Visiting Celts at the Mayne Island Museum

Mayne Island Museum and Gaol. Source: tumblr

Mayne Island Museum and Gaol. Source:

The only thing better than small town museums are small town thrift shops, but it’s close. I stuck my nose into the Mayne Island — a small island in the Salish Sea — Museum a day or two ago, which is housed in the former gaol  (that’s “jail” for my diverse readers).  These museums can be fun, but you do have to put on your “this place is historically situated” eyeglasses.  As in, there is usually an enormous preponderance of Settler material, and often there is a fairly reductionist, colonialist or otherwisely unfortunate depiction of First Nations. The Mayne museum doesn’t escape this altogether.  The First Nations display is probably 5% of the total, both in material display, and in the timeline presented (I didn’t take a picture but it is typed out pretty much verbatim here, compare to my pie chart timeline).  Anyway, I don’t want to focus on any negative vibes from the museum, they share the general issues of almost every community museum I’ve been to, but neither do I want to ignore them completely. To their credit they have a good section  the Japanese Internment Camps and the fate of Japanese-Canadian islanders during World War II.  Anyway, I took a few lousy pictures with my phone and I’ll share these below and in a subsequent post (since really who wants to read 2,000 words of pontification in one sitting?) We’re going to start with my favourite artifact type.

Bisected celt from Mayne Island museum.

Bisected celt from Mayne Island museum. Note the sawcut mark on the near side and the asymmetrical shape in plan.

This is one of the more interesting artifacts, to me at least.  I did my MA thesis on these: ground stone chisels and adzes, collectively known as “celts” (with a soft c).  There’s a good picture of the variety of these woodworking tools in this previous post.  One of the things I showed in that thesis was the distinctive use-history of each celt could be understood by creating a model of use-life in the aggregate of all celts.  That is, how the artifacts change from manufacture to discard via resharpening, repair, etc., and how this affects the interpretation of the artifacts you  find in the ground.  One aspect of this was that adzes, typically broader than chisels, would get shorter with multiple resharpening events, but not narrower.  At some point they became too stubby to mount in a haft.  At this point, considering the very valuable raw material they were typically made from, they might be cut in half longitudinally via sawing with a thin sandstone or schist slab.  Effectively this turns one worn out celt into two chisels with considerable use-life left in them. This bisection leaves the characteristic form of a well finished celt with a rougher sawcut on one side only, and often slightly asymmetric in plan.  The tools you find most commonly in the ground are those that are worn out and have little residual value.  This can skew your idea of what people were making and using for the most part.  Anyway, you can see the white specimen above fits that description of asymmetry and sawing well. Here is the relevant schematic.

Schematic of use-life history for adzes. Source: qmackie MA thesis.

Schematic of use-life history for adzes. Chisel use life differs slightly, mostly with unlikely bisection and terminal usage as a splitting wedge.  Source: qmackie MA thesis.

And here is a figure showing actual celts arranged consistently with the above diagram.  Sorry for the potato quality of the figures, they’re from a scan turned into a JPEG turned into a PDF, and from the days before you could just easily photograph each artifact easily and then paste together a composite of any number of perfectly exposed specimens.  Hrrrmph.  Anyway the big ones on the left are routinely referred to as “property celts” indicative of status, etc.  I’m not so sure, they fit right into the sequence, and, most tellingly, the ones I looked at had use wear and edge damage.  So property sure, but useful property, and used.

Celts correspondng to the use-life history for "adzes". Source: qmackie MA thesis.

Celts corresponding to the use-life history for “adzes”. Source: qmackie MA thesis.

Using measurements you can show that celts with one rough sawcut side, otherwise finished, i.e., ones likely bisected during their use-life, are narrower than those with either two sawcut sides or two finished sides. But the real smoking gun is a small sample of celts which entered the archaeological record when in the process of being cut in half.  Naturally you wouldn’t expect many of these “transitional forms” and indeed these were the only ones in a sample of over 1500 in the study.

Celts interrupted while being rejuvenated or cobverted from "adze" to "chisel". Source: qmackie MA thesis.

Celtus interruptus while being rejuvenated or converted from “adze” to “chisel”. Source: qmackie MA thesis.

In the unlikely circumstance you would like to know even more about celts, you can download the thesis here.  Note this is the published version so pagination refers to the reference as given below. A warning though, a lot of the stuff in the thesis is now redundant (or even wrong) following Jesse Morin’s recent Ph.D. thesis, aspects of which you can also read in a recent American Antiquity, reference below.  And yes, I do intend to update the “Theses Page” on this blog sometime soon.

OK, more on the Mayne Museum in a less self-indulgent post someday soon.


Mackie, Quentin 1995.  The taxonomy of ground stone woodworking tools. Oxford : Tempvs Reparatvm, 1995. BAR international series, 613. [ Thesis (M.A.) – Anthropology, University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1992.]

PRECONTACT BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA. American Antiquity 80(3), 2015, pp. 530–547.



4 responses to “Visiting Celts at the Mayne Island Museum

  1. very interesting about the celts and more on the museum would be interesting to hear but mostly I want to say our volunteers for more than 40 years have done a great job, they are not experts and they use the artifacts given to them. We are so lucky in a small community to have what we do and I am sure any help you can offer them or information will be gladly received. Jeanine Dodds a resident since 1960


  2. Hi Jeanine. I certainly didn’t mean to disrespect the volunteers who keep this and all the others community museums going. Without them there’d be nothing to talk about, or visit for that matter. But it’s a fact that these museums almost invariably skew towards a certain portrayal of the past. Understandably, given how they usually get going and get maintained. And the museum is highly enjoyable.

    But archaeologists do tend to focus on the archaeological. It was very cool to be able to spot a few really unusual artifacts in a public venue. The flip side of that is what I mentioned about the vision of history being presented. People are wary of appropriating First Nations’ past of course, and rightfully so. Settlers often don’t feel it is part of the shared past of the region, or they don’t want to enter into the complexities of presenting colonial histories. The Mayne Island museum actually does a better job than many by acknowledging the deep history of the island. And, it is unusual and commendable to address the Japanese internment issue so frankly.

    I’d be happy to lend whatever expertise I can to the volunteers. I expect to be on and off Mayne fairly frequently.


  3. Hey, that sounds much better than the Lillooet Museum in 1973, which had stone artifacts interspersed with plastic cavemen and dinosaurs and the “interpretive” text with the caption “In the beginning, strange beings walked the earth”. This was horrifyingly racist and anti-scientific even back then to us ‘city folk’ from Kamloops! That wasn’t all that long ago in the scheme of things, and our field school’s volunteer display replaced the offending one. I’m astonished at the lack of archaeological information in museums generally (including the RBCM, though it has improved slightly in the last couple of years). Even when archaeological material is included and there is a themed display, it is often undifferentiated by time. ‘Cool’ artifacts from the collection get included that are inappropriate for the culture area (I’m thinking of northern woodworking tools as part of a display of Salish Sea logging and woodworking for instance). But then I’ve turned into a curmudgeon.


  4. Weren’t you always a young fogey though, Morley? Like that time when [wordpress input error] uphill both ways to school.

    Local museums have improved enormously I think, overall, but yeah, my impression is most of them still don’t know quite what to do with archaeological material. Bottles and crosscut saws and whatnot are familiar, and supported by historical documents. Odd stones, not so much. Completely understandable – yet has the unfortunate and unintended consequence of reducing First Nations occupation of the area the museum finds itself in to a footnote, or a sort of geological-like underpinning of the real history.


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