Sourcing Native-modified Stone Objects

The Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections contain around 35,000 objects, of which approximately 60% have a Native American origin. Of those in the collection, we have many objects that were collected or recovered from sites in Connecticut. In an effort to repatriate these objects, it is important to find out from where the artifacts originate. For the past few months, I have been sorting through the stone artifacts in the collection, trying to determine their stone type in an effort to understand where they may have been created.

One object in the collection is especially interesting. A soapstone mortar supposedly from Connecticut with evidence of modern tool use on the exterior sides that was originally added to the collection during the years of the Wesleyan Museum (1871 – 1957). After the Museum closed the mortar went “missing” on campus until 2006 when it was located and added back into the collection. The only sourcing information that the collection had said that it was “likely from Connecticut.” However, we learned from a member of the Earth and Environmental Sciences staff that a professor researched the source and found a site – possibly Ragged Mountain Rock Shelter in Barkhamsted – that the mortar may have been from in northern Connecticut. With this information, I followed up more on the site and found that Yale University conducted a series of excavations at this site, and still held most of the artifacts in their collection.

CT mortar
Soapstone mortar, Object ID: 1973.1.1

After learning that Yale had other artifacts from this site, I contacted their NAGPRA coordinator hoping to see the artifacts in their collection. We communicated for a short period of time before arranging a time that Jessie and I could travel to New Haven to visit. On March 23rd we made the journey south (45 minutes is a long way!) in the pursuit of knowledge.

When we arrived at the Peabody we were greeted by Erin Gredell, the NAGPRA coordinator for the Peabody Museum, who took us to the room where the artifacts had been collected. While there we took pictures of the artifacts and compared them to the pictures of the mortar in our collection. The pictures seemed to match, but without more conclusive chemical evidence it will be difficult to know. This part of the project will be ongoing and with the help of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Archaeology Program we will hopefully determine the chemical signature of both pieces and know whether or not they match.

Rounded Steatite (soapstone) Shard
Rounded Steatite (soapstone) Shard

After spending time taking pictures and examining the artifacts, the three of us looked at other parts of the Peabody collection. It was fascinating to see that the practices that we had in our collection carried over to much larger collections. After saying goodbye to Ms. Gredell, Jessie and I explored the museum before making our way back to Middletown.

by Jack Sheffer, ’19