different uses. Yes, some are thrown, but they were also meant for scraping, spearing, cutting, and piercing.  A projectile point’s shape and material help give us clues into what it was used for.  One big piece of information this offers us is what their diet was like. Three of our projectiles look fairly similar but it’s hard to say if our third point is a knife like object or a broader point that may have chipped at some point. These projectiles would have been used for small game mostly but sometimes larger.

Profile of potential hearth feature

Context is everything for projectile points.   An artifact without location, strata information, and information about nearby artifacts and features makes it, well useless.  Without knowing these, further research cannot be done.  When we found our projectile points we marked the unit it was found in, the depth, and we study the other similar artifacts, features and landscape to get a holistic view on what was going on.  Most of are prehistoric artifacts were found fairly close together and found near a prehistoric hearth.  The size and relatively low amount of prehistoric material suggest that this was a small occupation that most likely temporary.  This is a seemingly rare site to find not only because of its size but because of the disturbance in this area from plows and modern construction.

Projectile points are jam packed with information, like little compact goldmines for archeologist.   While we may not have all the answers we want, the projectile points we found here, on the MSU campus, paint a vivid picture of what the lives were like for the ancient people that called this home for part of the year.

Works Cited

Hasley, John 1999. Retrieving Michigan’s Buried Past

Lovis, William and G. William Monaghan 2005. Modeling Archaeological Site Burial in Southern Michigan



1 thought on “The Goldmines of Prehistoric Archeology”

  • I find points closer to surface. Underneath the top soil & tree roots. 2 – 2 1/2 inches. They appear more like debris piles. The broken ends, and whole point closer to surface where as the debris pieces/chips alittle deeper.

    I also have found tail ends along lake shores and near bolders by shore. They must have discarded the tail ends after hunts and washed their bloodied sticks.
    Doug – Up North

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