FINDING THE FLINT: Identifying the Source Can Be Both Helpful and Easy to Do
North American prehistory owes much of its magnificent diversity to the availability and quality of any number of important source material sites found throughout much of the United States. Every archeologist knows that being able to identify the source material of any artifact, or the distribution of sources in any collection or assemblage, can be most valuable in providing additional cultural information on any find. After all, the individual stone artifact is often the only find that can be identified as to time period or cultural group. In addition to dating, these artifacts can often be typed on the basis of where their makers obtained the source material, how far it moved, who else might have used it, and what was needed to produce the artifacts themselves.
In the course of writing this blog, the writer has noted the continuing interest generated by those articles pertaining to flint and chert sources in particular and to stone working in general. As an archeologist and as a flintworker with over twenty years of hands on expertise, I have decided to apply that knowledge to a brief listing of major flint sources in North America with which I am personally familiar, with the further view of helping others who might wish to make identifications in their own region of the movements and choices of particular chipped stone materials. This listing will by no means be a complete one, especially for those sources west of the Rocky Mountains with which the writer has little direct knowledge; but it will be fairly extensive in scope. In addition to providing the basic source names and locations for many generally known stone quarry and other source materials, I will attempt to also provide a brief description of each stone type which might prove helpful as both an identification tool and as a guide to quality and workmanship potential--both subjects which I feel more than reasonably well-qualified to express.
We will begin our little journey of major flint sources in the eastern U.S. The diversity of flint (Note: I will choose to use this generic term for all silica based stones of limestone origin, as is common practice, even if not truly accurate, as "chert" is the more accepted term) sources in this region is particularly important when viewing the long and extremely culturally diverse occupations throughout this area. Obviously, it is well known that major flint seams run across many states in the Midwest and mid-south, and these are often given local names in individual states or regions. We will attempt to work through some of this commonality and stick with major source names for these continuous seams of layered chert types where they are encountered.
ONANDAGA CHERT: Most commonly found throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania into upstate New York and beyond. Many individual quarry sites have been identified. Common features are a semi-glossy texture of medium to dark gray color, often in pebble form with whitish cortex. Sometimes this type makes up a large portion of river, or pebble, chert. Its distribution is quite extensive covering several hundred miles and seems to be a quite common choice of Middle Archaic and later peoples throughout the Northeast. It is of poor to good chipping quality. Heat treating can be applied for workability, but does not seem to be a feature of prehistoric use in general.
OHIO FLINTS AND CHERTS
I have chosen to give a separate category to Ohio area flints for several reasons. One, I am personally quite familiar with these materials and, two, they comprise some of the best and most used and traveled of all prehistoric source materials in the eastern U.S.
FLINT RIDGE: One of the best known flint quarry sources in all of America, Flint Ridge material was acquired only through subsurface quarrying. As a result, it is subject to heat treating as almost a requirement to make it workable, due to its very tough consistency. (Note: For a fuller discussion of heat treating please refer to an earlier article on this blog entitled Confessions of a Reformed Flintknapper and dated 10/11/2011. This subject is also addressed in the instructional video for Traditional Flintknapping which can be previewed and purchased directly through this website.) As a fairly deep pit is required to obtain this material, it does not appear to have been chosen for use much prior to Archaic times, although there are apparently some Paleo-Indian pieces here. Its basic color is white to off-white when quarried. However, flint ridge material is most readily identified by the brilliant colors (virtually the entire pastel palette) when fired. Bright reds, greens, oranges, and many other darker colors blend into the whites once fired, making it perhaps the most striking of all such quarried flints. Firing also results in an extremely glossy texture, another distinctive characteristic. Flint Ridge material is of good to excellent workability, once fired. Otherwise it is very tough and difficult to flake generally.
UPPER MERCER FLINTS: These are some of the most recognizable and distinctive of all eastern chert types. Individual quarry sources can often be readily identified by color and texture. Obviously part of the original deposits that include flint ridge in central Ohio, these sources are found mostly in eastern and east-south Ohio. In general, Upper Mercer (Mercer County being the type name) flints are characterized by narrower color ranges from medium gray with shades of blue to medium to dark bluish gray with cream colored streaking. COSHOCTON is the best known of this variety with its basic color being a dark blue-black with various shades of banded streaking. When fired, it is extremely glossy in texture, easily workable and was a favorite of Paleo-Indian and later peoples throughout the upper Ohio Valley and beyond. Another more localized variety, but also of high quality more towards southern Ohio is ZALESKI. This source is almost always a very glossy jet black when fired. However, it is characterized by distinctive orange flecking, rather than streaking, produced by the oxidizing out of small iron pyrites found in this particular source. Its distribution is less widespread, but the quality and workability is good to excellent, and it was also a favorite choice in all early periods.
