(…from BULLETIN of the  Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, January 1957)

 

AN OSSEOUS FIND AT FOLLINS POND

By

BERNARD W. POWELL

 

DURING THE SUMMER of 1955,while revisting Frederick J. Pohl's "Follins Pond Site" 1 on Cape Cod, I acquired a bone purportedly unearthed here.  Certain speculations were then extant relating the bone to supposed Norse times on the Cape. Subsequently the bone was examined by several archaeologists at the Eastern States Archaeological Federation meeting in New Haven in the Fall. Readers who attended that meeting may recall the bone and opinions then-voiced relative to it.  It now seems advisable to set forth as many facts concerning this bone as I have been able to ascertain, and attempt to draw some meaningful conclusion as to the “validity" of the bone and its relative import as a find.

         The bone is the cannon bone of the domestic horse Equus, or osteologically, the enlarged third digit metacarpal.  In life this bone supports the leg from the knee or hock joint to the fetlock and is present in most hoofed quadrupeds.  As seen in the accompanying illustration, a portion of the so-called splint is present on this specimen yet.2   This is the elongated piece visible along the upper edge.  It technically is termed an exostosis or bony enlargement and is common in the horse and allied animals.  It is an aid to identification of such bones. As an aside, it is interesting to note the splint has a significant role in the theory of organic evolution as proof that the ancestors of Equus at one time possessed more than one toe.3   In the horse today the splint is only vestigal and has no function.

         This specimen was originally in the keeping of Mr. Bert Heideman, a homeowner on the western side of  Follins Pond.  His land is situated on a bluff overlooking the entrance of the Mill Pond creek into the upper portion of  Follins Pond.  This is somewhat less than a mile north of the gulley where the MAS unearthed the ship's shoring reported by Pohl.4  Mr. Heideman's land is generally within the area that is suspect, by developers of the Norse occupancy theory, as being the site of  “Leif’s shelters" and/or grazing and pasturage grounds for domesticated livestock – namely cows and horses. These are well established as present in the Greenland settlements, 5 and may have possibly been brought on to Vinland during one of the voyages.6

         Mr. Heideman recovered the bone during excavation on his land.  I believe this was during actual construction of his house there.  No exact provenience was recorded for the bone.  It may have actually been anywhere from on the surface to some distance beneath.  No further skeletal remains or other associated material seems to have been noted. Mr. Heideman showed the bone to a neighbor, Mr. Melvin B. Summerfield. Mr. Summerfield is a former student of the late Ernest Albert Hooton, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard.  When he saw the bone, Mr. Summerfield suspected it to be the cannon  bone of a horse.  He knew generally of speculation relating this region of Cape Cod to the Vinland of the Norse. He sent the bone to Dr. Hooton and received a reply to this effect: “. . . confirmed the fact that this bone was the canon (sic) bone of a small horse and agreed with me that its condition indicated an age of 900-1000 years." 7  Mr. Summerfield further informs me that Dr. Hooton agreed with him that  ". . . the Norsemen brought small horses with them . . .".8

         The correspondence from Dr. Hooton in regard to this specimen is no longer extant.  It is my belief that both Mr. Heideman and Mr. Summerfield relate truthfully their recollections of this communication with Dr. Hooton. Both gentlemen are of the highest caliber and I know of no reason to disbelieve them.  However, it is indeed unfortunate that the original letters pertaining to this have been misplaced or destroyed, for all of us would like to know how Dr. Hooton arrived at (his supposed) dating for the age of the bone .

         Mr. Heideman gave the bone to me to see if I could develop anything further in regard to it.  The bone at once struck me as well preserved, was rather hard, and apparently quite heavy.  These latter two factors suggested at least partial permineralization of the bone to me, and – barring other circumstances - might mean that the bone was indeed rather old.

