A historic donation

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Palmquist donates rare collection of artifacts

By Nick Johansen

The large collection of Native American artifacts collected by John Palmquist, who lives outside Stanton, are being donated to a new home.


Last week, Palmquist welcomed research archeologist Warren Davis from the University of Iowa Office of the State Archeologist. The collection is being donated from John Palmquist and the late Phil Palmquist, and all the items in the collection are from southern Montgomery County and northern Page County. Davis said the donation was made possible through a grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa.

“The grant allows us to curate Palmquist’s collection of items that he has accumulated over the last 50 years. He has been a long-time member of the Iowa Archeological Society, which is an advocational group of professional and amateur archeologists who get together every year, the grant also pays for me to come out and figure out what all is here, take it back to Iowa City, do further research on the items, and pursue future avenues for research, such as the sites Palquist has found, and scientific testing,” Davis said.

Davis added Palmquist’s collection was an interesting one, because not only had he been collecting for a long time, he kept good notes and records of what he has found.

“Most people don’t do this. Usually when people find an arrowhead, they’ll leave it behind, or if they pick it up, they’ll never remember where they found it, and it will get passed on through the family and no one has any idea where it was found,” said Davis “We have a lot of cases like that with people who have dozens or even hundreds of arrowheads and other artifacts, and we can’t take them, because we don’t know where they came from, and we’re interested in the information around the artifact, not the artifact itself. Where it came from, where in Iowa they are from, how it was acquired, was it excavated, was it near anything. The context matters a lot more than the arrowhead. John has graciously agreed to donate his well-catalogued collection to the state repository for as long as it stays a repository.”

According to Davis, not much is known about Southwest Iowa when it comes to archeology, but people have been living here for over 13,000 years, and they want to fill in the gaps and find out what the people here have been doing the last 13,000 years, which is another unique aspect of Palmquist’s collection.

“Most of Palmquist’s collection is on the early end of that. Usually, it’s the opposite way around. Some of the stuff in his collection could be as much as 11,000 years old, A lot of Palmquist’s artifacts date in the 3,000-8000 year old range. You really don’t see a lot of that around Iowa. As of the year 2000, there were maybe a few dozen larger Archaic sites in Iowa with sizable artifact counts, and roughly eight major Archaic sites. Most of it is in the 1,000 to 2,000 year old range. It’s not common at all, and the fact there is so much here is significant. Palmquist’s collection is a big element to add to the state’s cultural history,” commented Davis.

Palmquist said he has lived in the area the past 55 years, and always had an intense interest in Native American culture and history, and what was available when he was growing up wasn’t accurate, which peaked an interest in archeology.

“After I was grown, by chance, I made brief contact with an archeologist named Duane Anderson who was employed up in the Stamford Museum in Cherokee. Within a year, he became state archeologist, we became friends, and he mentored me for 10 years. He was the one who emphasized not buying or selling artifacts, and keeping accurate records, so I got off to a great start. I’ve been working as a volunteer with the Office of the State Archeologist since then. The collection is pretty well recorded as to where it came from, and I’m proud of it. It’s a big turning point in my life to donate it, but it’s been on the back burner of my mind for many years, and I knew it was going to happen someday. This collection has taken a long time to grow, and it took a lot of Sunday afternoons. In my life, I’ve never watched a ball game on television, listened to one on the radio, or been to a game. I’ve always been involved with this. It’s taken a lot of hours, this has been a large part of my activities,” Palmquist said.

Davis added the fact that Palmquist’s collection contained no items that were bought, and that Palmquist hadn’t sold any of the items from his collection was also important, and offered a word of warning to anyone considering purchasing artifacts.”

“A lot of them are counterfeit, and the sale of the items encourages looting. None of this stuff was ever bought or sold. He found all of the items, and the few items he was given where given to him by someone who he knows where to find them. This is what we call ethical collecting. You’re not buying or selling, you’re not looting, you’re not trespassing. You do it on your own time, and all the associated information is record so that even thought it was taken from that place, it’s still associated with its original context, which again, is more important than the artifact itself,” Davis said.

Determining how old the artifacts are is based on how it is made, the type of materials it was made with, and the location it was discovered, and there have been many different tribes residing in what is now the state of Iowa. Palmquist said a lot of people think the Ioway tribe was prominent for a great deal of time, but that was not the case.

“They are very late in the archeological record, and there is very little evidence in Southwest Iowa of their presence,” advised Palmquist.

Davis believes one of the oldest items in Palmquist’s collection is a Folsom point arrowhead, a tool made over 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. Another rare item in Palmquist’s collection is a stone whistle, which Davis said he had never seen before.

“If you blow on the top of the stone, it will whistle. I’ve asked, and no one in my office is familiar with one. I’ve personally never seen one, and no one else I’ve spoken to in Iowa has ever heard of one in Iowa, so there’s pretty good odds that if it’s not the first one in the state, then it’s the second or third one, at most,” Davis said.

Palmquist also has some pipestone items, including a bird effigy, which are also very rare to the state.

“Pipestone items show very selectively at sites. You don’t see pipestone often at all in Southwest Iowa. Honestly those are the only ones I know about.You might see stuff in northwest Iowa, or South Dakota, but you really don’t see that stuff here. It’s something that would have had to have been brought here, so whoever made this had a trade network, or a seasonal route that allowed them to go hundreds of miles away to get this stuff,” Davis explained.

Thanks to the donation of Palmquist’s collection, and the Southwest Iowa area has created the potential for a lot more work.

“This could mean a lot more years of further research. There’s going to be a lot of follow-up work that I can’t even imagine right now. I’m only 32, but I imagine this collection will be used well after I’m retired,” Davis said.