New York Projectile Points

Projectile Points

Former State Archaeologist William A. Ritchie’s seminal Typology and Nomenclature for New York Projectile Points (1961, revised 1971) remains a basic reference for Northeastern archaeologists. An on-line version of the publication adds color images of selected artifacts to accompany Ritchie’s original text and plates, providing an updated gallery of projectile point type examples from the New York region. Many of the projectile points shown are from the collections of the New York State Museum.

Reflections on Ritchie's Typology for New York Projectile Points
Jonathan C. Lothrop, NYSM Curator of archaeology

William A. Ritchie's Typology for New York Projectile Points, published in 1961 and revised in 1971, is still in use today. The information he assembled helped to set early standards for typological analysis. Now, nearly 50 years later, this typology also reflects how archaeology as a discipline has changed over that time span.

Before the mid-1900s, early archaeologists relied on relative dating to estimate the antiquity of Native American artifacts or prehistoric sites. By this approach, archaeologists used excavation results at stratified archaeological sites to determine relative age. Based on geologic concepts, artifacts discovered in deeper strata were logically older than those found at shallower depths. Comparing differences between older and younger artifacts of a certain class revealed changes through time in a region's material culture. Certain artifact classes -- notably stone weapon tips and pottery -- seemed especially prone to shifts in form and material through millennia. When found elsewhere at unstratified sites, archaeologists could use these chronologically "diagnostic" artifacts to infer the relative age(s) of the prehistoric occupations

The advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s provided a means for measuring the age in calendar years of a prehistoric site or associated artifacts. Since then, progressive refinements have increased the accuracy of this absolute dating method.

When William A. Ritchie first published his Typology in 1961, radiocarbon dating was still a new technique, and had only been applied to a handful of New York sites. Additional radiocarbon assays at sites in New York and the broader Northeast confirm the general validity of much of this projectile point sequence and typology for New York's prehistory.

Today, archaeologists still rely on relative dating approaches (including Ritchie's typology) to estimate ages of undated prehistoric sites. But as American archaeology has matured as a discipline, archaeologists have increasingly recognized the limits of typologies. Perhaps most important, these typologies are constructs of the archaeologist, not of the prehistoric people who made these artifacts, and so inevitably mask some artifact variation.

Archaeologists also now recognize that, between manufacture and discard, the size and shape of stone projectile points often changed through use, resharpening, reworking, and repair. Thus, individual projectile points were not immutable forms (perhaps as implied by early typologies), but literally evolved during their "use lives." 

Ritchie's Brewerton bifaces provide a good example of how projectile point form can evolve during use. He defined four Brewerton types: corner-notched, side-notched, eared-notched, and eared triangle points. While corner- and side-notched points may represent more legitimate "types," the eared-notched and eared-triangle forms probably reflect heavy blade resharpening on notched points that altered a point's size and outline. The lesson is that while typologies have utility for assessing relative age, archaeologists must be aware of their potential pitfalls.

Along with technological perspectives, in recent decades, archaeologists have turned increasingly to quantitative approaches for projectile point identification and analysis. These approaches seek to identify statistical groupings of artifacts based on suites of attributes such as dimensions, hafting method, flaking characteristics, wear patterns, etc. These more objective approaches facilitate evaluating changes in a point "type" over time or across space, discrimination of original point features versus modifications, and comparisons between groups of artifacts.


A Typology and Nomenclature for New York Projectile Points, William A. Ritchie, New York State Museum Bulletin Number 384 (1961, revised 1971).