Monday, March 31, 2014

Mystery Artifact: A Little Bird Told Me . . .

Today's Mystery Artifact strikes me as delightfully spring-y, from the mossy green fabric to its reminder of all the birds I heard celebrating the return of warm weather as I arrived at work this morning!

The artifact is a stylized bird, which sits atop a clamp (we have it perched on a custom-made stand in the photo).  An area of cushioned green velvet fabric sits on the bird's back, with a larger area of green velvet below its chest. 

The middle of the bird's body contains a hinge, so that by squeezing its tail sections together the bird's beak can open and close.  It is tarnished silver-plate, although a peek at the bottom of the 'dish' to which the larger area of green velvet is attached shows wear and tear, hinting that the bird's interior might be brass or bronze.

Deeply embossed feather patterns and eyes decorate the bird, with a raised leaf design on the clamp and a quatrefoil-shaped key to turn the thumbscrew.  Interestingly, the edge of the bird's right wing is stamped PATENTED, and its left wing reads FEB 15, 1853.  Using this particular clue for research (i.e. Googling it) will bring results, so please - as a courtesy to other readers - make your guess before you check your work, or wait until Wednesday or Thursday to post the answer! 

More than just a toy, this pretty bird had a specified use in 19th-century households, and similar tools are still in use today.  What do you think this object's function could be?  Please post your ideas in the comments section below or on our Facebook page, and if you are nearby stop in to the museum to check it out in person.  Happy guessing!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Of Stone Tools and Sustenance: Mystery Artifact Revealed

As I'd suspected, a number of archaeologist-friends were quick to spot and identify this artifact, a gunflint used on a flintlock mechanism for triggering the firing of a black-powder gun:

Many friends also mentioned that gunflints are some of their favorite artifacts to find on archaeological sites!  I would have to agree, as the color of the flint from which the tool was made can give clues as to its origins, which in turn hints at who might have lived on or used that site.  As you can see in the photo below, gunflints made of European flint can be honey- or amber-colored or a dark grey, almost black color (flint was the name originally applied to high-quality cherts found in Europe, but there is really very little difference between European flints and cherts from around the world).

It is commonly held that high-quality honey-colored flint, as was used in the first two gunflints pictured, usually originated in France, while the darker piece came from chalky soils in England.  The shape of the worked flint can also give clues to the piece's origin:  the first piece is called a spall type as it came from a large flake or spall knocked/knapped off the flint core, the second piece is called a blade type (and more blade-type flints could be made from a core, leading to a more efficient use of flint), and the last piece made from English flint I have seen called both blade- and prism-type flints.  All three types are found throughout Illinois on French Colonial, Early British American, and 19th-century American sites.

Our gunflint pictured above came from the Ohio/Nine Gal Tavern site, as did several musket balls (as we are still working on processing the collection, it is possible that several more gunflints, pieces of shot, or even portions of firing mechanisms might turn up in the collection, as well)!  It appears to be made of high-quality English flint, and it would have been placed in the hammer or cock of the flintlock mechanism (from which we have the verb cocking a gun).  You can see the hammer of a flintlock mechanism on this close-up of a blunderbuss from our collection - the gunflint would have been held tightly between the vise-like jaws near the center of the frame.

The hammer would then spring forward as the trigger was pulled, striking sparks as the flint met a steel plate called a frizzen and igniting the black powder, which would in turn fire the gun.  This excellent blog entry from my colleagues and friends at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Maryland describes the mechanism in great detail, and it also features a very cool photograph of a hammer recovered archaeologically in which the gunflint had been held in place for almost 300 years!

As they note, the flintlock technology was used for around 200 years, originating in the early 1600s and going out of fashion with the advent of percussion cap weapons in the early 1800s.  This leads to a very interesting question:  why were the early settlers on the Ohio/Nine Gal property, the Bryans, using such outdated technology in the mid-1830s?  Of course, it's possible the early inhabitants of the site were using an older weapon much as we might use a CD player or radio from several years ago (or--heaven forbid--a smart phone that is more than two years old)!

However, an interesting alternative answer to that question might prove to be:  perhaps the gun was not used on the site by the Bryans, but by earlier Native American hunters making camp near the Sangamon Ford.  Documentary evidence states that as early as 1673, indigenous populations in Illinois were trading with French explorers and fur traders to obtain flintlock weapons.  Oral histories and local legends passed down by early Euro-American settlers also recount the heavy use of what would become Champaign County by indigenous hunting parties and family groups passing through the region, although no permanent Native American settlements have been found in the area (likely because the ground was too swampy and sloughs too frequent to allow for good farming until after the land had been tile drained).