OHIO BRUSH CREEK CHERTS: This is a generic name given to a large range of cherty limestone sources throughout southern Ohio and beyond. Ohio River Valley assemblages from early Archaic periods and later frequently contain a high percentage of artifacts from this broad collection of nondescript cherts. Early Archaic flintknappers seem to have had better knowledge of the best sources of this stone than later peoples. In general this stone is characterized by a medium buff to tan color with light green streaking, although grays and yellowish types are not uncommon. The pale green banding is, however, distinctive, and it appears this source material was easily obtained along the Ohio River counties and was also workable without heat treating, perhaps accounting for its desirability, despite its overall lack of quality. In terms of workability it is only poor to good, depending on the source location of the more easily accessed outcrops.
OHIO RIVER PEBBLE CHERTS: Late Prehistoric sites throughout the central Ohio Valley are often characterized by high percentages of so-called pebble cherts. These people chose to make very small projectile points for their arrows when widespread warfare made accessibility to more distant sources risky. Pebble cherts were obtained directly from deposits along the main river, washed down from many sources as far away as Pennsylvania. In general, brownish cobble cortex can be seen remaining, as the workability of these cherts is often very poor, despite their overall appearance of quality. However, many small artifacts of glossy and exotic materials can be found throughout the Ohio Valley area made from these pebble cherts.
WEST VIRGINIA: In general, two types of cherts are named from West Virginia sources. The most common and widespread of these materials is the well-known KANAWHA BLACK. Not even a chert, these are large depositional materials of layered non-limestone related materials. They are exclusively black, and often large tools will reveal significant whitish cortex. Often deposited by the prehistoric Teays River system throughout the central Ohio Valley/West Virginia region as large cobbles of irregular size and shape, the chippable black material is only revealed upon breaking into the whitish deposits. Additionally, extremely large blocks, often weighing several tons, can be found in the tributaries of the upper Kanawha River above Charleston, WV such as Campbell's Creek and Paint Creek. However, this material is generally of poor quality for chipping. Only the extremely weathered material that had been exposed for thousands of years was selected by Native American flintknappers. Sometimes the best of this material is quite glossy when flaked, but other samples indicate attempts to improve the workability by firing, with some redness revealed. However, firing does not seem to bring the glossiness or color range, due to the absence of pyrites and other inclusions. While useful to prehistoric peoples because of its widespread distribution and easy availability, it is of generally poor quality and difficult to work. The texture is reminiscent of slate or basalt, however, and it does produce a quality sharp edge when flaked. I have, however, seen excellent Early Archaic and even Paleo-Indian pieces of this material, indicating a high degree of competence on the part of those early flintknappers, as well as an intimate knowledge of the few good sources of this widespread material.. Another type of less common flint from central and eastern West Virginia is the LEWISBURG FLINT. This is a gray material similar in color and texture to the Onandaga described above, and is often misidentified as such. However, it is generally more of a cobble deposited chert with a quite grainy and difficult to flake nature, unless obtained directly from the few eastern WV deposits.
KENTUCKY: Because it shares the Ohio River, some Kentucky flints are often misidentified as Ohio types. In the southern part of the state, the large seams of good quality whitish/gray flints that run from Tennessee, through Missouri, and into Arkansas are also found. In eastern KY. along the river the most recognizable flint is CARTER COUNTY FLINT. This distinctive flint is found in the karst limestone pits of that county and is characterized by a honey-amber color that is unique to the region. It is also recognized and distinguished from some nearby brush creek varieties by the higher quality of its texture and by a quite distinct maroon flecking found only in this source material. Its workability is only fair to good. To the western part of the state along the river is the more widespread PAOLI deposit. This type, though not as glossy when fired, is easily characterized by its recognizable brilliant forest-green banding with oranges and other colors brought out when fired. Its workability can be good to very good, and the distribution of this type throughout the western part of the state is fairly consistent, although few pieces made their way far upriver. Additionally, the distribution along the northern parts of the state farther west of the so-called Kentucky or RED HORNSTONE is sometimes noted. While the color is distinctive, as indicated in the name, the actual depositional relationship to the more clearly defined Indiana variety described below is not always clear, since their ranges frequently overlap.
INDIANA: Perhaps the best chert to be found anywhere in the eastern U.S.--and the closest thing I believe to a true nodular flint of the European variant, is the famous INDIANA HORNSTONE OR HARRISON COUNTY FLINT. This material is found in large, round nodules in several locations within that county. It runs the color range from dull white (poorer quality) to the full range of grays from light to dark. It is glossy without firing and is some of the most workable raw material to be found. Other varieties of red and green, often referred to as hornstone are also identified in counties farther removed from the Ohio Valley counties in the interior of central and western Indiana. It was also a favorite of native peoples from Paleo times to late prehistoric, and its distribution several hundred miles from the quarry site is indicative of its desirability. This quality enabled unusually large artifacts to be chipped, and some of the best known flint caches in all of American archeology are of this distinctive gray material.
