What is this?

A few months back I was asked for some help in finding out some information on this old Bison skull.

I know this thing is old because there is no keratin left on the horn. I grew up in Canada I think this is of blackfoot importance. – owner SM

I reached out to a few archeologists and Natives. Archeologists need to see it in person. The Natives said they think it was used in ceremonies in Medicine Hat, Alberta Canada.  

We were wondering if it was used for hunting ceremonies because of the markings. 

We are all just guessing.  (guesses turn to leads) 

The owner thinks it’s very important to the Tribe that it came from. He wants to be respectful of the skull and its meanings. Once we find out more, he can then make plans to preserve it properly. 

If anyone has any ideas, please shoot me an email!  Thank you. 

Native Painted Bison SkullNative Painted Bison Skull7Native Painted Bison Skull6Native Painted Bison Skull5Native Painted Bison Skull4Native Painted Bison Skull3Native Painted Bison Skull8

 

Recent development. 

A friend in Canada, Wes Olson, asked if he could be of some assistance. He reached out to a couple of his friends/colleagues and this is what they had to say:  (both very experienced and knowledgeable archaeologists and bison specialists)

Wes, here are some thoughts from Jack Brink, below, with which I agree. I would also say the colour palette is a bit different from what I would expect in a northwestern Plains context, where blue and gold would be unusual…there is a Bodmer painting of an Assiniboine man in a lined buffalo robe, with a shield that is half green, half gold…but that would be post-contact as Jack says. The bear’s paw motif is also important in the Fremont and Great Basin world, but there, there are always five claws, in my experience, whereas, this one has just four claws, which strikes me as unusual. If the hooves are cervid, perhaps elk, too?

 
Perhaps those are cacti above the eye sockets, but if so, the branching angle is interesting. Saguaros’ come out and then turn at right angles to run perpendicular to the mainstem, forming a right angle. Cardóns are similar, but belong to the Sonoroan province in regions like the Baja where saguaros are absent. Their main branching comes out at angle like these images. I would also wonder about bird tracks, as a possibility, rather than cacti.
 
The hand image is unusual too in that it appears to be part of an arm that has fur (?). Those seem to be branches with needles around the centre image…rather pine-like needles. 
 
So, as Jack says, this does seem to relatively recent, and I don’t see a great deal there that would connect it with the Medicine Hat area…or the Blackfoot and Tsuut’ina world more generally.
 
-Jack 
Dr. John W.(Jack) Ives
Professor, Department of Anthropology
 
               
             Referenced from above:
 
 I can’t shed too much light on this skull, I think it and the designs are fairly recent and thus not of my expertise. 
 
I say recent based on the colour of the paints, which did not exist prior to European contact, and to the nature of some of the designs which do not mimic traditional indigenous art or painted skulls that I have seen. On the other hand, a few designs that I am familiar with clearly indicate that the skull was painted by an Indigenous person. 
 
Most telling are the three bear claw motifs on the left side of the nose. These are classic bear claw drawings as seen in hundreds of examples of rock art, painted bison robes and ledger art. Bears are typically represented by just their outstanding feature – the paws with long sharp claws. We know that claws were coveted and turned into necklaces, bracelets, and so forth. It is highly unlikely that a non-indigenous person would paint this motif. 
 
The cloven hoof tracks are also common in rock art of the northern Plains. In fact, there has been recognition of a so-called “Hoof Print Tradition” in Plains rock art. It is poorly known and not well represented in sites (people could examine Keyser and Klassen 2001 Plains Indian Rock Art for examples). The prints on the skull look rather slender and delicate to be bison; I would guess maybe deer, but Wes would be a better judge than me.
 
I can’t say much about the rest of the imagery. Hand prints are well represented in rock art, but this one is clearly a painted hand not a pressed hand as is common in rock art. There are two Y-shaped designs above the eye sockets that look like cactus. If they are then that would call into question the possible link with southern Alberta. But I am not familiar with them and they might be something entirely different. 
 
That’s my two cents. I can’t say more about other designs on the skull. The bear claws do suggest a connection to Great Plains Indigenous artists, but I would be surprised if the designs on the skull were more than 100 years old. 
 
Best to all,
Jack Brink