Mound Mystery Solved?
We’ve all been enchanted from time to time by an overgrown field or a
wooded area and thought about what archeological treasures must exist beneath
the sod and trees.  Our imagination takes us back a few thousand years to see a
village that may have existed there and the people that once may have called the
place home. One sees the housing structures of wood & bark surrounded with
cooking fires stringing their smoke up in the air as aboriginal men, women and
children mill about in their normal daily activities of flintknapping, basket
weaving, dart making, and cooking.  One such place exists next to one of the
more interesting and moderately productive sites I surface collect.  This place of
interest has a large uneven mound just about in its center.  It had served as a
cow pasture for some 15 years since the last time the ground was tilled.  This
mound always sparked my imagination as I wondered and speculated about what
it might be or might have been used for by the ancient inhabitants of South
Central New York State.
Was the mound a ceremonial burial place?  A burial mound in this area of New
York State would indeed be a rare feature.  Was it a Paleo cache site?  
Sometimes natural land marks served as good places for Paleo hunters to cache
bifaces and points for when they followed the herds through the area again and
needed to re-haft their darts or spears.  Was it a natural wind blocking feature
which would reveal a settlement component below it?  This was the case with the
site next to this field, as it was situated at the base of a large hill that overlooks
the major river in this valley and shelters the site from the prevailing winds.
These are the hypotheses and investigative questions that most of us
avocationals and collectors have the freedom to ponder.  Part science, part
imagination, and part CSI.  Sadly, such questions and dreaming are sometimes
lost when academic degrees and titles get in the way of what drew a person to
this type of hobby or area of study in the first place.  Many times it seems
exploratory holes and trenches are dug and past data is studied when sometimes
a good imagination just needs to be set free with the clues.
One day in the early spring of 2005, my wife received word from the land owner
that he decided to plow this mysterious mound site. This got me really excited,
and of course, my imagination kicked into high gear.  I thought maybe some or
even most of my burning questions might be answered about the mound.  This
spring was not what surface collectors or farmers would call an ideal spring as
we did not receive any significant rainfall in the beginning month or two.  Many
of my sites, including the mound site, were plowed with very little in the way of
artifacts turning up.  We desperately needed rain to wash off the artifacts that I
knew had to be hidden in the dusty furrows of my sites.
My first trip to the mound site was less than stellar.  The deep sod filled furrows
made for tough walking and tough searching for artifacts.  I wanted to be the
first one there, so I went after the first plowing of the soil.  As I walked onto
this familiar place, I proceeded directly to the mound.  This mound is
approximately 150 yards from the river and is conical in shape with a rounded
top and sloping sides.  The soil of the mound is not a type that I had seen
anywhere in this valley.  It was a sandy red colored soil (it sort of looked like
the soil on Mars!) with very few stones in it.  This type of soil was found only on
the mound. To my disappointment, my hypothesis of it being a burial mound
feature did not seem to be confirmed by any evidence on the surface.  It canâ
€™t be completely ruled out as there may be evidence below the plow zone
which a surface collector like me will never view.  It goes without saying, if I
had found evidence of aboriginal remains I would have done the responsible
thing and left them and the associated artifacts where they were and called the
professionals in to evaluate.  Finding nothing on the surface also seemed to rule
out the Paleo cache hypothesis as well.  I will still look every year because you
never know what will be turned up by the plow.
Next I tested my last hypothesis of the wind block.  As I swung around the right
side of the mound and started for the area below it, I found a pitted stone.  This
was a very good sign as pitted stones don’t have a habit of clinging to a plow
and being carried from another site or even being deposited by floods.  I also
observed that this area was shielded from the prevailing winds. At the base and
even up on the sides of the mound I found small fire pit features, and yes, a few
chips of our native Onondaga chert.  The area below the mound that held the
best promise of a site had yet to be plowed, but I was convinced aboriginals had
lived at this site and that it was a matter of me putting together the clues.
