Tag Archives: artifacts

Blast to the Past with a Mastodon Tooth

Natural history is fascinating. Today we are going to hear from Elizabeth Rush, a cultural resources intern through the American Conservation Experience. One of the many neat tasks she has, is working alongside Region Five’s Historic Preservation Officer, Amy Wood,  looking at multiple artifacts from National Wildlife Refuges, some dating all the way back to the ‘old stone age’ period of mastodons and primitive human tools. Many of them are even featured on displays for guests, like you, to view! Rush has traveled all across the northeast region going from refuge to refuge, and today she shares what makes her so passionate about her line of work in such a unique internship.

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Amy Wood and Elizabeth Rush accessing the Petit Manan lighthouse at Maine Coastal Islands. Credit: James Fortier

Conducting a region wide inventory of Museum Property at refuges has brought me to many beautiful places, and allowed me to (re)discover many fascinating objects in the care of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Some artifacts I have inventoried are more remarkable than others, but all serve to tell the story of how humans have used wildlife refuges for thousands of years.

During one of my first refuge visits last summer I was amazed to discover, carefully boxed in an environmentally controlled archival room, a very large mastodon tooth. The mastodon, now extinct, existed from the Miocene to the Pleistocene time period, between 23 to 13,000 years ago.  They were very large and similar to elephants, but covered in fur.

I had never had the opportunity to be so close to, let alone handle, such a beautiful and complete specimen of mega-fauna before that moment.  I was instantly transported back in time imagining the immense and noble beasts roaming the north east and I was absolutely delighted.  I remember thinking nothing I inventory will come close to being as cool as this! And I was proven wrong the following spring.  My second encounter with the remains of mega-fauna at a wildlife refuge was just as exciting and just as surprising.  A refuge in our region accidentally discovered the remains of multiple eastern elk, a large mega-faunal ancestor to the majestic elk that call the far west home today.  When I first laid eyes on the enormous antlers, so similar to the antlers of the elk I have encountered in the years I spent living in Montana, I was a little confused.


I thought, ‘wait a minute; there aren’t any elk in northern New York, especially no monsters that could have shed these antlers’. Then the realization dawned on me, there was once elk in northern New York, approximately 10,000 years ago.  Sure enough, these remains were dated to about 9,500 years before present day.  The eastern elk antlers are among my all-time favorite artifacts in the north east region.  My museum property visit to this refuge was a great experience.  I learned so much about the history of the area through the artifacts stored at the refuge.  It is always a great feeling to meet with refuge managers and staff who are excited to teach me about their local history, especially when they have worked so hard to preserve the material culture of their community’s past.

As much of a privilege it was to encounter such astounding artifacts as the mega-fauna remains, there is nothing quite like feeling connected to the Paleoindian people who camped, hunted, and fished on the land and waterways that make up our wildlife refuges. During my refuge visits I have come across some beautiful artifacts made by Paleoindians.  One such artifact I found fascinating was a bone or antler pendant.  It was hollowed and carved into a perfect circle.


Antler pendant

Another amazing paleo artifact I inventoried was an ancient fluted projectile point.  The fluting technique or removal of a large central flake (piece of the stone used for tool manufacture) is a diagnostic feature of a projectile point indicating this point may be 12,000 years old.  Encountering an artifact such as this is a humbling experience. It is a reminder of mankind’s relationship to the natural world, that these landscapes were utilized and appreciated for as long as humans walked the earth.

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Projectile point next to quarter for size, Credit: Elizabeth Rush

This is the same reason why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works to protect these integral and endangered habitats is likely why our refuges have such impressive artifact collections.  These landscapes have always been places of life and abundance, and worthy of our efforts to preserve our natural and cultural resources.