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.

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