Museum Blog

A Stone Puzzle

Posted 1/26/2015 10:01 AM by Chip Colwell | Comments

What is lightning?

Swift. Sudden. A spark. An element of the sky. Fire. A destroyer.

Lightning and arrows share a natural metaphorical connection. Whether launched from a bow or an atlatl, arrows similarly occupy the sky and strike down in swiftness bringing death. The metaphor is only deepened by the properties of flint—the stone often used to make arrowheads for millennia—which, when struck with steel, sparks to start a fire.

Several years ago, my friend and colleague Roger Echo-Hawk became curious about a bundle of 17 arrows, a bow, and quiver in the anthropology collections. Around 1870 or so, (the exact date is unknown) they were collected by George A. Cuneo, a Denver resident who had made a hobby of collecting “Indian Trophies,” as he called them. The arrow set was associated with the Pawnee, a tribe that by the early 1700s numbered in the thousands along the North Platte River in Nebraska.

Chip _Arrows3  Chip _Arrows1

Cuneo’s brief surviving note mentioned that these Pawnee arrows came “with a history.” But no history has survived in the records. We are left to uncover what history Cuneo might have once known.

Roger Echo-Hawk’s research led him to Roaming Scout, a leading priest of the Pawnee Skidi Band. In the late 1800s, he told an anthropologist about his people’s creation. When time began, celestial deities gave the first man gifts, including a bow and arrow, which he found where lightning had struck a mountain.

Echo-Hawk noted that of the 17 arrows, all are metal—except one obsidian (volcanic glass) and one flint one. He found a Pawnee oral tradition published in 1889, which explains that once iron was introduced, a divine power named Ti-ra-wa degreed that metal should replace the stone points. However, Echo-Hawk believes that stone points continued to be used ceremonially, for special hunts and in holy bundles. The stone points retained their magic power.

We worked with Echo-Hawk to better understand the obsidian point. Archaeological analysis found that it is a side-notched type common on the Great Plains between 1,000 and 600 years ago. The point’s chemical composition suggests, however, that it came from a volcanic source in New Mexico. Echo-Hawk offers several hypotheses that would explain this fascinating geographic puzzle, including Pawnee traditions that speak of the ancient Southwest.

Echo-Hawk thinks it possible that these stone points could have been passed down for generations over the centuries. Or, he thinks that a Pawnee might have found them more recently on the Great Plains and reused them.

Either version is wondrous to consider, and could explain this collection’s mysterious “history.”

Check out the full article here.


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