CONFESSIONS OF A REFORMED FLINTKNAPPER: AN ARCHEOLOGIST'S BLEND OF THEORY AND PRACTICE
Around 1980 when this writer made the momentous decision to take what I had learned as a professional archeologist and use it to start a new career (mostly out of necessity for continued gainful employment) as an "applied anthropologist" it was not with the intention of becoming an avocational, much less a professional, flintknapper. But this was what happened, and for the next twenty years I managed to create literally thousands of functional replicas of prehistoric tools, weapons, and ceremonial objects. As the principal operator of what would become the highly successful Rattler Crafts, I was fortunate to witness from the inside the phenomenal growth of flintknapping over the last 30 years as both a hobby and as various business related activities (some of which, unfortunately, have led to cheap imitations, misrepresentations, and outright fraud at times). In the beginning of my own efforts I--like many archeologists--often looked with great skepticism on the flintknappers' art, and upon those who often practiced it for the wrong reasons. Many colleagues I had known or worked with were quite put-off when they found out that I was actually making reproductions and offering them in various, carefully controlled venues. But from the beginning, both my partner and I had made the commitment to educate as well as profit with our work. To that end we agreed to never sell a piece that was not part of a larger, hafted replica (an arrow, for example), that no style which we would produce would have a greater value removed from that haft and passed on as an authentic piece than the price the original purchaser had paid for it, and that we would never offer for sale any item not clearly marked or presented as a replica. The success of Rattler Crafts allowed me to spend nearly twenty years learning the Art of Flintknapping as it was called by D.C. Waldorf in his widely read book--one of the important pioneers of modern American flintknapping. (Note: I remember well reading in Waldorf's fine book 'back in the day' that while flintknapping was fun and interesting, no one was likely to earn a living from it. Fortunately for me he was wrong in that admonition, and many others both scrupulous and un- have since found flintknapping to be a profitable pursuit in one fashion or another.)
All this is interesting, or not perhaps, but let's look at some of the important things I have managed to learn about this so-called "Art " from the perspective of both professional practicioner and interested archeologist in the twenty plus years I practiced this 'art' on almost a daily basis. (Incidentally, on my best day, while doing nearly continuous demonstrations, I finished 34 pieces before my hands finally gave out. At that point my left palm felt like raw hamburger, and the knuckles on my middle two left fingers were calloused from being 'percussed' into each other to the point of pain. Did'nt try that act of endurance again! Consider this hazard if you are thinking of doing this for profit rather than for fun.)
THE MAN AND HIS TOOLS
As someone who always maintained the authenticity of his product, it was necessary to come at flintknapping from the point of view of a prehistoric knapper in terms of flint sources, tools, and stylistic considerations. Foregoing the usual learning curve of utilizing soft commercial flints, obsidians and glass, or other common substitutes now available to the beginner, I was blessed with being able to watch and learn from a true stonebreaker (In fact, the first book in The People of the Stone series of that name is dedicated to this now passed former student and mentor) and a self-taught knapper of exceptional ability, and this enabled me to jump in at a more advanced level as it turned out. The first thing that became obvious was that a successful prehistoric flintknapper had to acquire and maintain a tool kit that would not always have been readily available or replaceable in ancient times. The first dramatic breakthrough for me came when I got my hands on my first moose antler billet. Up to that point, white tail deer had been--as it must have been for many prehistoric native Americans--the basic percussion tool of choice. Now, while deer tyne is excellent for all forms of pressure flaking, as most flintknappers quickly learn, it has severe limitations for percussion. What does this mean from an archeologist's perspective? The size of finished pieces is readily determined by the ownership of an antler base tool sufficient to chip any flakeable stone. One need only look at the size of the pieces in an assemblage to quickly determine the availability of moose to a particular knapper--either ancient or modern (as we all know, elk is virtually useless in most cases). Furthermore, the need to maintain multiple pointed flakers would have required a steady supply of deer antler tips. Many of these are found in archeological remains, but some of these socketed antler tynes are sometimes misidentified as "arrow points". Obviously, early Ice Age peoples such as Clovis, probably had an easier time procuring the larger antler bases for their tool kits, and the quality of their work reflects this fact. This is a critical, if often neglected truism when dealing with paleo assemblages all over North America. had ready access to all antler animal species, and it is not any great surprise that both their needs and abilities to fill them by their flintknapping capabilities has only been matched in rare instances since. One need only examine the size of Clovis mateial and the distinctive long reduction flaking (overshot flaking) to know their tool kits were a primary survival necessity. If you want to be a successful flintknapper of good material (or just as importantly, marginal 'flints' such as Kanawha Black or other non-limestone cherts), you simply must have a dependable supply of small, moose antler bases. Obviously, the archeological record in most places indicates that later prehistoric peoples were often denied this essential element. Other basic tool kit components, such as various hammerstone sizes, grinding stones (sandstone, for example) and even non-antler flaking tools (I once learned from a well-known native flintknapper, Jim Fire Eagle, the usefullness of another piece of flint for notching purposes in the absence of an antler tyne, especially for obsidian.) are generally available anywhere. However, the presence of hammerstones is another often neglected and useful artifact from many sites; for we flintknappers have a way of becoming attached to a good one, and these are frequently composed of hardstones, which have traveled with the ancient owner over great distances. I have recovered hammerstones from sites that were later sourced at more than three hundred miles away.
