Illinois News

Pike County artifact travels into space

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science Clovis point floats in zero gravity on the International Space Station in 2015. | Kjell Lindgren/NASA
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 21, 2017 9:10 am Updated: Apr. 21, 2017 9:24 am

DENVER -- A stone spear point from Pike County, Ill., has become one of the few archaeological artifacts to travel with an astronaut into space.

Astronaut Kjell Lindgren approached the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 2014 before a 141-day tour aboard the International Space Station. Lindgren offered to include a specimen in his personal effects on the space trip but left the decision on which item would go up to museum officials.

"It's hard to imagine what the people who made this Clovis point would think about it going into space," said Steve Lee, of the Denver museum. "This fascination with space is a natural aspect of being human. We have always been interested in what's over the next hill. It's built into our DNA."

Astronauts have a limited amount and limited weight of what they can carry into space.

"It really is a metaphor for exploration and what humans can do," said Steve Nash, department chairman and curator of archaeology at the museum. "Wanderlust, exploration, bravery, it's a symbol of all that."

Size constraints, rareness and durability were all considered in determining what they would send, The chosen piece would have to survive the rocket's launch and re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

"It was a really hard question to answer," Nash said. "We came up with the Clovis point. It's evidence of pioneers, the first people to come into America."

Museum officials weighed the ethical ramifications of permitting an artifact to go into space. They decided it was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really cool. We deliberated, and we did it for the right reasons, " Nash said.

The Clovis point selected is believed to be up to 13,000 years old. While rare, Clovis points are not one-of-a-kind artifacts. Hundreds and possibly thousands have been found across North America.

"Clovis" refers to a prehistoric culture during the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas. The Clovis people were known for their distinct stone tools and are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

"Clovis folk, among others in North America, pressed on into previously unknown territory--as astronauts have done by taking us off the blue planet and into space," Nash said in a blog post at sapiens.org. "Clovis points and the space station are tangible symbols of human wanderlust and the ability to break through physical, technological and psychological barriers. In sending a Clovis point to the space station, we contributed to a transcendent human experience."

Lindgren and the Clovis point returned to Earth on Dec. 11, 2015.

"It's certainly not expendable," Nash said, "but it's far more symbolic now than before it went up."

It's unknown how the Clovis point made its way from Pike County to Denver. It was donated to the museum in 1991 by a former curator, Bob Pickering, but Nash said Pickering doesn't remember how the item came into his collection. Information on just where it was originally found has also been lost.

"It's a bummer, but we do know it came from Pike County because that's part of its records," Nash said. "People are really interested in stuff that goes up in space. This started a conversation if nothing else, which is what we wanted."

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