A Mohawk Iroquois Village



print 1515. The Iroquois used pits dug in the ground outside the longhouse to store some of their dried foods. The pits were lined with grass and bark, and roofed with sheets of bark, upon which earth was heaped for insulation.

The preservation and storage of food was a problem for the Iroquois, as it was and is to all communities. Most of the foods upon which the Iroquois relied could be dried or smoked for long-term storage; these included fish, venison, and other meat products, which were generally kept inside the longhouse. Dried corn, beans, and squash, and other plant foods, were stored within the longhouse, and outside in the pits, as well.

Occasionally, these storage pits caught on fire. When they did, their contents were often carbonized as their earth-covered bark roof collapsed, starving the fire of oxygen and preventing the contents of the pits from burning completely to ash. Once carbonized, the pits were of no use to the Iroquois and often abandoned. To archeologists who have located and excavated them, these carbonized pits are bountiful sources of information about Iroquois foods and food-storage techniques. Such evidence reveals that pits were dug in well drained soils; their walls and floor were lined with naturally mold-resistant dry grasses, which were held in place with sheets of bark. Corn on the ear, or shelled, was placed in bark barrels, which were set into the bottoms of the pits. Food preparation tools, such as grinding stones, clay pots, and wooden or bark bowls might also be stored in the same pit. Other dried plant foods, such as sunflower seeds and hickory nuts could be stored there as well. Earth was heaped upon the bark roof of the storage pit to protect its contents from the weather.

Detail from The Village Model, A Mohawk Iroquois Village, c.1600. New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

print 1616. The sheet of bark being stripped from a large tree will be used to cover a longhouse.

When an Iroquois village moved, 400 years ago, it had a major impact upon the landscape of its new location. Hundreds, if not 1000s of trees, were cut down to create the clearing for the new longhouse village and for the farm fields that surrounded it. A location in second-growth beech-maple forest was preferable to a forest of very old and large diameter trees, regardless of how fertile the underlying soil was. As a second growth forest was cleared with stone axes and fire, it also yielded the raw materials for building the new village: saplings of the right diameter for tall posts and poles to construct palisades and longhouse frameworks.

A forest of old, large trees was not preferred because the trees could not be cut down, and even if they could be, they were too big to use in construction. A clearing could be created by killing these large trees by girdling them - that is, stripping the bark around their trunks - letting them die, and eventually, burning them. But living and working under large dead trees was a recognized danger. Large trees were necessary however, as the source of large sheets of bark, which were used to cover the longhouses and in other construction projects. These sheets of bark can be easily stripped from the trees in the warming weather of spring, as the trees begin to bud and the sap begins to flow. Polished stone axes and flint knives, as well as antler, bone, and hardwood wedges and chisels are among the tools that probably were used in this work.

Detail from The Village Model, A Mohawk Iroquois Village, c.1600. New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

print 1717. Two late prehistoric Iroquois polished stone axes: the larger one, shown in side view, is about eight inches long; the smaller one shown in edge view, is about five inches long.

Although they look complete and in working condition, these axes were discarded by their owners because they are worn out. When new, the smaller axe probably was an inch or more longer than it is now and had a longer more gentle taper to the cutting edge. Repeated sharpening has changed the shape of the axe, which is now too blunt to be effective. The larger axe has had a similar history. When new it probably was two inches longer than it is now. Axes, or celts as they are sometimes called, were made from carefully chosen hard and compact stones. Usually, stones of about the right size and shape were found in nature. These stones were painstakingly "sculpted" into the shape of the axe by using a harder hammerstone to crush and crumble the surface of the stone, or to roughly chip it into shape. This was followed by hours of careful grinding and polishing, probably using a sandstone slab. Polished stone axes were difficult and time-consuming to make, and consequently, were used carefully, and rarely loaned to another person. Fitted with a durable wooden handle, they were men's tools. The men probably did not loan them to wives, daughters, and mothers, even for the difficult job of gathering firewood.

The introduction of European iron trade axes in the later 1500s changed all that. Eventually, everyone, including women, had access to an axe, and by the later 1600s, owned their own.

Whole stone axes found "discarded" on old village sites had been sharpened many times and lost their original shape so they were no longer useful. During the later period when iron axes came into common use, it appears that useable stone axes were purposely broken in half and thrown away.

Anthropological Survey, New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

print 1818. Arrowpoints and knife blades: the small arrow points are about one inch long.