         Subsequently I contacted Mr. Pohl in New York and informed him of what I had been told about the bone.  He was of the opinion that the Vikings brought at least a few horses out from Greenland with them.9  He in turn contacted Dr. Edward S. Deevey of the Geocbronometric Laboratory at Yale as to the likelihood of a C-14 dating for the bone.  Dr. Deevey, incidentally, is testing some of the ship’s shoring with an ultimate view towards dating it if possible.  Some time later Dr. Deevey replied to Mr. Pobl as follows:

         "As to the horse bone that you describe, it is very hard for me to understand the chronological problem, since I cannot imagine what basis Professor Hooton could have had for his estimate of age from the bone itself. If the horse was a native American horse, it clearly could not have been older than 1521 A.D.- that is, unless you think the Norsemen brought horses to America with them.  If the horse was native, no date younger than about 8000 B.C. would be guessed by a paleontologist, but in any case no 'test' of the bone itself could give the age correctly.  Some bones have been dated in a relative sense by the fluorine method, but this tells us only whether one fossil in a deposit is of the same age as the others or is perhaps intrusive.  By this method, Swanscombe man was shown to be contemporary with the other vertebrates in the same deposit, whereas Piltdown man was first suspected to be a forgery because the fluorine analyses did not agree with those of the other fossils.

         "Radio-carbon dating of bone is simply not practical unless the bone was charred before burial.  There is very little organic carbon in bone, and what there is, is far too easily replaced by carbon from the groundwater after burial.  Any bones that have been 'dated’ by radio-carbon were either charcoal when dated, as in the case of the Folsom site, or else they were dated indirectly by association with charcoal or plant remains.

         "In view of all this I fear your friend, Mr. Powell, is stuck with a curio and that no one will want to take on the horse bone for scientific tests."10

         Mr. Pohl also suggested that I contact Dr.  Johannes Bronsted of The Danish National Museum in Copenhagen.  It was felt that he would be familiar with osseous finds from the Norse settlements in Greenland and might possibly have something to suggest.  At the same time I elected to get in touch with Dr. George Gaylord Simpson of The American Museum of Natural History in New York.  He is Chairman of the Department of Geology and Paleontology; and is perhaps our country's leading paleontologist and an avowed authority on horses.11  Certainly his opinion regarding this bone is most valuable.

         A reply from Dr. Bronsted referred me to Dr. Magnus Degerbol of the Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen.  He has published several items pertaining to osseous material from the settlements in Greenland.  I therefore wrote him explaining our problem and asking for his assistance.

         Meanwhile at the Eastern States Archaeological Federation annual meeting in New Haven in the Fall, the bone was examined by several archaeologists on the spot.  Some were of the opinion that the bone "was quite old" and deduced this mainly from the heaviness of the bone mentioned previously. These opinions were, I realize, only "off-the-cuff" but it is interesting that comments were passed before the group was told speculations relating to the age of the bone.  Several present, familiar with the usual condition of dated osseous material from aboriginal times on Cape Cod and peripheral areas in Massachusetts, said they had never encountered a bone so apparently fossilized.  Their consensus was to follow-up whatever might develop and see what we could find.  Incidentally, I was unable to secure data on possible rates of permineralization for skeletal remains interred in glacial and beach sands of the Northeast Atlantic Coast and in contiguous deposits of till and other soil types.  As will shortly be apparent, we ultimately do not need such information to answer some of the questions about this bone, but at the time we thought it would be helpful to have such data.  I mention this in passing as an incident typical in scientific investigation of phenomena: one invariably raises more questions than answers and the real need for increased knowledge in many fields impresses itself everlastingly.  I should imagine that those doing work in coastwise aboriginal sites of this general area might sometime use such data themselves in interpreting partially mineralized finds.

