Fossil? Artifact? or Geofact?


by Les Davis

The First Peoples of prehistoric Montana, the likely genetic predecessors of modern Native Americans, may have reached the Montana Rockies and Northern Plains more than 12,000 years ago. For more than 500 generations thereafter, Native Peoples relied heavily on stone, or lithic raw materials, for toolmaking. The area offered a varied selection of high-quality reserves of flakable minerals. Peoples of successive Stone Age traditions chose those types of stone that best met, by their cultural standards, their needs for piercing, cutting, graving, and scraping implements. These tools are their artifacts

Formation of the kinds of stone selected and used by prehistoric peoples are of fundamental concern to geologists for understanding Earth history. Their interests focus on the origin, age, and dynamics of formations and landscapes. Archaeologists are also interested in stone, but for different reasons. Their questions focus on stone flaking qualities and sources because archaeologists need to understand how and why humans selected and utilized stone to satisfy their technological and life-support requirements.

What were the flaking qualities of the stone? How difficult or easy was it to flake and shape into tools? How durable was the stone in performing certain tasks? For what purposes were certain kinds of stones used? Where did early peoples get their stone: from outcropping bedrock, by mining into underground deposits, or collecting from streambeds? Did they acquire a surplus and trade the stone in excess of their needs and, if so, in exchange for what desired commodities? 

Figure 1. A Side-Notched Stone artifact Made From White Chalcedony Recovered From the Shoreline at the Thompson Bottom Prehistoric Occupation Site, Along the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River By Bureau of Land Management Personnel (length 65 mm). This Symmetrical Projectile Point Or Ceremonial/Trade artifact Clearly Does Not Resemble Anything Formed In Nature. Numerous Scars Remaining From Skillfully Removed Flakes Result From the Systematic Pressure Application of a Flaking Tool By a Flintknapper.

To qualify as an artifact, an object must display definite indications of having been modified by humans into a serviceable form to enable its intended use or for having been used without modification for an inferable purpose. The latter judgment involves an evaluation of the context of the find and archaeological interpretation. By definition, only humans, chimpanzees, and a few other animals, including birds, make or use artifacts, which are tools formed from natural materials (mineral: flaked, abraded, or polished stone; animal: bone, horn, antler, hide, sinew, and other parts of living and fossil species; and vegetable: fiber, leaves, branches). People selected and often used materials in their natural state without prior preparation or modification. While untold river cobbles (geofacts) may indeed "fit the hand nicely," few may actually have been used by prehistoric peoples. It was often necessary to modify raw materials before using them to perform specific technological, economic, industrial, ritual/ceremonial, and other tasks associated with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Physical indications that a cobble was used by prehistoric peoples to batter another object, such as pitted surfaces and flattened ends, are required to qualify a stone cobble as an artifact

Many geofacts found in nature resemble and are often mistaken for artifacts. Figures 2, 3, and 4 are geofacts that stimulated the finders' imaginations and provoked the possibility (and sometimes hope) that they were fashioned and used by humans for one or another purpose.

Figure 2. A Curious geofact, Found in a Riverbed, Resembles a Human Face.

Rocks acquire mineral properties that can be naturally modified (by mechanical alteration, such as rolling along a streambed and becoming rounded or faceted, or chemical weathering that eliminates the softer, less erosion-resistant parts of the rock) to take forms reminiscent of what people think "just have to be" objects made and used by ancient humans for one imaginable purpose or another. For example, the object pictured in Figure 2, found in a streambed in the Gallatin Valley in 1994, was suspected of being of human origin, that is, it was expected to have been shaped by humans, because of the symmetry of the "design" and the concentric, patterned relationship of what appear to be carved lines on its surface. In fact, this object is only a rock (a geofact). Its appearance is explained by reference to geological weathering processes that had etched the softer part of the rock away from harder minerals in the interior. The patterned semiconcentric "grooves" are a product of natural formation processes and the structure of the rock itself. 

Figure 3. Consecutive Chevron-Like Etchings on a Geofact, found in the West Gallatin River, Are Effects of Differential Weathering Processes, That Is, the Softer Part of the Rock Had Been Eroded Away, Leaving the Harder Rock As a Cobble Intact.

