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Ask an Archaeologist: What’s your Favorite Ancient Ohio Artifact?

If you haven’t noticed, we like to geek out about history here at Columbus Neighborhoods. On this week’s episode, we explored Ohio’s ancient history.

So what better time to catch up with Ohio History Connection archaeologists and natural history curators? We asked them to take us behind the scenes and show us their favorite ancient artifacts found in Ohio and, boy, did they deliver.

Take a peek at these four favorite artifacts — three of which are not currently on display at the museum.

Mammoth skeleton found in Morrow County
Dave Dyer, natural history curator

Ohio History Connection is storing the bones of a mammoth skeleton in their collections facility until it can hopefully be reconstructed for exhibit in the museum.

 

Many people associate Ohio History Connection with mastodons. The museum features a Conway mastodon skeleton, and they created mastodon license plates, after all.

“They’re so common in the state,” Dyer says. “It’s like 4-to-1 more mastodons than mammoths.”

But Ohio History Connection’s mastodon may eventually have to make way for a skeleton of its less-common cohabitant. In their collections facility, they have 65 percent of the bones from a local mammoth — the most complete skeleton that’s been found in Ohio, as far as they’ve been able to find, Dyer says.

“We’re always telling the difference (between mammoths and mastodons), so why not have the two skeletons and then we can show people and explain the difference,” he says.

Ohio History Connection is getting estimates for the cost of constructing the skeleton. That used to mean finding similarly sized bones from other excavations and trying to piece them together to make a complete skeleton. But now with the advent of 3-D printers, they may be able to replicate the bones they have to fill in the full model.

Excavated in Morrow County in 1919, the skeleton was likely left behind by a 40-something male wooly mammoth rising about 10 feet 3 1/2 inches tall, based on the research of Ohio History Connection’s archaeology department, Dyer says. Some indications of age can be found in the mammoth’s mouth.

The skull of the mammoth

“It’s like a conveyor belt where the teeth come in, in the back and move forward, (and they) break apart as they get older,” he says. “Our old joke about mammoths and mastodons — like I said, their teeth wear out and they drop out the front — they’re like on a date, you know, with another mastodon and the tooth falls out and drops in the soup. Like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Excuse my teeth.’

“They only have six teeth in each quadrant for their entire life,” he continues. “So you have three, like, baby teeth that come in and go out pretty fast, and then when the last tooth wears out and falls out, the animal has no teeth and it dies of old age. Usually that’s around 60 years old — 60 to 70. So if they can survive that long, then they die of starvation, which is a weird concept.”

Trilobite fossil found near Sylvania
Erin Cashion, natural history curator

This trilobite fossil was found 1 1/2 miles south of Sylvania, Ohio.

 

“I’m the trilobite champ,” Cashion says. “I like telling people about them. They’re so weird. How cool would it have been to see one? This is all we get; we just get these little (fossils). And they were around for so long — like, twice as long as the dinosaurs. We just missed them.”

But those little fossils are pretty incredible in and of themselves — the one pictured above is about 300 million years old.

“They ruled the seas for 270 million years,” she says. “It’s the longest stint of any group of living animals on earth — they really persisted for quite a long time. The oldest specimens date back to 500-something million years. And they went extinct 251 million years ago, during the Permian extinction event where most — like, 99 percent — of sea life went extinct.”

Trilobites are known for rolling up like roly poly or pill bugs when they perceived a threat. And though they are distantly related, Cashion says, horseshoe crabs — which, astonishingly, co-existed with trilobites for a time and are still around today — are thought to be trilobites’ closest living relative.

“They may have even occupied the same shallow seas,” she says.

Ohio History Connection uses this horseshoe crab shell as a comparison to trilobite fossils.

 

You might have heard of horseshoe crabs; they’re famous for their blue blood, which is used for testing vaccines for contamination.

“Horseshoe crabs have survived five mass extinction events,” she says. “They were around before there were trees on the land. They haven’t changed for 400 million years; they’ve looked exactly like this. And who knows if their physiology’s changed — we can’t know that from looking at a fossil. Was their blood the same color? We don’t know. So it’s amazing.”

Though the resilient horseshoe crab has survived all these years, the population of the species is declining. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has categorized the species as “vulnerable” — one category below “endangered.”

