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 triangular points.
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.
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 today.
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 1600s.
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
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 used.
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. 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. Contemporary Native American artists still create metal objects today.
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.