Though the first visit ended with few artifacts, I visited it a second time after it
had been completely plowed and disked.  Gary, a new collector friend of mine,
let me know that he had found tons of debitage and a few points in the section
that had been unplowed at my first visit.  Gary just started collecting this year
and was at this site pretty much every night for two weeks straight as he
exercised that same enthusiasm we all had our first year.  During those times of
Gary’s searching, the weather was hot and dry which makes finding artifacts
very difficult.  It just goes to show you, that even in terrible conditions if one
spends enough time he or she can find artifacts.  The conditions were still really
dusty and dry and Gary had really looked the site over well, but we decided to
visit the site one Saturday anyway.  Our search produced only a couple of large
pockets full of chips. I also managed to find a nice hammer stone and a nice
pitted stone.  With our hopes dashed, we proceeded to the adjacent site and
found four whole points, a broken point, and a nice net sinker (my best point
that day pictured insitu fig. 1).
My third visit to this field was more of a seasoned veteran investigation (CSI
stuff).  My friend Gary had covered and recovered the hot spots, so I decided to
look in an area to the right of the mound where nobody had been.  After all,
there were few artifacts in this area or so many had thought.  As I scanned the
rows there I began to understand why nobody, including Gary, had looked
there.  There was hardly a chip in the endless rows.  After many rows I stopped
and looked around.  Why didn’t they live and camp here?  It was just as
good ground as the area we were finding tons of chips.  I looked further
northwest and about 50 yards away sat a wet unplowed area.  Could it have been
a spring several thousand years ago?  As I tested my hypothesis by walking in
this area’s direction, I looked to my right and saw a square object with a
ridge in the center (fig. 2 insitu).  I thought “What the heck is that?â€�  
Even while bending down to pick it up, I was not sure what it was.  Once it was
in my hand, I turned it over, and instantly I knew what it was.  In the middle
was a hole drilled 1/4 of the way through the ridge.  The hole is approximately .
25 inches deep with a width the diameter of pencil.  The texture was rough and
pecked.  What I found was a very instructive and very rare unfinished banner
stone (fig. 3 & 4).  The wing tips had been broken off and the material it was
made from appears to be greenstone.  What a find!  In New York State we do
not find many bannerstones and this happens to be the second broken one Iâ
€™ve found.  I went on that day to find a few chips and another pitted stone
near the wet area.  Maybe this area was not a spring thousands of years ago, but
if I had not followed my hunch I would not have found the bannerstone.
After getting home, I cleaned the unfinished bannerstone and found several
interesting features that are instructive as to the process used by the ancient
ones to make these wonderful and mysterious artifacts.  This may seem like a â
€œduhâ€� observation, but in studying this artifact it was obvious that the
aboriginals in this area of New York drilled bannerstones from each side, thus
meeting in the middle to complete the whole through the piece.  I assumed this,
but this find seemed to support this notion.  Additionally, the base for the hole
was pecked flat to provide an area conducive to starting a consistent and straight
hole.  If not, why peck the other end as flat as the partially drilled end?  Lastly,
it appears that the greenstone bannerstone was completely pecked into shape
before final grinding and before drilling was attempted.  We all assume these
things, but finding an unfinished piece provides us with a window into the
process to confirm our logical guesses.
While studying this artifact, of course, my imagination awakened yet again.  I
had to wonder why the aboriginal maker stopped production on this piece.  Did
he die in a raid, war, or of sickness before completion?  Did he bury it to finish
it later then forgot where it was buried?  Was it an unfinished trade item? Was
it discarded for some reason as a flawed material?  I doubt I will ever have
conclusive answers to these questions. However, it is my ability to wonder and to
think beyond physical evidence in order to imagine the rich story that may have
been behind each piece that adds a dimension of enjoyment that many
professionals will never experience or admit to experiencing due to the confines
of academia and pride.  To those professionals that do wonder, imagine, and
hypothesize – good for you!  Your imagination will serve you well and enrich
the careful work that you do as you will begin to understand why we avocationals
do what we do and enjoy it so immensely.  As for my new found mound site, I
will continue to discover its mysteries and maybe even find some answers to
those questions as I enjoy recovering many more artifacts.
By Michael E. McGrath
Figure 1
Insitu Picture (not included by editor)
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Copyright 2007 by INDIAN ARTIFACT MAGAZINE Vol. 26-1
Ovid Bell Press Inc. (Unauthrorized Reproduction Prohibited)