Common Projectile Points of the Upper Mississippi River Valley
by: Robert Boszhardt
if you would like information about purchasing a Projectile Point Guide
for the Upper Mississippi River Valley.
If you would like help identifying an artifact in
the Upper Mississippi River Valley or the Upper Midwest please e-mail
Dr. Katherine Stevenson at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Include in your e-mail a description of the
item, where it was found, and attach a picture of the artifact with a
scale. Responses will be sent as soon as possible. For help
identifying artifacts found outside the Upper Midwest contact that
state's archaeologist. A list of state archaeologists can be found
The web-based Projectile Point Guide was created with a grant from
the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse Foundation. MVAC greatly
appreciates the UW-L Foundation's support of this project!
Projectile points are tips fastened to the ends of spears, darts, and
arrow shafts. In prehistoric North America, they were made from a
variety of materials, including antler, bone, and copper but most, at
least most that have preserved, were made from stone. The vast majority
of these were made by chipping various types of "flint" to
shape the projectile point for penetration, cutting, and hafting.
Projectile point styles changed through time, much like automobile
styles. Sometimes these changes reflect technological shifts, while
other times they appear to be simply fads. In either case, it is
somewhat astounding how widespread the use of certain projectile point
styles was during particular periods of midwestern prehistory. For
example, Paleo-Indian fluted spear tips, dating between 11,300 and
10,200 years ago (uncalibrated), have been found in every state between
the Rocky Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. Several thousand years
later, side-notched forms were being used by Archaic cultures throughout
much of eastern North America. At the transition from Archaic to
Woodland traditions there was a widespread shift to contracting stemmed
point types, and toward the end of prehistory virtually every culture
adopted unnotched triangular arrow tips.
Although many basic point styles were widespread, they often have a
variety of regional names. For example, contracting stemmed points are
called Waubesa in Wisconsin and the Upper Mississippi Valley, and nearly
identical points are called Belknap or Dickson in Illinois and Gary
points to the south and east. While there are often modest regional
variations in point types, there is rarely evidence of individual
expression. Point makers in general were conformists and manufactured
tips according to prevailing culturally accepted styles. For this reason
archaeologists work diligently to develop regional projectile point
chronologies that recognize patterns of changing shape through time.
These are based on the premise that once a distinct style is directly
dated by carbon 14 association, then similar points can be confidently
attributed to the same age. All ages included in this guide are
uncalibrated. This cross-dating can be applied to points found in
excavations, plowed fields, or in private collections.
A number of projectile point guides cover various styles found in the
Upper Mississippi Valley. This page is adapted from a published version
through the University of Iowa Press, A Projectile Point Guide for the
Upper Mississippi River Valley, and includes only ten of the more common
point types found in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. This electronic
version also contains links to related sites but does not include
references to the original type definitions, which are available in the
published version. Two other recommended print guides that overlap this
area are Justice’s Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the
Midcontinental Eastern United States and Morrow’s Iowa Projectile
Points. Several price guides are also available, but most are based on
undocumented collections, and all contribute to the destruction of the
archaeological record by inevitably disconnecting the locational context
from artifacts through selling.
Point typology is a tricky business. We know that basic stylistic
patterns changed through time, and we have a fairly good regional
chronology of shapes, but many points do not readily conform to
"type" examples. Some characteristics, such as
corner-notching, seem to have been popular during more than one period,
so we may need to look for more subtle ways to determine the ages of
specific points. Dating points is always a problem with surface finds,
yet with avocational and professional archaeologists sharing knowledge,
we can detect more precise patterns and associations. Some
corner-notched points are found at sites with pottery, others at sites
without pottery. Some may be made of heat-treated chert, others of
silicified sandstone. Some may have basal grinding, others not. These
kinds of "attributes" can help segregate similar looking
points that are from different periods. Sooner or later, each variety
will be found in datable contexts, and we will then be able to determine
their ages directly. Thus, point guides will need to be refined and
updated, a process made easier through the Internet. You can help with
this continual process by recording your finds and letting
archaeologists document them through photography and measurements.
Identifying the source of the stone used to manufacture specific
points can also be difficult. Some materials such as Knife River flint
and jasper taconite are fairly distinctive, and it is generally not
difficult to separate Prairie du Chien chert from Galena or Moline
cherts. However, nearly all flint sources exhibit stone of considerable
variation in color and quality, and there are many look-alikes. For
example, until the 1990s nearly every silicified sandstone artifact
found in the Upper Mississippi Valley was classified as having been made
of material from the well-known Silver Mound source in western
Wisconsin. But subsequent identification of numerous other silicified
sandstone source areas, including several extensive prehistoric
workshops that have produced flakes of color and texture that rival that
of Silver Mound, make definitive identifications problematic. Because
specific sources are usually from discrete geological formations, fossil
inclusions, structural properties, and mineralogical content are useful
keys for identification. For example, a distinctive attribute of
Burlington chert is the inclusion of fossil crinoids, but these are
sometime microscopic. Mineral and structural analyses often require
specialized technologies that are generally done at geological
laboratories and usually involve partial destruction of a specimen, such
as thin sectioning or neutron activation analysis. Fortunately, new and
less-destructive analyses are continually being developed. Because of
the importance of material identification to understanding past cultural
ranges and interaction networks, many professional archaeological
institutes have established comparative lithic collections with examples
from source areas.
