FLINT QUARRIES: PREHISTORIC AMERICA'S NEGLECTED SITES

For the past twenty-five plus years while working professionally as both an archeologist and, later, as a professional and avocational flintknapper, this writer was privileged to visit and investigate many of the significant quarry sites that are to be found across much of North America.  The generalized use of the term "Flint" to categorize the various non-volcanic stones which comprise the source material for prehistoric America's rich technological tradition, from Clovis onwards, has often caused confusion when dealing with these important sites.  While it is true that the use of the term "Chert" is perhaps a more sound geological form for referring to much of America's prehistoric quarry sources, we have come to apply the word Flint as a more recognizable and generic term for all types of silica/limestone, and even non limestone layered, nodular, or 'other' materials.  Therefore, at the risk of incurring the displeasure of geologists, archeologists, and other 'purists', for the sake of this blog entry, I will apply the flint appellation in its broadest form.

                                                                            QUARRY SITES

Many different types of quarrying activity can be documented across the continent.  However, the main areas of interest appear to be in those heavy limestone strata that outcrop throughout much of the central U.S.  Other, harder stones from both layered strata, as well as surface depositions can also be classified as flint sources.  There can be no doubt, however, that there is a direct correlation across time with the presence and availability of high quality stone source material and the density of archeological/cultural remains.  This is especially of note as later cultures became less mobile than earlier, hunter/gatherer ones, but remained dependent on stone sources for their own technology, trade, etc.                                                                                                                       We can look at quarry sites from several perspectives.  Some of these involved extensive digging and processing of subsurface deposits.  Classic among these are Flint Ridge, Ohio and the great pit sites of Spanish Diggings, Wyoming.  Other sites were more surface in nature, requiring little more than breaking up surface deposits or minimal digging activities.  These sites would include those associated with the famous Indiana Hornstone (Harrison Co. flint as it is often called), Alibates flint (Texas Panhandle), and Carter Co. Kentucky, to name only a few significant sites.  A third type would be large depositional remains of non-silica based stones such as the Kanawha Black "Flint" of Kanawha Co., West Virginia and the many chalcedony, agates (pertrified wood, for example) and other surface deposits  found throughout the western states.  The author has personally investigated all of the above mentioned sites at one time or another, and several basic elements of quarrying activity and other site relationship have become apparent.  No one can deny that these quarried stones provided the essential, basic technology for thousands of years and that much of the variety, as well as many similarities, spread across time and space can be attributed to the excellent quality and availability of so much useful material in so many places.  In those regions where natural deposits were less abundant (Southeastern U.S. for example), there is often a direct correlation with the absence of some site densities in many time periods, as well as a more conservative approach to both knapping techniques and stylistic innovation.

                                THE FLINTKNAPPER'S ART:  THE PROOF IS IN THE STONES

As someone who learned to 'knap' flint many years ago on some of the toughest of the so-called 'non-flint' cherts (in my case it was Kanawha Black) and then progressed to Hornstone--which may be some of the best of all and the closest thing to true, nodular flint--this writer can attest to the value prehistoric stone workers placed upon their source material. It is no coincidence that the most mobile of all early peoples, the Paleo-Indians, were also the most selective of the best source material for their difficult, at times even delicate, flintknapping technique (i.e. the fluted point).  As has been shown in the recently reported Clovis caches from around the country, some of these fine pieces were made of source material that had moved hundreds of miles from the quarry sites. (Note: Since each deposit is somewhat different, most sources have some distinctive, easily identifiable feature--maroon streaks in Alibates, honey amber coloring in Carter Co. Ky., etc.--that makes it possible for the experienced eye to quickly identify source locations.)  In the Ohio Valley, where this writer is most familiar with the various Ohio sources (generally categorized as Upper Mercer Flints) it is possible to pinpoint individual quarry sources with great accuracy (orange flecks in the classic Zaleski black from southern Ohio, for example).  However, in the Ohio Valley, because of the mixture of so many peoples at different times (this phenomenon is stressed time and again in the author's People of the Stone series of books, set primarily in this region) the sheer variety of source materials, both locally and imported, can be quite mind-boggling.  Indiana hornstone, for example, frequently moved well over 250 miles upriver, just as easily as the multi-colored flint ridge material moved equal distances in the opposite direction.

