Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Power of Women

March is designated as Women’s History Month; thus, it seems appropriate to explore the role of women in our archaeological and cultural heritage.  While it is important to have a focus on significant women in our past and present, a woman is much more than a historic figure to honor once a year.  In some Native American society's women are viewed as the giver of life and Mother Earth as the giver of all things on the earth. She is a sacred figure and has garnered respect and acknowledgement of her significance.  

Native American tribes such as the Lenape (Delaware) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois and Tuscarora) are matrilineal societies instead of the typical patrilineal societies from Europe. Meaning that you descended from your mother’s clan, not your father’s. It also meant that women were involved in the decision-making process for the greater good of the tribe. 

Nora Thompson Dean (left) and Lucy Parks, 1977.

Image courtesy of Jim Rementer, Delaware Tribe of Indians

Nora Thompson Dean was a member of the Delaware Tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and an important keeper of their cultural heritage. Nora wrote about the role of Delaware women in a matrilineal society stating, “the children belong to the clan or group of the mother, and therefore, even if one was the son or daughter of a chief, they would not be a prince or princess as was the case with European royalty. The successor to the chieftaincy was the chief’s sister’s son, or the nearest male relative to the chief within the same clan. This gave women a powerful voice in tribal matters, but in spite of this ‘voice,’ it was the tradition for women to not speak out at public gatherings such as councils.” (

In Haudenosaunee culture (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora) the chief and clan mother share leadership roles. The clan mother chooses and advises the chief, placing and holding him in office. The clan mother also has the responsibility of removing a chief who doesn’t listen to the people and make good decisions, giving due consideration to seven generations in the future. To be chosen as a chief, the man cannot be a warrior (since it is a confederacy based on peace), nor can he have ever stolen anything or abused a woman. Women live free of fearing violence from men. The spiritual belief in the sacredness of women and the earth — the mutual creators of life — make abuse almost unthinkable. 

Indigenous women planting gardens, Image courtesy of Herbert Kraft

Not unlike the Native Americans who lived here when Europeans began arriving in North America, settler women were often responsible for domestic chores- cooking, cleaning, gardening, and raising children.  Each group practiced their methods of planting and harvesting- often embedded in their cultural practices of following celestial signs, seasonal change, and traditional stories.  Haudenosaunee gardening of corn, beans and squash are commonly identified as the three sisters- significant for their ability to grow together in mounds of soil.  Nora Dean describes the Delaware practice of cooking as done with intent- “we think that the person’s mind when they are cooking has something to do with the health of the ones who eat the food. The cook must be in a good frame of mind during the  food preparation, not angry, or ill, and have an inside prayer to the Creator that what she prepares will bring strength and happiness to the consumer of the food”.

How often have we heard the expressions made with love, homemade is best, lovin from the oven, or my favorite- no one makes it like my mom. Recipes that have been handed down through multiple generations don’t have a byline to “make while in a good frame of mind” but the act of cooking heritage dishes by women is a powerful expression of cultural traditions. The consumption of these dishes connects families to the past and to memories of the ancestors who shared the recipes and traditions for future generations.

A mother’s words are often the first that a child hears. The significance of language to the Indigenous community in retaining their cultural heritage has been an important initiative for many women.  Nora Thompson Dean worked with Jim Rementer in recording and developing the Lenape Talking Dictionary.  Francine Patterson (1952-2020), a previous clan mother of the Tuscarora learned the language from elders, she later recorded the language to develop a comprehensive Tuscarora dictionary. The work of these women and other members of the Native American tribal community are working to preserve their language and culture for future generations. Teaching children their native language is important in identifying with their heritage and is a practice continued today by cultures around the world. 

Francine Patterson, of the Tuscarora Nation sharing cultural heritage with a class of high school students. Image from the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Women in Indigenous cultures made pottery from clay, sand, shell, and grit; all by hand while teaching their daughters the craft and skill required to make a cooking or storage vessel.  They cleaned and scraped animal hides to sew garments, gathered reeds and grasses to make baskets, collected fruits and nuts in addition to tending gardens and they were the caretakers of the elders. The definition of multi-tasking was unknown to them, but their tenacity gave them the ability to do all these tasks.

Native American pottery. Image from the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

This same tenacity has been demonstrated by women from all cultures and times. Farm laborers and domestics became the factory workers of the Industrial era.  Women working in the mills were controlled by company rules and long hours of work at minimal wages. These are the women who led the way for labor laws, voting rights, and access to advanced education.  Sacrifices of those before us opened up opportunities to be mechanics, soldiers, fire fighters and scientists. Women are clan mothers, union leaders, caregivers, teachers, and librarians whose contributions to society are heralded.  Some of these women are among those highlighted in the many articles surrounding Women’s History Month, but of equal significance are the autonomous women, often silent, who continuously labor to preserve their heritage and cultural traditions.  

