The first inhabitants of the La Crosse area
employed a number of techniques to create the tools they needed to
survive and utilize the area's resources. Flintknapping is the
process of creating stone tools (lithics) such
as arrowheads, spear points, knives, drills, and scrapers. Local clays
were worked into useful containers. Catlinite
and copper were worked into useful and
decorative items. This section of the web site looks at the
technologies used by the area's first inhabitants. Follow the
links to discover more about these technologies.
Chipped stone tools such as points, knives,
and scrapers, were made by a process called flintknapping. This
technique starts with a piece of raw material such as chert, silicified
sandstone, or obsidian. Flakes are removed from this original piece of
rock with a variety of flintknapping tools.
The first step in making a took from a piece of raw material is to
remove the weathered surface called cortex. This is done by a technique
called percussion flaking. The piece of raw material is struck with a
hammerstone which causes large flakes to be driven off. Some of these
flakes may be used later to make smaller tools such as scrapers or
Shaping the piece into the desired tool form is the second step in
the tool making process. Early stages of this process are done using a
hammerstone. For the later and finer work a wood or antler baton is used
to thin the edges and to establish the form.
Pressure flaking is the last step in the tool making process. Very
small, thin flakes are carefully removed from around the margins of the
tool by applying pressure with an antler tine. This type of flaking
strengthens, straightens and sharpens the cutting edges of the tool and
shapes the piece into its final form.
Step 1- Percussion flaking using a hammerstone cobble is done
to drive a flake from the core (raw material). Points and other small
types of tools may be made from large flakes that are removed from the
core. For larger tools, a piece of raw material whose shape already
approximated the desired final shape was used. This piece was then
reduced down using the same pressure flaking technique.
Step 2 - Pressure flaking using an antler tine is done to
shape and thin the tool and also to sharpen and straighten the edges.
Step 3 - Hafting is the process of tying a tool to a bone or
wood shaft. The end of the shaft was notched or split and the tool was
wedged into the notch. Animal sinew or plant fibers were probably used
to tie the tool to the shaft.
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Pottery is an extremely useful tool for
archaeologists to aid in determining the age of a site. This is because
each ceramic vessel began as a soft pliable medium on which prehistoric
artists were able to create simple or complex designs. These impressions
become "fossilized" when the pots were fired, and thus
preserved to be collected in our time. It has been demonstrated through
years of research that patterns of design were used over regional areas
such as the Upper Midwest, and that these styles changed through time.
This has enabled archaeologists to establish a ceramic chronology. By
comparing a discovered vessel fragment to this chronology, one can gain
a fairly accurate estimate of the age of the site from which the sherd
was found. Contemporary Native
American artists combine tradition and new technology to create pots
The ceramic chronology for this region begins about 2,500 years ago.
For nearly 7,000 years before that, prehistoric groups undoubtedly had
containers, but these were probably made of gourds, bark or animal skin,
that rarely preserve. The final 2,500 years of the prehistoric sequence
of this region begins with very crude grit tempered pottery which is
recognized as Early Woodland. Subsequently, the ceramics become more
refined and are distinguished by decoration into the Middle Woodland and
Late Woodland periods.
About 1,000 years ago prehistoric pottery was revolutionized by the
use of crushed shell for temper. This allowed the construction of large
vessels, and probably signifies a more sedentary lifestyle than for the
preceding Woodland groups. Shell-temper ceramics are nearly always found
at farming villages of the prehistoric group known as the Oneota culture
which persisted until contact by European (French) in the mid to late
Step 1- The first step in the pottery making process was to add
temper to the raw clay. Temper is a non-plastic material which is added
to the clay before it is worked. Molecules of clay adhere to the temper
material and improve the quality of the clay. Temper is added to
counteract shrinkage of the clay, it facilitates uniform drying and
lessens the risk of the vessel cracking when fired.
Archaeologists are studying prehistoric pots to try to understand how
they were constructed. At present, a variety of different techniques are
thought to have been used, depending on the size of the vessel. One technique that has been suggested is called coiling. In this
method, clay is rolled into a thick "rope" shape. These
"ropes" or "coils" were placed one on top of the
other and smoothed by hand or tool to make an even surface
Step 2 - The final shaping of the vessel was done by hand
while the clay was still wet. The rim was straightened and sometimes
pulled slightly outward. Handles were attached after the rim had been
shaped to the desired angle.
Step 3 - Decoration was applied to the vessel when it was
leather-hard. The pot was then allowed to thoroughly dry. Firing was the
final step in the pottery making process. As clay is heated its chemical
structure is changed, the actual method used to fire the vessels is
unknown, although it is know that kilns were not used. It is likely that
the vessels were fired in an open-air situation.
The different colors seen on the pottery vessel are a result of the
firing conditions. During the firing process areas that are exposed to
oxygen turn reddish in color while areas that are covered and deprived
in oxygen turn black or gray. Many pots have gray black spots on their
exterior surfaces that suggest contact by a log during firing. Some pots
still have black charred cooking remains on their inside or outside.
Archaeologists hope that in the future it will be possible to analyze
these remains to determine what was in the vessel and how the pot was
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Copper tools and ornaments are occasionally
found at La Crosse area sites. These items were made from pure nuggets
that were mined in the Lake Superior region. Prehistoric
"mines" were actually pits that were dug into the earth.
Hammerstones or mauls were used to extract nuggets from encasing
bedrock. Copper was also collected from stream beds flowing through the
copper district. Contemporary
Native American artists still create metal objects today.
Bedrock in the Lake Superior region contains some of the purest
copper in the world. During prehistoric times, implements and ornaments
made from copper were traded all over the continent.
Step 1 - Copper nuggets were transformed into usable form
through the technique of cold hammering. Groundstone mauls or
hammerstones were used to pound the nuggets into thin sheets. Extensive
hammering causes the copper to become brittle. To prevent the copper
from becoming brittle it could be warmed over a fire.
Step 2 - A sharp stone knife was used to cut pounded sheets of
copper into strips. These strips were then used to make rings, tube
beads and other ornaments.
Step 3 - Pure copper is considered a soft metal and is easily
worked, similar to pure gold and silver. For ornaments, such as rings
and tubular beads, strips of copper were shaped by wrapping them around
a toolmaker’s finger, wrist or around different sized sticks.
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Catlinite, a type of pipestone, is a soft red
siltstone named after the 19th century American artist,
George Catlin. Catlinite outcrops occur in southwestern Minnesota, where
traditional Native American quarries are preserved at the Pipestone
National Monument. Contemporary
Native American artists still create objects from catlinite for ceremonial
use and for sale.
Step 1 - Pipes and ornaments were first outlined into the
piece of raw catlinite, using a stone tool, such as a chipped stone
Step 2 - Once the pipe was outlined, a sharp flake or stone
knife was used to cut the rough shape from the raw block. A groove was
cut around the desired shape, then pressure was applied to snap the
excess material off.
Step 3 -The corners of the block were shaved off and the
desired shape and size was achieved by rubbing the pipe on an abrasive
block of quartzite or sandstone.
Step 4 - Finishing touches such as fine shaping and design
carving, were done with a sharp stone knife or engraving tool.
Step 5 - The hole in the pipe bowl was formed using a chipped
stone drill hafted to a thin shaft. By holding the pipe between the feet
or knees, and rotating the shaft of the hafted drill between the palms
of the hands, a hole was slowly formed.
In the final step, the pipe maker polished the pipe. A wooden pipe
stem, possibly decorated with beads, hair, porcupine quills and leather
was then inserted into the bowl.
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