                There can be no doubt, however, that selection of material was always a prime consideration.  When people could move or trade for better flint. they did so.  When they could not, they resorted to less desirable local, even marginal quality source materials, remade old tools, downsized their stylistic preferences, or resorted to cobble material from stream beds even.  It is no coincidence that post Paleo flintknapping became less complicated, as well as less impressive in size, primarily due to the loss of access to important sources.  Just as obvious, it was not until the widespread trading networks of the Adena, Hopewell, and other early moundbuilding cultures of the greater Midwest that we see a return to larger, finely chipped blades, caches, and other tools, of more impressive size and quality.  All things being equal, the prehistoric flintknapper, like anyone else, would have preferred the highest quality material.  If this was no longer available to him he made do, both in terms of size and stylistic simplicity at times.  When material was available, he, like his wide-ranging ancestors, showed off his skills.  Can it be a coincidence that in later times when populations grew and warfare and other limiting factors influenced quarry site access that we see a drastic downsizing in the weapons and tools, virtually across the board?  

                   QUARRY SITES AS CULTURAL INDICATORS OR PREDICTORS

As alluded to above, it should be possible to correlate many cultural features or behaviors with the presence or the movements of quarry source materials in some areas.  In the Midwest, for example, the percentages of flaked stone remains from quarry locations at fifty, one hundred, or two hundred plus miles should give a better picture of when and how certain archeological horizons or phases came into being, moved, or changed.  What were their trading networks?  How did outside stylistic or technological changes come into being in a given area, and how did the quality, or lack thereof, of available flints influence such change?  What is the relationship and statistical correlation of permanent versus seasonal sites within a given distance to known quarries at different times in the past?  Can trade networks or diffusion patterns be established strictly on the basis of the movements of flint materials?  These are all questions that large archeological and settlement pattern projects sometimes include in their mission statements, but at other times fail to investigate.  The importance of something as simple as flint has often been overlooked by archeologists.             But as an archeologist, who also became an accomplished flintknapper (who produced literally thousands of different reproductions of tools and weapons) I was often struck by how many other professionals took little time to explore the actual technologies and techniques of the ancient peoples they investigated. Working a piece of 'flint' requires the flintknapper to get inside the head of the ancient peoples who depended upon the stone.  Each piece is different, and more often than not it is the stone that dictates the form it will take, rather than the knapper and some pre-conceived mental template that will result in what we can call a "Type Artifact".  Many pieces often classified as transitional points are just as likely to be what I call 'knapping template errors' due to source material limitations that could have been produced at any period during a particular stylistic horizon.  At times, nothing is more difficult in flintknapping than to make a specific style of piece from a particular grade of stone.  The relationship of stylistic change to quarry access or proximity is another area that modern research methods might look to investigate.  This should be done with an eye toward discovering new relationships, perhaps, with our prehistoric ancestors and the environment they either controlled or adapted their own lives to at various times in the past and in ways we have not yet fully comprehended.

As its title implies, the author's six part People of the Stone saga of prehistoric America, from the end of the Ice Age to the coming of the first Europeans, relies heavily on the interpretation of this relationship with early man and the stone that formed the essential element of his functional technology.  The first novel in the series, THE STONE BREAKERS, is a particularly close look at this critical relationship and how the introduction of a new technology (in this case the Clovis fluted point) could alter the course of an entire people.  In this novel stone quarries the author is personally familiar with form an important backdrop at one or more key points in the story, and it is no coincidence that the visit to one such place by one of the main characters is a reflection of an actual personal, even somewhat emotional, experience that occurred during a flint quarry visit of my own some years ago.

As avocational and hobby flintknapping continues to grow more and more, people will seek to find known and unknown quarry locations across the country.  This has already endangered some less well-protected sites as scavengers and others attack these quarry sites with renewed vigor to gain access to quality source material for their own efforts.  While material such as obsidian is both easy to obtain and good for traditional methods by both skilled and unskilled knappers, other important sources are at risk.  Some of these locations have already been removed from traditional map sources, and it is to be hoped that the interested amateur and professional groups spend more of their preservation efforts on these important and under appreciated or barely studied sites.  Few experiences in my past archeological work have compared with the emotional rush and eye-opening research possibilities of walking upon a relatively undisturbed ancient quarry site where campsites, workshops, and other activities are still discernible.  The loss of such pristine places is a permanent one, but is something that can be prevented, in some remote areas, much easier than the preservation of virtually any other type of site for the same amount of effort and cost.

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