OTHER MIDWESTERN SOURCES: Throughout Illinois, western Indiana, Missouri, into Kansas, Iowa, and beyond, significant outcrops of high quality whitish gray flints are associated with many limestone deposits, both above ground and below. Those excavated cherts when fired frequently supply some of the best and most colorful flints to be found in all of North America. To the north in Illinois, the appearance of many shades of pinkish red and golds often characterize these very glossy cherts when properly fired. They are also easily workable and many fine early artifacts are made from these readily obtainable sources. Colors from dark brown to glossy tans can be observed in regional collections, with many brighter colors produced by heat treating in between. To the south and west, they tend to retain more of their medium to light gray basic color, but are also glossy and easily worked. The so-called "Gray Ghosts"--large chipped points sold by the inch! by modern reproduction methods are generally made from this high quality and easily found major flint seam running throughout much of the central states, with large seams in Tenn. and Arkansas well known to many knappers and collectors.
SOUTHERN SOURCES: Fewer distinctive quarry sites are found in the southeastern states. Generally, the gray and white seamed cherts are found wherever ancient limestone outcrops are located. Many of these south of Tennessee can be found along the Flint River in Georgia and along the Savannah River in South Carolina. The recently excavated and important Paleo-Indian Topper Site along that river in central SC is directly associated with one such source site for this easily obtainable and readily worked whitish chert. These sources are also inclusive of buff and yellowish varieties in the region as well. The lack of dependable source sites along the eastern seaboard of Virginia, the Carolinas, and elsewhere gave rise to the widespread use of rhyolite as a choice of necessity for stone tools in those areas. Quartzie and somewhat opaque in nature, these difficult to work materials are non-limestone related sources, and frequently poorly chipped, apparently low quality artifacts of Middle Archaic and later times are known. Several higher quality but more localized sources of various gray colors are found in the Appalachian mountains to the west in all of these states, however.
In the western states, layered cherts are available in great abundance in many regions east of the Rockies. Within the Rocky Mtn. area, as is well known, obsidian and chalcedonies were the main choice of all flintworkers. However, there are many fine sources of many agate quarry and source sites throughout the western plains states, and these colorful, but often difficult to flake, materials were common choices throughout Paleo and all later periods--even including the choice of colorful petrified woods where available. Two distinct quarry sites, however, have produced an abundance of artifacts and a distribution of source materials that frequently extended over several hundred square miles.
The first of these is the famous ALIBATES FLINT of the Texas panhandle. Part of the high quality outcrops of the Palo Duro Canyon region near Amarillo, these depositional flints are characterized by their easily recognizable medium gray color with very distinct combinations of contrasting maroon streaking and flecking. Very glossy in natura, context, good sized pieces can be easily flaked, especially if fired, and many quality artifacts of several prehistoric periods--including the Clovis Site only 150 miles away--are of this material. Throughout Texas many different gray and whitish seams of the typical limestone cherts of central U.S. are common. To the south nearer the Big Bend region some very nice quality medium and dark brown and gold cherts, also of fairly widespread distribution and use in Paleo times into central New Mexico are found.
The northern plains states are characterized by the distribution of a variety of sugary cherts of deceptively high quality and easy workability that come from pit quarries where these long-running, subsurface seams outcropped. The best known of these pit quarries is the SPANISH DIGGINGS site in Goshen County of eastern Wyoming. Nowhere is the variety of color as apparent as in these pit quarries. Every color of the rainbow, often in stones of fairly small size can be observed. However, the darker varieties of gold, brown, gray, and purple are the best for chipping. Many visits to these amazing quarry pits over the years revealed that prehistoric peoples from Paleo Indian onwards used this easily chipped stone. However, non-weathered varieties are poor and firing does little to improve workability. The quarry sites also contain many exotic agate and other 'brought-in' materials that are found along the slopes of the Rockies, indicating these quarries were not always a prime source for artifacts of high quality. However, the sugary, almost quartzie, texture is easily recognized and a great variety of artifacts in collections covering several hundred square miles from this locale makes this a site of major archeological importance.
Finally it should be noted that many other fine quality--and those of lesser use--material sources can be found throughout North America. Color, while often distinctive to the trained eye, can not always be absolutely a determinant of flint source as some have attempted to do in the past. Native Americans, I believe, chose their materials for many reasons--including esthetic ones at times--some of which this writer discussed in a previous blog entry on quarry sites. Surprisingly, ease of workmanship or quality of material was not always a determining factor, however; and we should be careful when making value judgments about prehistoric knappers' abilities based upon these choices. In fact, often these poorer quality materials required far more skill by those who chose to produce their "heirlooms of the past" from them than the higher quality but more difficult to prepare or obtain stones also at their disposal in many cases.
The writer hopes this extended listing will be of help to the many who have clicked onto this blog to peruse other entries having to do with this important and often overlooked archeological topic. As always your comments--and in this case your own entries regarding local sources in your area--are strongly encouraged
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NOTE: As a special incentive for the readers of this blog entry, anyone who makes a purchase of any of the six books in THE PEOPLE OF THE STONE saga--and refers SPECIFICALLY TO THIS BLOG ARTICLE by sending the author an email at the time of purchase--will receive with the paid shipment of his/her book a complimentary sample of several workable flint/chert pieces from a quarry of the author's choice mentioned in this article. ADDITIONALLY, a limited number of moose antler billets and other knapping tools are available for sale upon request with direct email contact through this site with the author.
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