SOURCE MATERIAL CHOICES
In an earlier blog entry in this series I discussed the often neglected importance of flint quarry and other source material locations around the country; and the reader is referred to that entry for further information on quarry sites and their relationship to modern archeological efforts. From a knapper's perspective, however, choice of material is always the second consideration, once a good tool kit is assembled. High quality cherts are not readily available in many locations, as we well know, and prehistoric knappers often made difficult choices. Anyone who has worked with Kanawha Black from central Appalachia, rhyolites from the Carolinas, or chalcedonies from the mountain west knows the difficulty of producing any useful product, much less pre-conceived forms, from these and other such difficult substances--not to mention the destructive impact flaking these stones has on a good moose billet. In the Paleo Period we know good quality cherts moved over great distances (Note: See the blog entry in this series on Clovis and other cache blade finds for more info. here). Apparently this was also a well-established capability during the later Woodland Adena and Hopewell Periods as well, as witnessed by the size, quality, and workmanship of the tools and weapons from those areas. (The reasons for this are discussed by this author in the fourth book of The People of the Stone series, A Dark Winged Shadow and in the current book still being written about the end of that important cultural horizon, The Corn Maiden's Gift, due out in Fall of 2010). A flintknapper, despite his capabilities, can only produce up to the quality of his source material. One need look no further than the often finely made, but generally very small, true arrow points of the Late Prehistoric Period throughout the country to see this fact. While these artifacts are frequently exceptionally well made, they are also very small as a rule and often made of river-born cobble cherts, reworked scraps, rare stones (petrified wood in the West, for example), and other uncommon local stones. It should also be noted here that deer antler alone is generally sufficient to make these good quality small pieces, indicating further the loss of mobility, trading routes, or past knowledge of better quarry material locations.
At this point, we should also say a few words about one of flintknapping's most commonly misrepresented and publicly misunderstood features--that of heat treating of source materials. The old myth of heating up the stones and dropping cold water on them (often with a feather of all things) is a story that every flintknapper has heard any time he, or she, has done a public demonstration. Perhaps, this tale got started because of the actual practice of heat-treating quarried, or otherwise un-weathered cherts, to remove the moisture and make them more brittle for fracturing by the traditional percussion tools and techniques. We all know, also, that such treatment also creates the glossy texture of high quality material, such as Ohio Flint Ridge, as well as bringing out fantastic color change, especially if iron pyrites are a component--as they often are in some abundance in most good mid-western quarry sites. While it is generally very difficult to authenticate this practice in the archeological record, there is evidence of prehistoric methods for heat treating. I personally excavated what I firmly believed was a small heat-treating pit in a rock shelter many years ago, complete with fire-baked clay and even the presence of one good sized deer tyne flaker along the back wall of a good-sized, multiple occupation shelter in the mid Ohio Valley. It was basin shaped, about two feet across, and about a foot deep--the perfect arrangement for a shallow, sand-filled heat treating site. That shelter yielded many artifacts of greatly varied materials, a not uncommon occurrence for such a location, some of which had definitely been heat treated on the site or elsewhere. (Note: if you are thinking of doing your own heat treating sometime, here is my best recipe for success. Acquire an old cast iron bathtub, if possible, (half of a 55 gal. drum or even an old barbeque grill will also work) and fill it full of clean, dry sand--such as you might use for a child's sandbox. Stack your unworked blanks in the sand until covered, build a hot fire on top and maintain for at least 10-12 hours (the cast iron will distribute the heat wonderfully) and then let cool an equal length of time, or longer, before removing your heat treated pieces to begin working. Some may break or explode even in the sand, but those pieces would have been useless in any event. Good Luck !)
