What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?

When I tell folks I am an archaeologist I usually hear the same questions ‘What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?’ I thought for this blog post I could try to answer these questions. I also sent the questions to several of my colleagues. Below are our answers.

A colleague told me a story of when she was working on the Basque sites on Saddle Island, Red Bay Labrador. She had become upset with her crew chief and had stormed off the site up to one of the rocks. She recalls that it was raining and she just sat there on a rock picking at the moss between the bedrock. As she picked at the moss she found what she thought was a nail and pulled it out, but she learned it was much larger than a nail and it just kept coming out. When she had the object exposed she realized it was a Basque flensing knife. She immediately put her crookedness aside and headed back on site with her exciting find.

The same colleague has had great luck in finding other unique artifacts such as a Beothuk bone pendant, a Basque barrel scribe and a mended Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot with the chert butterfly mend.

Beothuk bone pendant from Boyd's Cove (Pastore)
Beothuk bone pendant from Boyd’s Cove (Pastore)
Basque barrel scribe Saddle Island, Red Bay  (Mercer)
Basque barrel scribe Saddle Island, Red Bay. I believe this was used by the Basque to inscribe information onto barrels
Dorset soapstone pot with chert butterfly mend, Saddle Island, Red Bay  (Mercer)
Dorset soapstone pot with chert butterfly mend, Saddle Island, Red Bay

The mended Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot with the chert butterfly mend actually has a second piece. Believe it or not, my colleague found the soapstone fragment one season and the butterfly mending piece the next season.

Full piece of soapstone with butterfly mend from Saddle Island, Red Bay (Tuck)
Full piece of soapstone with butterfly mend from Saddle Island, Red Bay (right side) (Tuck)

Another colleague sent me this story about his most interesting artifact find: a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Ladle from Fleur de Lys.

“My crew chief Brent Murphy was responsible for finding and carefully excavating the ladle. It was unearthed in 1998 at approximately 1.5 meters below the present day ground surface. It is carved from a single piece of spruce by Dorset Palaeoeskimos approximately AD 430.

Although organic artifacts such as this are generally not preserved in the acidic soils of Newfoundland, this specimen remained intact for over 1600 years due to a cold wet anaerobic burial environment. Since there are few preserved organic Palaeoeskimo remains in Newfoundland, this specimen provides a rare glimpse of Dorset woodworking skills. The ladle measures 18.5cm long, 3.0cm wide, 0.5cm thick and weighs 65.3 grams – and was beautifully conserved by Canadian Conservation Institute staff.

As for its function, I think it actually served as a drinking ladle, and it’s deposition at the base of the soapstone quarry was like a bucket at the bottom of a well.

It is a delicate piece with wear in the vicinity of the “spout” which would be in keeping with such a function. We also have good evidence that the natural spring – which flooded our excavation at the quarry wall – was present at the time the Dorset were excavating the soil in front of the quarry face to access unweathered soapstone.

Incidentally the partial remains of the second ladle are almost identical in size and shape to the complete specimen.”

Fleur de Lys Dorset Palaeoeskimo wooden ladle (Erwin)
Fleur de Lys Dorset Palaeoeskimo wooden ladle (Erwin)

As interesting as that artifact is, the same colleague also found a glass eye while excavating in the United States. I think that wins for the most unique and interesting artifact find.

Another colleague passed on the story of how he and another archaeologist found a Beothuk summer wigwam site. Such sites are exceedingly rare and several other archaeologists had searched this particular area for the remains of the site. My colleague said he and the other archaeologist drove to the area and parked their car just off the road. They briefly searched the area and found a small biface which led them to believe they were in the right area. Then they located a shallow depression that was partly eroded into the nearby brook. A quick search of the eroded depression and they realized they had found the Beothuk summer wigwam and it was right next to where they had parked their car.

Beothuk summer wigwam being eroded by the brook
Beothuk summer wigwam being eroded by the brook (Reynolds)

Another colleague told me the story of how he had been doing a canoe based survey along the beaches of the Fraser River near Lillooet, B.C. He pulled his canoe up on a beach, got out of the boat and walked about 50 metres, bent over and picked up a ground and pecked stone pestle/maul. He said ‘Somehow I knew that’s the direction and place I should go’. This is incredible when you consider that the whole beach was a jumble of rocks.

Finally, yet another colleague told me the story of her most interesting find which came from the bottom of her excavation unit on the very last day of the excavation. She had been working on a large Dorset Palaeoeskimo site in Trinity Bay. The precontact sites in the area, and this site in particular, are known for their vast quantities of chalky white chert that archaeologists refer to as ‘Trinity Bay chert’. During her excavation she had found numerous flakes and artifacts made from Trinity Bay chert until she got to the bottom of her unit. In the corner of her unit she vividly recalls finding a tiny Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblade made from quartz crystal. She said this endblade sticks out in her mind because there was so much Trinity Bay chert in the unit and to find this beautiful little quartz crystal endblade was a shock to her.

Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert
Typical Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert

Personally, a few discoveries stick out in my mind. I still recall finding my first artifact. We were shovel testing a site on the west coast of Newfoundland near Cox’s Cove. We didn’t know for sure at the time but the site had both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo components and a Beothuk component. I can still recall turning over the shovel full of dirt and seeing the chocolate brown coloured artifact. If I remember correctly the artifact was part of a scraper, I was so excited because I found my first artifact and, more importantly, I knew enough to recognize what it was!

Parke's Beach, Middle Arm, 1997
Parke’s Beach, Middle Arm, 1997

I think one of the most interesting artifacts I ever found was on the same site near Cox’s Cove. We had been excavating a Groswater house pit and I had been finding a lot of seal bone. One of the small pieces of bone I pulled out of the ground turned out to be a bone sewing needle, or at least part of a needle.

Every archaeologist has stories about field work and their …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact they ever found. If you have an interesting story and want to share please comment on this post, I’d love to hear it.

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14 thoughts on “What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?

  1. Your stories are all so interesting, mine are nothing special but I still remember when I found one of my first artifacts. It was my first season and I had no trowel so I passed a lot of time sifting dirt from the wheelbarrow. I remember a big bronze nail, then come the time of mini mosaic tiles. Mosaics this year too… there are people saying “nooo, it’s a stone…” but I’ve never seen a perfectly squared “stone” hehe ;-P
    Have a nice day
    V

    1. nlarchaeology

      Cool!
      Most archaeologists have at least one story about an artifacts they were impressed with, regardless of whether that artifact is impressive or not!
      Thanks for sharing.

  2. Witcharachne

    I work in Australia, in mainly Colonial archaeology, so this is neither impressively old or unlikely, but:
    I never stop being excited when I find shoes. People made them, wore them, took care of them… They’re such a common yet personal item and finding them always makes me happy and brings my mind back to the people who lived, not just the items we find.

    1. nlarchaeology

      Awesome. Shoes. Archaeologists are excited by the oddest things! I know there were several shoes found here at a French (and later English) fort dating to the late 17th & early 18th centuries. I think the archaeologists were surprised by those finds.

  3. Rod Perry

    I was in the Bunya Mountains in Australia ( I’m not an archaeologist by the way) and I saw cut marks in old growth Bunya nut trees. I recognized them as footholds for climbing the trees to get nuts. I guessed they were cut hundreds of years ago by Aborigines and thought there may be some tools around the area. The first tree I went to and dug in the ground at the base yielded a stone hand axe. I had a good look and quietly reburied it.

  4. springfireflies

    I think that the most interesting find I’ve had thus far is that of a roman tegula with a dog paw print on it. It’s not particularly unique, tegulae are really common when you dig inside castra, but what really tickles my fancy is that sometime almost two thousand years ago a dog stepped over a man’s work in progress, but he basically said ah screw it and put it on his roof anyway.

  5. This oft asked question has only one answer for me. My first European Archaeological experience was at Arago Cave in Southern France, where I was working for Dr. Henri DeLumley. This cave, reputedly the oldest Hominid site in Europe, is at least partly a fossilized midden of thousands of bones, and stone tools.

    Long story short, the discovery that opened the past to me and therefore the future of my 30 plus year career was a quarter of a million year old Rhinicerous Tooth. It’s size and its location (location, location) helped launch my career in cuktural ecology and environmental history and archaeology.

    1. nlarchaeology

      That’s interesting, thank you for sharing. Almost all archaeologists have those moments, where you look back and say, ‘yeah, that’s the moment I was hooked’.

  6. RW

    Back in the 1980s, working at a PaleoIndian/Archaic Knife River Flint quarry site in North Dakota, I found the location where an individual was chipping away at a biface on a prehistoric hillside. The individual was just about done when, it appears, the biface snapped right in half (oops!). Along with the debitage in concentric 1/2 circles around where he/she must’ve been sitting; I found the broken biface and the antler tool they must’ve been using for part of the reduction process! We figured that when the dang thing snapped on them with a “bad hit” they simply threw their tools down and walked away in a huff (probably a few choice words were spoken as well!). I have worked in Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Italy and encountered, what many would argue, were much more valuable artifacts. However, this scattering of debitage, the “almost finished” product, and the tools used to produce it about 10,000 years ago stands out as the best to date.

    1. nlarchaeology

      Thanks for sharing. I can see why that would be your ‘best to date’. It would almost give you a direct connection to the person sitting there in the past. We’ve all gone through the the trouble of making something only to have it break and we’ve all thrown down the object in disgust and frustration. That’s something we can all connect with.

  7. The most surprising thing I ever foundon my [real] desk to was a map of the East coast of the USA dated approx 1460 ad. However of the water has a message about Columbus’s first voyage. It was not to Santo Domingo or those Islands but to the Caribbean Sea. Later I also found a map, from Greenland, much earlier that used “water” as land and land of the whole US WITH Baja California as the ocean, both were interesting and both were surprising. The first was purported to be a copy of my the Ptolemy map copied in 1238 or so and post edited to include Columbus first journey.
    The second was in another book.( Ref collected)

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