Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

Anthropology (Forensic Anthropology Option)

Department or School/College

Department of Anthropology

Committee Chair

Kelly J. Dixon

Commitee Members

Randall R. Skelton, Hipólito Rafael Chacón


Cognitive Archaeology, Donner Party, Historical Archaeology, History, Slate, Writing Slate


University of Montana


Archaeological investigations into the whereabouts of the Alder Creek Donner family campsite yielded a number of artifacts. One type of artifact collected was writing slate fragments, the topic of this thesis. Why were writing slate fragments found at the Alder Creek camp? An investigation into writing slate in the historical record had to be conducted to address this question. The lack of pertinent research associated with writing slate posed a major obstacle, as it has been disregarded as a diagnostic artifact in historical archaeological literature. This paper addresses this problem by a history of writing slate and its uses, as well as including a discussion of precursors to writing slate, to provide a context for materials recovered from the Alder Creek site. It was first thought that writing slate was only used in the context of education, as might have provided a means of keeping the children busy during the Donner Party’s snowbound experience. However, this research indicates that a number of other activities can be associated with writing slate; including messages and notes, record keeping and accounting, gaming and gambling. The writing slate recovered from the Donner family camp is analyzed here using the results of the historical overview of this material and a cognitive archaeological approach.



© Copyright 2008 Molly Elizabeth Swords