What do you think?  Share your hypothesis in the comments below, and stop in to see the gunflint and a few musket balls from the Ohio/Nine Gal site on display.  You can also get a sneak peek at next week's Mystery Artifact this weekend.  We hope to see you soon!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Mystery Artifact: Of Stone Tools and Sustenance

This week's mystery artifact is, to some extent, a shout-out to all my archaeologist friends who follow the blog.  Hopefully, readers will find it a bit easier to identify than last week's salamander, which was a real doozy! 

This artifact is small - only about an inch at its longest, as you can see below:

It is made of stone, and all four edges of the rectangle/prism have been worked and shaped.  The stone from which it is made is dark grey, almost black, in color.  At the risk of giving too much away, I will add one more clue . . . this particular type of artifact has been found on archaeological sites all over the state of Illinois.

Post your guesses on this blog in the comments section or over on Facebook, and we'll follow up soon to reveal this mystery artifact.  If you'd like to take a closer look, this object will be on display in the lobby area of the museum, next to the previous mystery artifact, a kitchen tool called a salamander.  Come on out to the museum and check out these cool artifacts!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

From Fire to Hearth: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

The most recent mystery artifact stumped blog-followers, visitors, and Forest Preserve Staff!  The above artifact is cast iron, measures 2 feet long, and balances (rather precariously) on the square foot.  Some followers suggested it might be a warmer for beds or boots, which was not far off the mark.  Other good guesses included "tool to rest the frying pan on for heating" and "toddy iron" - both of which were quite close indeed to this tool's function!

The gold star for Most Imaginative Guess once again goes to Jess C., for a description that might have come straight from the pages of a Terry Pratchett novel:
"This item is used for the game of Conkerwhip.  A single chestnut is placed in the loop and roasted near an open fire.  When the chestnut is ready, one teammate (the catcher) stands some distance away, and the other teammate (the whipper) strikes the flat end of the device, sending the chestnut flying toward the catcher, whom must try to catch it in his mouth.  Scoring is based on distance and successful catches.  This game is best played outdoors on a cold day, which not only allows for a larger playing field, but also gives the hot chestnut time to cool somewhat as it flies through the air.  Chestnuts may be partially pre-cooked in order to keep the game moving."

Having read that description, I'm afraid this object's function will seem mundane by comparison!  This artifact is a salamander, and -- like its modern-day culinary counterpart -- it was used for  toasting or browning the top of a dish before serving. Many commercial kitchens use salamander broilers for melting and browning cheesy dishes and caramelizing desserts (think creme brulee).

 zpic salamander

The historic salamander could be placed on the hearth near the fire, and when the iron disk was heated, it was then held over the dish to brown or toast the top layer.

While the modern salamander grill does not look much like its namesake, the historic salamander tool seen above does resemble the amphibian seen below:

The tool's name might also refer to the salamander's mythical association with fire.  Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and author, referred to the creature's ability to extinguish flames (although he was himself skeptical of such a claim).  Despite Pliny's doubts, the legendary ability of a salamander to live within fire was documented through the ages, and documents suggest the Chinese produced a fabric that was rumored to be woven from "salamander wool" and had flame retardant properties (although textile experts believe it to have been woven from asbestos).  These beliefs were likely supported by real salamanders' tendency to live in fallen logs, from which they would emerge as the log was thrown onto the fire.  It must have seemed as though the creatures had emerged from the flames themselves!

16th-century illustration of
a salamander in flames

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Mystery Artifact and Exhibit Opening!

Hello again!  The Museum staff has been very busy in the past few weeks preparing the museum for its reopening last Saturday, working to catalog and store the artifacts that came out of the old Prairie Stories exhibit, and installing a new temporary exhibit called Home Grown.

The exhibit opens Sunday, with a lecture by Sandy Mason from the University of Illinois Extension.  She will give an intriguing presentation on what it means to garden in today's world. We think Sandy says it best:

"Growing our own vegetables is as vital as it was a century ago; however the whys, hows and wheres have changed with our changing lifestyles. Discover how the old and the new have merged to create vegetable gardening in the 21st century."

Spring is almost here (we hope!), and this exhibit will make you even more excited to get outside in the sun and get your hands in the dirt!  While the cold and snow lingers, however, please join us at the Museum--we are open from 1pm-5pm daily, and admission is free!

We have two new display cases near the door to the Home Grown exhibit.  One features new acquisitions to the Museum's collections, and right now it showcases the Ohio/Nine Gal Tavern archaeological collection that was recently donated.   We hope you will come in and take a look before the artifacts are taken off display for conservation!

The second case showcases Mystery Artifacts, and this week's is a doozy!  Several staff members from around the preserve have been stumped by this item.  Here is a photo:

It is about 24" long and is made of forged iron (so it is very heavy)!  The head is a solid round piece approximately 1" thick, and it balances rather precariously on the square-footed stand.  If you would like to take a closer look at this fascinating artifact, stop by the Museum and check it out in person!

What is this item, and what was it used for?  Offer your guesses on Facebook or in the comments section below.  We hope to see you Sunday!