         In January of this year I received a reply from Dr. Degerbol.  He very kindly sent me reprints of his several works on the bone material from the Greenland settlement.12  He says, in part, in his letter:

(Dated 25 January 1956)

         "The horse has been rare on the farms; all in all about a dozen horse bones are known of the excavations in (the) West and East settlements, although thousands of other bones are known.  These bones have been those of a small horse, in size resembling an Iron Age horse from Nydam bog l3, 3 or 4 Cent. A.D., set up in the Zoological Museum.  The shoulder height from the uppermost spinal process on this animal is 127 cm.  The length, from the foremost part of the head hanging obliquely downward is about 2 m. The length of the whole metatarsal bone is 260 mm, on the Nydam horse 255; the medial breadth is 28 and 29 mm, respectively."

         I should like now to quote at some length from the correspondence with Dr. Simpson.

(Dated 7 November 1955)

         “We will be glad to look at your horse bone and to give an opinion on it, but frankly I am extremely doubtful as to whether our opinion will be of any real use to you.  It is not likely that we could do any more than confirm what is apparently already well established, that the bone belonged to a domesticated horse.  Running a single bone down to its exact race or breed would require a great deal more comparative material and compiled information than we have available here.  As to the age of the bone, I very much doubt whether the bone itself would cast any real light on the matter.  It would almost certainly be a matter of arguing the question the other way around, of dating the bone from its archeological association and stratigraphy rather than dating the archeological occurrence by means of the bone.

         "I am completely at a loss to understand how the late Professor Hooton can possibly have reached a date so precise as 900-1000 years ago on the objective evidence of the specimen itself.  He must certainly have been taking for granted an archeological date determination rather than supplying a date from the bone itself. The heaviness or mineralization of the bone would not on the basis of present knowledge permit one to provide such a dating.  Apart from the morphology, which is almost certain to be inconclusive as to age, the only promising approach would seem to be a fluorine analysis.  Such an analysis would be suggestive in deciding whether the bone was quite recent or had been buried for an appreciable length of time, but it still would not make it possible to say how great a length of time in any very close way unless many further data are available for buried bones in Greenland.  Unfortunately also we do not ourselves have the means for making fluorine analyses.”

(Dated 27 January 1956)

         "Now my scientific assistant Mrs. Patsuris and I have looked over the specimen with some care and made such comparisons as are possible to us here. Unfortunately the skepticism expressed in my letter of 7 November 1955 proves to be quite justified.  The bone is certainly that of a horse of the genus Equus and almost certainly from a rather light domesticated horse.  We see no characters that would differentiate it from any common horse of approximately this size.  It is just possible, but still not probable, that a closer identification could be made if we had good biometric or statistical data on dated samples of horse populations, but we simply do not have such data and I do not know where they might be available.

         "As far as I can see it is absolutely impossible at present to date this specimen on the basis of the bone itself.  In the geological sense of the word it is doubtless recent or Holocene, but that covers a lot of time and is of no particular value to you."

         Mr. Pohl passed on a suggestion to me early in December based on information obtained through an associate of his.  This person said,  “…the semi-starvation diet in Nordic grazing with the little sunshine, tends to kill off the large horses and let the small ones survive.  The horses of Iceland and Norway are small.  He suggests . . .  exact measurements, and also exact weight (of the bone) and send these data to museums in Iceland and Norway.  Perhaps . . . weight in relation to size . . . scholars . . . form some estimate . . .  amount of fossilization. . . thus estimate age."14  The factor of weight per volume occurred to me and seemed well taken as a possible indicator of permineralization. The overall length (proximal to distal ends) might be indicative of the horse's size.  Accordingly, I determined the following in regard to the bone:
  

1) Weight (wet)………..............…….............................389.81g
2) Volume (in H2O)....................................…........….…252cc
     Dividing (1) by 2) we get
3).........................................................................……...1.54g/cc
4) Length (overall proximal to distal ends)……....…….....266 mm

         The heaviness of the bone and the 'accepted' fossilization thereof prompted my curiosity.  I therefore sectioned the bone on a diamond saw. A cut was made on an angle of about 30o in about 25 mm from the distal end.  Subsequent grinding, lapping and polishing operations revealed a significant fact: the bone is not fossilized!  The soaking it had undergone in the water while taking the weight and volume readings had perceptibly softened this otherwise quite hard bone and the interior cells did not show filling or replacement with a hard, heavy mineral of any kind. We had expected at least some fossilization but I would state now that the bone is not fossilized at all.  I then thought the marked heaviness of the bone might be mud, silt or other material which had possibly been carried through minute cracks into the interior of the bone and there deposited in the cellular interstices.  This is not the case, either. If the bone is unduly heavy (and significantly, Dr. Simpson does not mark this), then it is not from replacement with heavy mineral.

