What can you learn about the people of the Archaic period by looking at their artifacts?
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The Archaic Period

Archaeologists use certain words to divide prehistoric time (the time before history was recorded with words) into units. A period groups a span of years during which time the people shared similar characteristics in terms of their life styles.

For prehistoric Iowa, the four periods of human activity from earliest to most recent are the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland and the Late Prehistoric period—during which the Great Oasis, Nebraska (Glenwood), Mill Creek and Oneota cultures thrived. The Paleoindian period was about 12,000 years ago. The Archaic period in Iowa was between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago. The Woodland period began about 300 B.C.E. in Iowa and lasted about 1,000 years. The late prehistoric period began about 900 C.E.

Artifacts from the Archaic Period have been found across the state. Many have been found on the top of the ground. Archeologists are finding even more as they dig at new sites. Some Archaic artifacts are like ones from the earlier Paleo-Indian period. Others are new.

Artifacts from the Archaic Period

Because of the large number of excavated sites, archaeologists know more about the Archaic way of life than about the Paleo-Indian period. Some sites seem to be the remains of small campsites. Artifacts, broken animals bones and flint chips were found mixed together around the fire areas. The flint chips (waste from the making of stone tools) suggest that stone artifacts were made and repaired at the camp. Many artifacts from the Cherokee Sewer site in Cherokee County were made of stone that comes from some distance away. This suggests that chunks of stone were brought to Cherokee County from another location.

The most typical artifacts are chipped stones. These sharp stones were attached to spears and other weapons. They are called projectile points. Many different types of points have been found in Iowa. The most common are medium-sized with a triangular shape. The points often have a concave base and notches on each side. This made it easier to attach them to a wooden stick called the shaft. Both the base and notches were often ground (dulled). This kept the edges from cutting the material used to attach them to the shaft. Other typical chipped stone artifacts include scrapers, blades, drills and notched flakes.

Ground Stone Tools

A new category of stone artifact appeared in Iowa during the Archaic period. These were ground stone tools. Ground stone tools were used for grinding, crushing and chopping. These tools were made from stones like granite and quartzite. These rocks were harder than the chert and flint used to make points. They did not split off in big chips or flakes. Tools were made from these harder rocks by pecking (chipping out tiny pieces) and abrading (rubbing). Typical ground stone tools from the Iowa Archaic include abraders, axes, manos and metates. Manos were hand-held stones used to grind seeds and nuts by crushing or rubbing them against a stone base called a metate.

One important type of ground stone artifact is found in Archaic sites in eastern Iowa. It is called a bannerstone. It is important because it suggests the invention of a new way to hunt. Bannerstones are heavy, polished stones. They were ground into various shapes and usually had a hole in them. Some bannerstones are wing-shaped while others look like a boat, bird or animal. Many archaeologists believe these may have been used as weights on a spear thrower called the "atlatl." The atlatl was a tool with several parts. It usually had a wooden shaft about two feet long. There was a hook of an antler at one end and a handle at the other. Shell weights or bannerstone weights would have been fitted onto the wooden shaft. By using a weighted atlatl, Archaic hunters would have been able to throw their spears further and with greater force than before.

Bones and Copper Artifacts

Archaic peoples also used bones for many things. Bone awls have been found. They were probably used to pierce skins or work basket fibers. Bone scraping tools have been found. And, at the Cherokee Sewer site, a whistle made from the hollow bone of a bird was discovered. It is believed to be the earliest artifact of its kind in North America.

We also know that during the Archaic period, people in North America began to hammer chunks of raw copper into a variety of items. Most of this copper came from the Great Lakes region. Both raw copper and finished items were traded across eastern North America. Copper pins were found at the Olin site and at the Turkey River mounds in eastern Iowa. A copper point was found in Dickinson County.

Excavated Sites Reveal Secrets

A number of excavated sites in Iowa seem to be bison kill sites. At one site it appears that Archaic hunters killed and butchered 25 animals. This tells historians that the hunting of large game was an important part of the economy. But Archaic sites both in and outside Iowa point to smaller animals becoming increasingly important.

During the Archaic Period people began to rely on plants for food, especially wild seeds and nuts. Excavations at sites in southeastern Iowa have produced middens, or garbage heaps. These heaps contain the remains of deer, elk, smaller mammals, fish, turtle, bird and shellfish. Hackberry seeds were found at the Simonsen site. They were also found at the Cherokee Sewer site, along with the remains of goosefoot and hickory nuts. At Sand Run Slough plants include walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, ragweed, sunflower, goosefoot, marsh elder and wild rice.

Several oval-shaped structures and 60 large earth ovens were found at one site. But there is not much evidence anywhere else about the type of houses that were used. The Archaic people likely moved about as the seasons changed the food that was available. They probably had temporary or portable houses.

Archaeologists know the Archaic people had hide and woodworking tools. It’s possible they covered a wooden or bone frame with skins or mats. Clothing was probably made of sewn hides or woven plant fabrics. Bone or copper matting needles may have been used. As with Paleo-Indian peoples, social groups were probably small, consisting of a few families. These families worked together, especially in food-getting activities.

Excavations at several sites give clues about the burial customs of Archaic people. At Turin in Monona County, four burials were found. They included an adult male, an adolescent, a child and an infant. All were found lying on their side with their knees raised to their chest. The adolescent had been placed in a shallow grave and red ochre (a powdered form of iron oxide) had been sprinkled over the body. A necklace of shell beads (perhaps a symbol of status) and a side-notched point were placed with this body. In the prehistoric world the dead were often covered with red ochre. Historians aren’t sure why this custom was practiced. At later Archaic sites, bodies were buried together. One pit appeared to contain the remains of a buried dog. All these sites tell historians that Archaic people cared about their dead.

Similar Sites Among the States

The Iowa Archaic sites are similar to sites found elsewhere in North America. Archeologists put sites which have the same tool types together into a class known as a “complex.” Several of the western Iowa sites are like ones found in eastern Nebraska. These are known as the "Logan Creek Complex." This category has both kill sites and small campsites. Common artifacts include triangular, side-notched points; oval blades; and various scrapers including ones with a notched end. Ground stone tools also occur at some of the sites.

Late Archaic sites in eastern Iowa could possibly be grouped with complexes in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. Certain side-notched points and copper artifacts found in Iowa are similar to artifacts from the Old Copper Complex of Wisconsin. One example is the Olin site in Jones County. Here, dredging operations recovered artifacts from a depth of 35 feet. The artifacts included the remains of bison, beaver and caribou as well as a copper pin and two chipped stone, side-notched points.

Change Was Slow

The prehistoric people of Iowa did not change their tools or lifestyles in just a few days, or even over a few years. Nor did all the communities make changes in the same order. Some might have started making new tools while others may have tried new ways to grow plants. These new tools and customs changed their way of life. An important change was the cultivation of certain plants, a stepping stone on the way to farming. At the Gast Spring site cultivated squash, little barley, and goosefoot were discovered in deposits dated to 1000-800 B.C.E. So far, this is the oldest known finding of cultivated little barley in the Midwest. This also marks a transition to the Woodland Culture.

Adapted from an article by Toby Morrow in Office of the State Archaeologist Educational Series Pamphlets, 1996.



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