Back to Top
Many people collect spear
tips, arrowheads, and other artifacts from plowed fields in the Upper
Mississippi Valley. Besides being a pleasant hobby, collecting these
artifacts can tell us which culture lived at each site, how old the site
is, how people survived, and which trade networks they may have used.
Archaeology has a long history of private collectors making significant
contributions by sharing their knowledge. Unfortunately, a few untrained
people dig into sites or actively buy and sell artifacts, forever
destroying critical information needed to interpret the past.
Archaeological sites are nonrenewable resources of our collective
heritage. Once destroyed they are gone forever, and with them goes all
potential understanding of the past cultures that occupied those sites.
In the 130 years from 1850 to 1980 farming, town development, and road
construction obliterated nearly 80 percent of the thousands of mounds
that once dotted the Upper Mississippi Valley before legislation finally
protected those that remained. Now urban sprawl has accelerated the
destruction of the irreplaceable archaeological record. It is imperative
that we all contribute to preserving as much as possible. Collecting
artifacts gives you two options: you can do it ethically and contribute
to an understanding of the past, or you can do it selfishly and destroy
the record. Note that ethical collecting begins with landowner
permission, and it is illegal to collect from any public land, including
nearly all of the Upper Mississippi River floodplain. Once permission is
obtained from private landowners, you can contribute to archaeological
research by following these few simple practices.
Record your find
When you find artifacts, note where you found them as precisely as
possible. In the long run, these will be much more valuable to you than
a set of artifacts from places long since forgotten. Keep items found at
individual sites separate from those found elsewhere. Simple recording
systems such as numbering sites works very well. For example, keep all
artifacts found on Site 1 together, or label them as such when mixing
with others for display. Keeping a notebook with sketch maps of sites is
extremely important. An example of a site recording form follows. You
could also mark sites on a county map or even a highway map. The best
maps are U.S. Geological Survey topographical quadrangles, which are
becoming more easily available in digital form through commercial
vendors or via the Internet.
For storing, wrap special artifacts separately to prevent them from
getting nicked by knocking against other artifacts. Too often,
well-intentioned people have dumped coffee cans or old cigar boxes full
of artifacts onto our lab tables revealing not only new information but
also new breaks and a small pile of fresh chips. Take care of your
artifacts; they are a priceless record of the past and are
Click here for a PDF version of the Site
You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the Site Recordation Form.
here if you want to download a free version of Adobe Acrobat Reader.
Contact an archaeologist
Each state has a state archaeologist, and many colleges and museums
have archaeologists who would be happy to photograph your finds and
record the information. Rest assured that archaeologists will not
confiscate your artifacts, steal your site, or broadcast its location.
You will be helping to piece together essential knowledge of the past.
In return, you will learn how old your artifacts are, what they are made
of, and what they were used for.
Do not buy, sell, or trade artifacts
Buying and selling artifacts not only encourages looting, but once
sold, the most important information—site location—is gone forever.
It also encourages the manufacture of fraudulent artifacts, and all
buyers eventually get taken because fakes can be impossible to
distinguish from authentic artifacts. Flintknappers have been producing
replicas and fakes for well over a century, and a 1994 survey of modern
flintknappers revealed that as many as 1.5 million replica-fakes are
being made every year. If you don’t know who found it and where it was
from, there’s a good chance you are buying a fake.
If you have a collection and you can no longer keep it, either donate
it to a state historical society or university with a curation facility,
or pass the collection on to the next generation or to someone else who
you know will cherish and maintain the collection. This ensures that
collection information will follow the actual artifacts. The key is to
make sure that information about the material and where it was collected
remains with the collection. Donations to nonprofit organizations are
Never dig or excavate a site without proper supervision
Archaeological sites cannot be replaced. Once a site is dug
improperly, it is destroyed and cannot be reconstructed. There are ample
opportunities to participate in professional excavations throughout the
Back to Top
1. Blade: The cutting portion of the point above the hafted
2. Stem: The modified bottom of the blade for hafting onto a
shaft or handle.
a. Contracting: A haft stem that tapers from the shoulder to
b. Concave: An edge (usually at the base) that curves
c. Convex: Outward curving edges.
3. Base: The very bottom of the point.
4. Edge: The sides of the blade (may be serrated, beveled
[steep angle], pressure flaked, etc).
5. Tip: The pointed top of the blade.
6. Shoulder: The wide portion of the blade immediately above
a. Corner-notched: Notches oriented at an upward angle from
the basal corners.
b. Side-notched: Notches oriented perpendicular to the
length of the point.
Back to Top
Back to Top