2 May 2018

How a bit of practical knowledge can reshape archaeological views. At ... archaeologists unearth all kinds of objects during excavations and some of them feel propelled to guess as to identify them simply because some people do not like loose ends. The finds tray, particularly in days gone by, had to have an explanation - even when it comes to the discovery of black soapstone pebbles. In this instance the excavator plumped for explaining them as marbles - without knowing if such a game was played by native Americans. It is a classic case of lack of practical knowledge of arts and crafts and native skill levels. In this particular story the stone pebbles were excavated from a site of the Hopewell Culture in Ohio - and the man with the necessary knowledge was Ben Barnes of the local Shoshone tribe. He showed conclusively they came from a ceremonial drum. The archaeologist and now curator of a local museum, Brad Lepping (archaeological correspondent of the local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch), happened to be at a presentation by the Shoshone when the penny clicked. After querying a Shoshone drum (modern) Ben Barnes explained how they attach the leather drumhead to the wooden shell by wrapping edges of the leather around a series of round, black pebbles, which they can tie off with cordage. They tie a cord around one of the leather wrapped pebbles, pass the cord under the bottom of the shell and attach it to another leather wrapped pebble on the opposite side of the drumhead, repeating the process until each pebble is attached to another and the drumhead is firmly fastened to the shell.

Brad Lepper remembered the black pebbles excavated in the 1920s, from a Hopewell site going back 2000 years. What he has learnt, by seeking out the knowledge of Ben Barnes, is that Hopewell culture people used drums in their ceremonies (mostly made from perishable material such as wood and leather) just like the Shoshone of the modern era - and in all likelihood the Shoshone are direct descandants of the Hopewell people.