Student Spotlights: Lithic Analysis at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Colin is the first of our graduate student highlights and works with the lithic collection at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University.

Colin Porter
PhD Candidate in Anthropology
Brown University

Independent Research: Proctor at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

One problem facing many natural history museums is the disposition of huge, poorly provenanced lithic collections. The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University curates more than 50,000 stone tools. Many come from the Narragansett Basin of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, a portion of the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuck Indian tribes. However, most artifacts can only be traced to the particular town where it was found.

Small, triangular points lacking stems and notches are widely distributed across northeastern North America and represent as much as one quarter of some lithic collections. Archaeologists classify these artifacts as one of four types—Squibnocket, Beekman, Levanna, or Madison—ranging in age from the Archaic to Colonial periods. However, archaeologists widely concede that positive identification is difficult, and in some cases impossible, because many specimens are broken or intergrade. 

As a museum proctor, I recently submitted a sample of 623 triangular points to exploratory statistical and spatial analysis. The aim of the study was to cluster the artifacts by morphology and then to map the geographic distribution of these clusters. This approach yielded an alternate taxonomy of tool forms some of which have distinct spatial distributions, potential evidence of intra-regional and cultural variation not observed using a traditional typological approach.

While the cultural significance of existing lithic collections is beyond a doubt, their potential for archaeological inquiry is often unclear. This research demonstrates that contemporary methods of analysis are capable of generating new archaeological hypotheses, particularly when working at the regional scale.