Why is this interesting object not an artifact? Scientists dismissed the "grooves" because there were no visible tool marks from the abrasion and/or pecking that would have been necessary to remove the rock exterior. And for what purpose might the object have been "manufactured?" The range of technological, industrial, economic, and ceremonial activities characteristic of hunter-gatherers is well-known; this object has no obvious utilitarian value. "Might it have had spiritual or ritual significance?," archaeologists often ask. However, the fact that the supposedly humanly patterned "grooves" merge and disappear within the rock itself, and were thus not imposed by human technological means, discounted its identity as an artifact. Also, the fact that this rock was found in a geological context, in the absence of associated artifacts and ecofacts, negated further consideration of the object as an artifact.

Figure 4. A geofact That Appears To Have Been Modified by Humans.

Resolution of the geofact vs. artifact reality question is usually, but not always, straightforward. One such problematic object is shown in Figure 2. Picked up from the bed of an active stream, this polished, round rock seemed to be an artifact, the finder thought. Its superficial resemblance to a human head was compelling: a "mouth, eyes, and nose" met that expectation. However, this object displayed no trace of Stone-Age technology or evidence of human use. It is, therefore, by definition, a geofact

Figure 5. A Carved, Ornamental Mussel Shell Disc Bead (in a Former State, a geofact) Excavated at the Prehistoric Schmitt Chert Mine Near the Missouri Headwaters North of Three Forks That Was Made about 3,000 Years Ago (Mean Diameter = 11.5 mm). The Central Hole Was then Pierced and Cut Open, and a Decorative Circle Was Incised Into the Shell Around the Opening With a Sharp Stone Tool.

The remains of plants or animals recovered from archaeological deposits are referred to as ecofacts because their study can yield information about past environments and natural resources that influenced human behavior. The Lindsay mammoth skeleton is, therefore, an ecofact/Ecofacts, when converted by humans to useful purpose, become artifacts. For example, splinters from an intentionally split leg bone of a mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), when polished, eyed, and employed as needles or awls to pierce and lace hides to make footwear or producing items of clothing, thereby became artifacts. A clam shell converted into a suspended ornament, a bead, also qualifies.

Figure 6. A Hammerstone Fashioned From a Late Cretaceous-Age .171-kg Fossil Squid (Belemnite) (Length= 24 cm). Both Ends of this Fossil Were Shaped By Battering.

What possible relationship then can exist between the fossils of paleontology and the artifacts of archaeology? Prehistoric peoples and their Native American descendants collected and used invertebrate marine fossils for various purposes. Those fossils were thereby transformed into artifacts. For instance, Cretaceous-Age fossil squids, collected from eroded geological formations in northern Montana, were employed as hammerstones, as effigies or charms, and for personal adornment. Everyday subsistence needs were met by using some fossils as hammerstones to break and crush bones in order to obtain nutritious marrow [Figure 6]. In another case, adoption of a fossilized squid segment as a spiritual representation of the Plains buffalo (Bison bison bison) served both personal and group ceremonial and spiritual needs [Figure 7]. In a third instance, the wearing of certain fossils as ornaments enhanced personal appearance, status, and prestige, matters important to individuals, families, and communities alike.

These marine fossils display distinctive, patterned modifications imposed by human behavior: the hammerstone bears clear marks, from repeated battering and crushing, at both ends; the buffalo medicine stone was polished by handling and from storage, perhaps in a medicine bundle; and the pendant is recognized by an encircling shallow groove cut or worn by pecking with a harder object around one end of a fossil squid, which permitted its suspension on a fiber string or leather thong from a wearer's neck. 

Figure 7. Side View of a Late Cretaceous-Age Fossil Squid (Ammonite) From Central Montana That Was Fashioned to Form an Effigy (Length= 82.5 mm) Representative of Living Bison.

Prehistoric toolmakers were constrained in what tasks they could perform by their Stone-Age toolkits, technology, and the range of raw materials available in nature. 

Wanted: public involvement

Montana is a largely unexplored, and scientifically underdeveloped, paleontological and cultural resources area. Some residents take such resources for granted as part of the natural background, but others realize their importance and act to protect them. Still others take pleasure in collecting fossils and artifacts, as vestiges of the past. In all cases, citizen cooperation with professionals is crucial for locating, protecting, preserving, and studying the unparalleled natural and cultural resource legacies uniquely available in the Montana outdoors. Beyond the confines of museums, universities, colleges, and school campuses is an alluring 94-million-acre, open-air laboratory, residence, workplace, and playground that provokes curiosity, invites discovery, and evokes appreciation for our heritage.