These implements are made of chert. Chert, which is commonly called flint when it is used to make an implement, is found in outcrops of sedimentary rock across New York State. The variety of chert shown here is called "Onondaga," not after the Iroquois nation of the same name, but from the bedrock formation, the Onondaga Limestone, in which it is found. Chert is extremely brittle, breaking easily, but on breaking, it flakes like glass. This is an advantage, because it leaves very sharp edges. Arrowpoints, or other tools used to pierce, cut, or scrape, can be chipped from a piece of chert by carefully tapping its edge with a hammerstone, or pressing against the edge with a punch of wood, bone, or antler.

Chert was quarried and used for stone tools and weapons by American Indians in New York State for the past 11,000 years. During this time, distinct forms of spear points, javelin points, and arrowpoints, were made and used. Many of these points, collectively known as "projectile points," are distinctive in their shapes and sizes, and can be identified with the culture that made them. (Several cultures preceded the Iroquois culture in New York). Late prehistoric projectile points were true arrowpoints, and almost without exception, triangular in shape. Earlier ones tended towards an equilateral triangle shape; later ones, towards an isosceles triangle.

The shape of chert knives varied little over time. Most were oval, teardrop, or willow-leaf shaped. We must be cautious about the original shapes of these knives. Most chert knives may have originally been pointed at both ends: one pointed end inserted into a handle of wood, bone, or antler, the other end serving as the "knife." Over time and use, this end would be broken and resharpened so many times, that it was no longer useful as a cutting or piercing tool. At this time the "knife" may have had a secondary use, or the chert blade was removed from the handle and discarded.

Anthropological Survey, New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

print 1919. Shown here are two deer antler "punches" [right] used to chip pieces of chert into tools and weapons (arrowpoints, for instance). At bottom center are four awls, used to punch holes in buckskin or other relatively soft materials. They are made from a variety of animal bones, probably including deer and turkey leg bones. At top center are three bird bone beads. Bird bones, being hollow, naturally lend themselves to bead making. At top left are three deer toe bones, which have been ground and polished into "tinkling cones." The longest awl is seven inches long.

Rattles, made of a number of tinkling cones, were suspended from a buckskin band tied just below a dancer's knee. Other deer toe bones of this shape were the "cup," used with a "pin" of wood or bone, in the "cup and pin" game. For this game, a cup is attached to a pin with a string; one holds the pin, swings the cup and tries to catch it on the pin.

Generally, only the "hardwares" of day-to-day Iroquois of life 400 years ago have survived their burial in the ground, later to be found and interpreted by archeologists. These hardwares are tools and weapons of chipped or polished stone, and fragments of baked clay or ceramic pots. Often these fragments, called "sherds," are the most numerous artifacts found, numbering in the 100s, 1000s, or even 10,000s. The artifacts made of other materials - shell, wood, bone, or antler - survive long-term burial in the ground much less frequently. When they do, they provide additional information about the Iroquois of long ago.

The kind of animal to which the bone or antler belonged commonly can be identified. This provides information about the animals of the region, and indirectly, about local habitats and ecology. Study of these artifacts might even tell us the season of the year in which the animals were taken. Ornaments, tools, weapons are "fossil thoughts." Studying them, and the contexts in which they were found, may reveal information about how objects were made and for what they were used.

Antler punches, bone awls, beads, and tinkling cones. Anthropological Survey, New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

print 2020. Smoking pipes made of clay are shown here. The shorter one is four inches long. Each Iroquois man owned and carried at least one smoking pipe. They used a variety of pipes, made from clay, or carved from stone, antler, bone, or even wood. Relatively simple and undecorated pipes were probably used day-to-day.

A man might have another pipe, ornamented with incised, carved, or modeled decorations, which he reserved for special occasions. These were personal pipes, distinguished from a usually larger and more highly decorated pipe, the so-called "peace pipe," kept by the group only for council use.

Tobacco was another domesticated plant raised by the Iroquois 400 years ago. Both tobacco and corn, or maize, were plants which originated among the people of the New World, and which were introduced to the Old World by returning European explorers. Corn has since become a most important crop, widely cultivated in both the tropics and temperate zones throughout the world. Certainly, tobacco and tobacco products have also become economically important.

Tobacco was raised in small gardens, probably within the village area. It may have been the one domesticated plant which men took primary responsibility for raising. Its principal use was as a ceremonial offering thrown into the fire. The rising smoke carried messages of thanksgiving and other "good thoughts" to the Creator. In addition to its religious uses, men smoked tobacco, often mixed with other herbs, in their pipes. It is said that "good thoughts" came while smoking, and no man was without his pipe when important matters were to be discussed and decided.

Ceramic trumpet-shaped smoking pipes. Anthropological Survey, New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

Top of Page
Previous Page
Beginning of this Section

Home icon