Archaeologists examine the artifacts of the past- broken pottery, hide scrapers, porcelain dish fragments, canning jars, and sewing implements as items of material culture to aid in interpreting daily activities of the people who made or used these objects. As such, we look for patterns of distribution to examine movement across the landscape, we search for changes in technology- shape or size of a projectile point, temper or design of the pottery, dietary remains- all tools for reconstructing the past. Examining these remains, the tangible evidence of past cultures, and putting them in the proper context can be challenging. Making the connection to their cultural significance often relies on the keepers of cultural heritage. Thank you to the women of the world who continue to practice your cultural traditions and share your knowledge with others.   We hope you’ve enjoyed this post in celebration of women and invite you to visit our Women of Archaeology blogs on this site as well as the on-line collections of The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.



Kraft, Herbert C.

1983      The Lenape, Archaeology, History, and Ethnography. New Jersey Historical Society.

Parker, Arthur C.

1989      Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. Introduction by William C. Fenton. Lincoln: University of Nebraska                                    Press.

Snow, Dean R.

1994       The Iroquois (Peoples of America). Blackwell Publishers, Malden.


For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Monday, March 6, 2023


This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology is revisiting an earlier discussion of bannerstones, an enigmatic artifact type for sure. They appear in the Eastern Woodlands of North America during the Middle Atlantic period (9,000 - 6,000 years ago) and are most commonly found through the Late Archaic/Transitional period (6,000 - 4,300 years ago). They were made in a multitude of (Knoblock, 1939) shapes. From a variety of lithic materials and share a general symmetry and often are drilled through the center. There are several theories as to their use and function for the Indigenous peoples who crafted them.

The name bannerstone comes from Dr. C. C. Abbott who put forth the theory in the early 20th century that they may have been used during ceremonies as banners or like standards. Abbott suggested this because they are centrally drilled, as if to be placed on a handle, and most are highly polished, demonstrating a great deal of craftsmanship and effort. In support of this hypothesis, a cache of three bannerstones were discovered in 1908 by chance while plowing a field in North Carolina. They wereattached to a staff, which was decorated with rings, precisely fitting the drilled holes of the bannerstones (Baer, 1921).

Another theory is that they were used as weights on the end of a throwing stick or atlatl. Excavations conducted during the 1930’s under the WPA (Works Projects Administration) by William S. Webb, from the University of Kentucky at the Indian Knoll site recovered 42 bannerstones including “elements of throwing sticks know as atlatls” (Blume 2021).

It is suggested that adding the weight of the bannerstone to the atalatl , increased the velocity of the spear that was thrown, as pictured above. Subsequent research has questioned the weighted atlatl as having little to no additional benefit.

Yet another theory is that they were used as a spindle whorl in the production of twine or cordage. . Suspended fibers could be attached to the bannerstone spindle which could then be spun to consolidate t the fibers creating twine. The winged shape would make the spinning an easy action.

The Archaeology collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania contain hundreds of complete and fragmented bannerstones. As some of our ardent followers may recall Sam Azzaro, a 2014 intern from Dickinson College worked with some of our bannerstones creating a detailed inventory that included descriptions, weights, and measurements. He blogged about his research on January 30, 2015. A subsequent intern Naomi Ulmer created a similar database with our axe collection. She was able to build on the bannerstone data by including 25 bannerstones with the many axes that she and former Senior Curator Dr. Kurt Carr and Dr. Robert Smith, Pennsylvania Geological Survey analyzed, to determine lithic types for both axes and bannerstones. Of those analyzed the majority were made of serpentine, a metamorphic rock composed of various minerals, as a result it can appear in many colors, but the eastern variety is often tan or beige (Carr, 2015).

Blackwall is an igneous rock that transformed over time, becoming a form of serpentine schist.

Greywackes are characteristically hard, dark gray-green coarse-grained sandstone.

Hornblende is a metamorphic rock with a high silica content.

Steatite is a very soft, metamorphic stone often referred to as soapstone.

Other anomalies of the bannerstones include the question of why so many are found with incompletely drilled holes. Sometimes the appearance is of a clearly unfinished bannerstone, so not being drilled is understandable, but in many cases the artifact appears “finished” and is highly polished but exhibits only a partially drilled hole. Approximately 32 percent of the bannerstones analyzed by Sam Azzaro were either not drilled or only partially drilled.

Many of the bannerstone fragments recovered feature intentionally drilled holes in the wings. These may be repair holes to rebind the broken pieces back together. Were the bannerstones special beyond

their function? Their significance may have been so important that even after they broke, they were redrilled and reused as pendants, sinew, or tally stones.

Broken wing from a bannerstone with 2 drill holes. Image from the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Drilled bannerstone fragment, image from the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

As with so many things, especially archaeology, the more we learn the more questions we have and clearly many questions remain about this enigmatic artifact, the bannerstone.

We hope you have enjoyed this blog and will continue to visit us as we highlight the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. We invite you to view additional pieces from our collections.

Baer, John Leonard         1921       A Preliminary Report on the So-Called “Bannerstones”. American Anthropologist 23(4):445-459.

Blume, Anna                      2021 Bannerstones, an Introduction. Smarthistory, accessed 2/24/2023

Carr, Kurt                             2015       Analysis Notes

Herbstritt, James              2023       Personal Communication

Knoblock, Byron               1939       Bannerstones of the North American Indian. Self-published, LaGrange, Illinois

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .