Articles

TWO NEEDLES IN A HAYSTACK

 North America was re-discovered by Europeans slightly over five hundred years ago.  That means that these sixteenth century Spanish, French and English explorers found the continent that the natives, who we call Indians, had discovered thousands of years before that time.  These earlier native inhabitants, like peoples everywhere, had normal daily requirements for ease of living.  They needed to produce such items as clothing, shelters, baskets, fishing nets and sleeping mats in order to make their lifestyles safer and more hospitable in the harsh environment.  There could have been many methods of making these items but since these were inventive people, they created needles so as to sew and weave these essential commodities.   But anyone who has walked plowed fields or even dug into the earth in search of Indian artifacts, certainly knows that finding an intact ancient sewing tool is extremely difficult.  And having two made from different materials is close to impossible.  These two sewing tools, both found in North Carolina but not together, would certainly qualify as discovering two needles in a haystack.

The aborigines used various bird and land animal bones in order to produce these stitching and mending tools.  Reasonably fresh bone can be altered by breaking, sawing, grooving, splitting, drilling and grinding so as to make narrow implements that could have been used for these seaming and fabricating operations.  The needles would have needed to be slender and smooth so as to pass through a prepared holes in the garment or tent being sewn or the basket or net being woven.  The piece of bone would also have required the drilling of a hole in the non-pointed end so a leather thong or vine could have passed through this perforation in order for the act of sewing or knitting to commence.  When rarely found, today, these aged bone utensils are quite often broken and the determination cannot really be made if the artifacts were indeed needles or simply awls or perforators or other damaged and anciently discarded pieces of bone.  The bone needle shown here is 7 3/16 inches in length and a scant ¼ inch in width and that long and undamaged size makes it truly exceptional.  The natives probably began utilizing animal bones to make needle type tools, such as this one, during the Paleo Period or more than twelve thousand years ago.  This process would have continued until a few hundred years ago when the newly arriving European explorers began trading iron and steel needles to the Indians for land and furs and food.

But this narrative is about the two needles as shown in the attached photo.  The long and slim tan one is definitely bone and probably made from a deer leg bone or as is often called, a long bone.  It was found in

Stokes County, NC and was  native made probably within the last one thousand years.  But just what is the second one which is thicker and of a black color?  It was found in Iredell or Catawba County, NC and will possibly also be dated to have been made within the last one thousand years.  This almost eight inches long by nearly one-half inch wide utensil is obviously a needle since it is the correct shape with a pointed end and the necessary drilled eye.   But this tool is not bone.  It is instead made of steatite which is a soft mineral that the Indians often used for cooking pots, pipes and pendants – and apparently almost never for needles. Steatite, as it comes from the earth, is normally grey or green in coloration but this object is black. What indeed caused this color change?  It would probably have achieved that ebony pigmentation because it was touched and handled, for eons, by countless human hands and the natural oils on those ancient palms stained this steatite needle to the very dark hue.  This happened in ancient Indian made smoking pipes which are often found jet black.

But why was a needle even made of soapstone instead of the commonly used animal bone?  A reasonable guess could be that it was produced as a ceremonial object since it is currently believed that this lithic material was often used for that purpose.  Another speculation could be made that since it was found broken into six pieces, it was purposely fragmented to “release its spirit”.  The practice of partially destroying a religious/ceremonial object before interment, so as to “liberate its soul”, was evidently performed in many native male and female entombment rituals.  Historians, today, believe that native females did the sewing and weaving and because of that theory, it is accepted that this rare soft stone needle could have been placed in the burial of a high esteemed woman after being broken.  Or it is certainly possible that the item was simply made by an ancient stone artisan to show off his or her skill.  It then could have been subsequently lost and gradually covered by floods and earth to be much later broken by a modern agricultural plow.  In this writers many years of studying and collecting Indian artifacts, this steatite needle rates as a major anomaly since it is the only one made of this stone of which he has ever heard or seen. We will most likely never be able to answer, with any firm assurance, just why or even when either was made.  But we can certainly enjoy the pairing here of the steatite and the bone tool and the rarity and beauty of these two needles in a haystack.

 

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Coe, Joffre L.                                                                                   1962

    TOWN CREEK INDIAN MOUND

Dickens, Roy S.                                                                               1976

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Hothem, Lar                                                                                                2007

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Keel, Bennie C.                                                                                1976

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Nelson, Susan K.                                                                             2009

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Rights, Douglas L.                                                                           1947

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Wetmore, Ruth Y.                                                                          1975

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