Sticks and stones, beads and bones

Ever wonder what a petrified steak rock is? OK, so it is not real a steak, but the stone artifact with a grid on one side does resemble a charcoal broiled steak. That description originated with the quirky humor of Deb Twigg, executive director of a new museum.

The Susquehanna River Archaeological Center of Native Indian Studies is quite a mouth full of words and the reason it’s usually referred to as SRAC.

The museum is housed in a building on Broad Street, the main thoroughfare in the quiet village of Waverly, N.Y., population just over 4,000.

For many years Waverly was thought to be in Pennsylvania until a survey proved the village to be just one half mile inside the New York boundary. The proximity to the boarder explains why the center is dedicated to preserving Native American archaeological, cultural and historical assets in what is known as the Twin Tiers region.

The center organized a program entitled “Wampum and Bead work Roundup” and asked three prominent experts to discuss aspects anthropology and archaeology.

Dr. Kurt Jordan

Dr. Kurt Jordan, director of graduate studies and assistant professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at Cornell University, spoke on “Post-Columbian Adornment Items: Shell, Glass Red Stone and Brass.” He radiates contagious excitement about reconstructing the daily life of early Indians – a good trait for a professor.

Dr. Jordan discussed beads found in mostly Seneca Iroquois Sites. Typical adornments were made from stone, bone, shell, glass trade beads, and copper. He claims it is an unbelievable feeling to find a handful of glass beads that have been buried for more than 300 years.

Red was an important color to the early people so beads and effigies were made from red stone. Particularly precious was pipestone, or catlinite. A Native American man attending the lecture mentioned that pipestone is considered a gift from the Great Spirit to the Red men and represents the flesh and blood of Indians.

Red items were also made from the copper kettles Europeans traded to the Indians. The containers were pounded flat and reshaped into beads and arrow points.

“There are remains of a rich Indian history in many under studied sites,” Dr. Jordan said. “It is imperative to learn from the past to understand the Indians who are here today,” he continued.

If you want more information, he has written a book entitled The Seneca Restoration, 1715-1754, published by the University Press of Florida, available on and other outlets.

Dr. Marshal Becker

Did you know that at one time in early U.S. history it was possible to pay tuition at Harvard University with wampum? Unfortunately this is no longer considered an acceptable method of payment, although the ancient wampum belts may be worth as much as a current ivy league education.

Dr. Marshal Becker, senior Fellow of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the few people allowed to closely study old wampum belonging to the Oneida Indian Nation, Inc. The four pieces he was able to measure and document include two belts and two cuffs. The cuffs are made entirely of shell beads and do not include beads of any other material, leading him to believe the items were perhaps worn as symbols of office. Wampum is made from quahog shells. The cooler water of the northern Atlantic states produces the best quahog shells with the deep purple needed for quality wampum. The intricate strings of beads were used for many purposes: diplomatic, condolence, ecclesiastical presentations within the Catholic Church, and personal decoration.

“The Oneida are actively gathering and preserving rare examples of wampum,” states Dr. Becker. “The study of wampum is important to understanding Oneida cultural history.”

Dolores Elliott

The third portion of the day was a display of Iroquois bead work belonging to Dolores Elliott. Her collection of more than 2,000 pieces of bead work is second in size only to that owned by the Smithsonian. Elliott believes that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) probably acquired beads from Europeans by the mid 1500s and that the earliest published illustrations of Iroquois bead work were compiled about 1850. “Prior to being able to trade for glass beads, most of the Iroquois adornments were made of natural substances such as bone, quills, antlers, shells and stone,” she said.

There were two major locations of bead work production. The earliest was near Niagara Falls where the people used a predominance of clear beads in elaborate raised designs. The Mohawk tradition of bead work usually used four colors. Although bead work began as personal decoration, many items, such as birds, animals, pin cushions, match holders and picture frames, were made for the tourist trade.

Elliott has traveled through the world collecting and doing research on this very distinctive art form. “The great thing about this work is that even though it began more than two centuries ago, it is still continuing to be made,” said Elliott.

Attending the presentations at SRAC and exhibiting their own collections were father and daughter Donna and Stanley Vanderlan. Donna says she and her four siblings had little choice in becoming interested in archaeology. When they were young their dad bribed them with milk shakes to go on hunting expeditions with him. He believed the children were so much closer to the ground that they could spot artifacts easier than he was able to from an adult height. Donna laughs when she recounts hours and hours spent sifting through dirt to find a handful of trade beads and they do have an amazing assortment of beads from Native sites. The collection expanded and now there is the equivalent of a mini museum in one room of the family homestead.

Oh yes, the steak rock. That’s a whole story by itself. SRAC museum Executive Director Deb Twigg has a bit of an obsession with a local place called Spanish Hill near Waverly, N.Y. It is easy to understand her interest in the huge glacial mound due to the mystery of the use of the hill, the intriguing pottery relics, vessels with faces, skeleton remains of giant humans, clay pipes and bird stones all found in the area near Spanish Hill, as was the large stone that looks like a petrified steak found by Ted Keir.

The SRAC Web site includes information about Spanish Hill and the unique cross-hatched stone. Twigg has been sent pictures of artifacts that do have some resemblance to Keir’s find. Most of the other relics are called stone tablets and were found at Mississippian sites. Are they game boards or calendars or palettes? It seems that no one is really sure. Twigg has put her research into two books on Spanish Hill and all the proceeds from sales benefit SRAC. Perhaps the best thing about Spanish Hill and SRAC is that their stories are still unfolding.

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