         As a follow-up I once again contacted Dr. Simpson in regard to the value of determining the g/cc factor for the bone.  I received a reply as follows:

(Dated 12 March 1956)

         "I am afraid that I must fail you once more.  I do not have any data on the specific gravity of horse cannon bones and I think that any fairly significant data would involve very elaborate research.  The bone is of course not a homogenous substance with a fixed and determinable specific gravity.  The outer layers of the cannon bone are very dense whereas the inner layers are quite porous and open.  The overall specific gravity of the cannon bone would depend in a very elaborate way on the proportions and intergradation of these two parts and any figure would be meaningless for comparison unless it applied to bones of exactly the size and proportions of your bone and also took into consideration the undoubtedly great variation involved.  I am fairly sure that no one has ever gathered such data and I am not at all sure that the materials necessary for working out the relationships are available.”

         In summation, then, it appears established that the bone per se is:
             1 )not objectively datable from itself
             2) is not fossilized
             3) has no recorded associated remains of either skeletal or artifact-like nature
             4) has no recorded provenience

         Such serious defects remove the bone from further consideration as a "dated” Norse Age find.
     Some might argue that:

             1) Nordic horses were light-boned; and this specimen is from a light animal
             2) horses were present in Greenland (though rare)
             3) horses may have been brought on to Vinland (I know of no direct reference)
             4) a prominent scientist is reputed to have said the bone in question was 900-1000
                 years old (no documentation for this - only secondary recollection)

         It is at once apparent that this is no really substantial ground on which to postulate that the bone represents remains of an animal brought to North America by Vikings in the 11th century.  On the basis of present knowledge, we can no longer entertain this find as evidence for the presence of Norsemen on Cape Cod.
 

FOOTNOTES

  1 Pohl, F. J.,1952, p. 68.
  2 Romer, A. S.,1947, p. 385.
  3 Romer, A. S.,1941, p. 143.
  4 Pohl, F. J.
  5 Degerbol, M.,1936, p. 13.
  6 Personal communication with Mr. Pohl.
  7 Personal communication with Mr. Summerfield; quoted material is from his letter.
  8 Ibid.
  9 Personal communication with Mr. Pohl.
10 Personal communication with Mr. Pohl; quoted from original letter in his possession.
11 See his Horses (Oxford University Press, New York, 1951).
12 See appended bibliography.
13 I believe this refers to a site somewhere in northern Europe.
14 Personal communication with Mr. Pohl.
 
 

LITERATURE CITED

DEGERBOL, MAGNUS
         1929.   Animal Bones From The Norse Ruins at Gardar, Greenland (Meddelelser Om Gronland, pp.
                     183-192, Copenhagen).
         1934.   Animal Bones From The Norse Ruins at Brattahlid (Meddelelser Om Gronland, Bd. 88, No.
                     1, pp. 149-155, Copenhagen).
         1936.   Animal Remains From The West Settlement in Greenland ,With a Special Reference to Livestock
                     (Meddelelser Om Gronland, Bd. 88, No. 3, pp.  1-54, Copenhagen).
 
POHL, FREDERICK J.
         1952.  The Lost Discovery (W.  W. Norton & Co., New York)
         1956.  The Ship's Shoring at Follins Pond (M.A.S. Bulletin, Vol. 16, No. 3).
 
ROMER, ALFRED SHERWOOD
         1941.  Man and the Vertebrates (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).
         1947.  Vertebrate Paleontology (University of Chicago Press, Chicago)