Copper face from the Hopewell culture, found near Chillicothe
Brad Lepper, archaeology curator

This Hopewell culture artifact is currently on display in the Following in Ancient Footsteps exhibition at Ohio History Connection.

 

When visitors walk into the exhibition area at Ohio History Connection, one of the first artifacts they see is Lepper’s favorite. And that’s intentional.

“I’m just fascinated by that little piece, and I wanted it to be out here,” Lepper says. “There’s something haunting about that delicate, beautiful small face.”

Only about a couple inches tall, the piece is easy to miss. But it’s one of Ohio History Connection’s rare artifacts.

“It’s been hammered out of a thin sheet of copper and then sort of, probably, wrapped around a mold; there was probably a wooden thing in there that held it together,” Lepper says. “It may have been on a staff, but we don’t know that.”

Excavated by Henry Shetrone in the 1920s, this copper piece was found within the Hopewell Mound Group, just north of Chillicothe. A few years later, Shetrone became director of the Ohio Historical Society (now Ohio History Connection), the artifact’s first and only home since the excavation.

This information is displayed with the Hopewell artifact.

“The Hopewell Mound Group is where the culture gets its name,” he says. “This is sort of the largest enclosure of any kind the Hopewell built. It really was the center of their universe.”

This copper piece was found in a mound at the north end of the group, within a basin filled with other copper artifacts, like a pipe with two ducks heads. Not far from that was another basin of mica artifacts.

“It’s almost a joke in archaeology that if you don’t know what it is, you call it a ‘ceremonial object,’ ” he says. “But really in this case, because of where it was found and the things it was found with, we’re fairly certain that this was some kind of ceremonial object.”

No human remains were found with these artifacts — with the exception of pieces of a skull that’s also believed to be a ceremonial object — so it’s not a burial mound, Lepper says. The nature of the ceremony or ceremonies involving these two basins is unclear. But based on radiocarbon dating, it may have been one of the last ceremonies to take place at this site.

“Is it two clans? Is it men and women? I mean, there’s some kind of dichotomy, but it’s complimentary,” he says of the two basins. “It’s a set that goes together, but it’s separate.”

“The most intriguing thing about that artifact is it’s a human face,” Lepper continues, adding that it could also be a representation of a spiritual being. “So many of these objects, you ponder what they might mean. But to have a human face looking back at you, just allows you, I think, to make a very human connection with that ancient culture. There’s an intimate connection that’s made.”

Large spearpoint found near Gahanna
Bill Pickard, archaeology curator

This spearpoint, made of Ohio flint, is unusually large compared to others found around the state.

 

Before Henry Shetrone served as director of the Ohio Historical Society (now Ohio History Connection) from 1928 to 1947, he was a newspaper reporter. Writing about William Mills, the society’s first director, sparked Shetrone’s interest in archaeology. Then one day — May 25, 1907, to be exact — he found a large spearpoint a mile east of Gahanna, “probably in a cornfield,” Pickard surmises.

“I guess he got the bug and went out and started finding arrowheads and stuff, because we have a lot of [artifacts] that predate him actually getting involved officially with the society,” Pickard says.

Made from Ohio flint, the spearpoint is estimated to be 9,000 years old, Pickard says. This one is unusual because large spearpoints in this style are typically found in Illinois, Missouri and Indiana.

Pickard uses diagrams like these to classify spearpoints. The one found near Gahanna is the “J” style in the bottom-left corner of this photo.

 

“Somebody had used it for quite a while because they had re-sharpened it to a place where these barbs were just sort of taken off,” Pickard says. “And I just thought maybe this was one of the things that really sparked [Shetrone’s] interest in getting more deeply into archaeology.”

In 1913, Mills hired Shetrone as a staff archaeologist.

“Mills used to send him out on trips around Ohio to look for collections that they might procure,” Pickard says. “He had an Indian motorcycle that he rode around. And I don’t know if this is true or not, but he liked to sleep under apple trees because he’d have breakfast in the morning.

“During hard times,” he continues, “there’s letters in the correspondence where he wrote Mills, you know, ‘Could you advance me another like $15 to last me the rest of the month?’ And Mills goes, ‘No, we don’t have it. We can’t afford it.’ ”

Shetrone went on to become an authority on ancient mounds and a respected author.

Emily Thompson

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