Figure 8. A Suspended Decorative Ornament Fashioned From a Cretaceous-Age Cylindrical Fossil Squid (Belemnite) Recovered From Lookout Cave, a Late Prehistoric Period Archaeological Site in North-Central Montana (Length- 35 mm).

The establishment of the Madison Buffalo Jump State Monument near Logan, the Ulm Pishkun State Monument near Ulm, the Headwaters Bicentennial State Park near Trident, the Pictograph Cave State Park near Billings, and the Wahkpa Chu'gn Buffalo Jump near Havre reflect the esteem in which archaeological cultural resources are held by Montanans. 

Egg Mountain, the famous dinosaur nesting site west of Choteau, is owned by the Nature Conservancy as a part of the Willow Creek Anticline Paleontological Site. The Museum of the Rockies, under an agreement with the Nature Conservancy, offered annual field schools for the public at Egg Mountain through 2000. 

Both paleontology and archaeology are featured in exhibits in the new Makoshika State Park Visitor Center south of Glendive that was opened to the public in early May of 1996. Knowledge regarding these heritage resources is shared through on-site interpretation with people interested in Montana's rich and unique natural and cultural history.

Found fossils and artifacts are often brought to the attention of scientists, scholars, and other staff at public institutions. The experience and active research programs of specialists provide reliable bases for evaluating the nature of such finds, for assessing their significance and research potential, and for interpreting their inherent meanings to the public. 

Fossils and artifacts located on lands in public ownership and management cannot, under antiquities protection laws, be removed without a permit. The historic preservation ethic and heritage protection laws inform us that the traces of our national and regional biological and cultural pasts are finite and nonrenewable resources that must be protected, conserved, and studied to benefit a concerned public. 

Discovery of such remains on Montana properties, public or privately owned, should not automatically lead to their immediate collection and removal. Rarely are such objects or materials really "saved" by being whisked away from the discovery location, for they can disappear entirely later on. Specialists refer to objects of unknown or known identity encountered in nature, and which should not be carried away to be eventually lost, given away, or sold, as leaverites. That peculiar name urges finders of a fossil or artifact to "leave 'er right there." Any handling of dinosaur bones can result in contamination at the molecular level, prohibiting, for example, DNA studies. Considerable information must be obtained before objects are ever touched let alone removed. Taphonomic information, at all levels, can be lost forever when fossils, and artifacts, are disturbed. 

Collecting, prompted by a "finders-keepers" mindset, and a lack of awareness of the true meaning and value of "owning" public property, tends to sacrifice essential information regarding the location (provenience), the natural setting and context of fossils and artifacts. Specialists can obtain valuable information without removing such finds and disturbing their provenience. 

Referrals to museums should be accompanied, if possible, at least by map location and land ownership. Other information such as kind of sediment, geological formation, previous disturbance, photographs of the area, other specimens known, other fossils or artifacts observed, and so on would be useful at the time of contact. That kind of information provides specialists a firm basis for deciding whether a visit to a particular find location is warranted.

Fossils and artifacts acquired through permitted museum research activities on public lands continue in public ownership. Museum curators in several specialty areas are responsible for collections in their care. Donated fossils and artifacts are accorded similar treatment initially. A few specimens eventually find their way into interpretive exhibits and the majority enter research or teaching collections. 

Collections research often provides a valuable window into local prehistory and is sometimes the starting point for field research. 

Amateur paleontologists and archaeologists are vital to advancing the public interest. You can join the Montana Archaeological Society, receive the journal Archaeology in Montana several times each year, and attend and take part in the annual meeting and banquet. To contribute to the enhancement of the scientific understanding and public appreciation of Montana's past, you might visit the Museum of the Rockies and other museums and show their qualified staffs what you have found. Consider donating the object(s) if researchers recognize your specimen is significant, in terms of knowledge and understanding that its study can impart. 

You can become an active shareholder in assuring that evidence of Montana's unique Pasts will persist into our Futures in ways that deepen our mutual awareness and understanding of this unique heritage.  Continue to the next page, Fossils and Artifacts: Intriguing Legacies.


Draft manuscripts were reviewed by MOR staff members, Dr. John W. Fisher, Jr., Dr. Arthur B. Coffin, Dr. Thomas A. Foor and Peggy Kuhr, and Robert E. Carroll, whose collective comments and advice greatly enhanced the possibility of reader friendliness. 

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