MENTAL TEMPLATES AND THE FLINTKNAPPER'S ART
Finally, I want to say a little bit about one of the most important things I have learned as an archeolgist, a flintknapper, a traditional craftsman, and now a writer about the critical and once nearly "lost" art of flintknapping. As archeologists we commonly classify our chipped stone artifacts (those classic projectile points as we call them) almost exclusively by their stylistic variations over time. We assign dates based on these particular attributes (notching, for example) or combinations of base/tip forms, seriations, etc. We often blindly assume that individual knappers within any thusly named cultural horizon were bound in their work by limited or restricted styles they could produce at any one point in time or location. For example, it would have been as if someone in Detroit in 1957 had decided to leave the fins off his Chevy or Ford. But that comparison cannot always be used, as I have heard it, or something like it, because Detroit had the ability to create a mental template in reality and then follow it without fail. The prehistoric flintknapper, I believe, did not always have such an ability. Not every Paleo-Indian, for example, was capable of making a fluted Clovis point, even if he had the perfect choice of source material in his hand. Anyone who has worked flint knows that few things are more difficult than to randomly select a piece of flint and then produce a pre-conceived type artifact of the kind archeologists love to give specific names to. Quite often, either the flint, or the tools, the knapper has in his hand at that moment will not allow such work. And while it is often true that projectile point styles are very distinctive in time and place, as a general rule other more functional and important types--scrapers, drills, etc--are virtually indistinguishable across great expanses of time, during which projectile point styles, on the other hand, change dramatically. Thus we see in projectile point production the highest form of the individual flintknapper's ability, and often even artistic expression, as well as that culture's more specific view of what a "proper" or "correct" piece should look like. In order to operate within such a mental template and produce a specific type of point or other artifact over and over again, all of the requirements I have discussed, from tool kit to source material, had to be under the conscious control of the individual knappers. As archeologists, we have often overlooked this common fact, which any competent flintknapper knows. Therefore, we have too often, I believe, broken down sites on the basis of assigning different time periods to artifacts that, in reality, were possibly made concurrently out of the simple necessity of some flintknapper to produce what he needed on that day. He looked into his tool kit and saw that this was the only type of point, or whatever, that he could produce from what he had in his hand--regardless of what he would like to make, or what his culture, or whomever, would like him to make--and he simply produced it, hafted it, used it, lost it, and went on about his business.
An archeolgist comes along thousands of years later, finds it, names it something based entirely on its resemblance to some other named (and hopefully dated) artifact from another location, and then declares the date, culture, horizon, phase, or whatever for an entire site perhaps based on that single artifact. Somewhere up there a long-forgotten prehistoric knapper is looking down and having a good laugh on archeology, as he says: Hell, that was the only thing I could make that day out of the crappy rock I had and the worn out antler piece I brought with me, and I had to get something made and on my spear before the damn deer got away and I came home empty-handed. Sorry about that. I meant to make a corner-notched one, but it came out this flared-base, stemmed thingy, and I used it anyway.
Much of what this writer has learned about this ancient art--or craft as the case may be--has been recently incorporated into the video TRADITIONAL FLINTKNAPPING WITH TOM KUHN, that is now offered for sale as a hard disc or as a direct download. I would highly recommend this instructional video to anyone interested, from beginner to more advanced knapper. The video is available through the Store Page of this website. A two minute trailer is also available free of charge for anyone interested in what is covered or for those who simply might like to meet this author face-to-face, so to speak.
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