Almost two weeks ago, the students in the Hatch Site field school had the misfortune to witness the art of the flintknapper as demonstrated by yours truly; possibly the world’s worst practitioner. This came about due to a schedule conflict for Susanne Haney, my colleague and friend in Indiana Pa, who is a real flintknapper. That said, I do know more about it than the students, and I’m an accomplished talker (some would say BS artist), and since I got through it without smashing a finger or cutting my hand or otherwise making a spectacle of myself, I managed to carry it off nicely.
At manufacturing sites like the Hatch Site, and indeed at most stone age sites, the overwhelming majority of artifacts are termed flakes or sometimes, debitage (a French term: many pioneering archaeologists in the 20th century were French). A good analog might be the workshop floor of a woodcarver. There are no finished carvings to be found there, but many, many shavings. While the ubiquitous debitage doesn’t seem particularly impressive, close study reveals much about how it came to be.
Modern flintknappers have reconstructed the prehistoric techniques and processes. This begins with the removal of the outer rind from a rough nodule of material, to reveal the smooth and glassy interior. This work is done with a large and heavy hammerstone, and is called primary reduction. The results are large flakes (usually bigger than an inch or more) with cortex (the outer rind of the nodule) visible, and the roughly prepared piece of raw material, called a core. The flintknapper then switches to smaller hammerstones and batons, and begins to methodically reduce the core. This involves preparing the edges of the core to allow for the efficient and successful removal of material (aka setting up a platform) and then carefully striking flakes off the core. The result are somewhat smaller flakes with no visible cortex, and often with small remnants of the platform still visible at the precise spot where the blow fell. These are middle stage or secondary stage flakes, and the larger examples can become tools themselves. The core and the larger flakes are then further reduced and thinned with smaller and lighter hammers producing smaller and thinner debitage as the bifaces are brought to an oval shape (a blank). These blanks are then either taken away for trade or stored for later final reduction, or they are immediately reduced to finished tools. Final sharpening is actually accomplished with the tip of an antler tine or sharp bone and simple pressure. Pressure flaking, i.e. pushing small flakes of the edges of a nearly finished tool, produces a durable and sharp serrated edge, and very tiny flakes (1/8 inch or smaller). These small flakes resulting from final shaping and then sharpening are final stage or tertiary debitage.
It’s worth noting that at this point in the excavation, it appears that the bulk of the artifacts being recovered at the Hatch Site are middle stage biface thinning flakes. The picture that is starting to emerge is of a workshop dedicated to the production of thinned blanks rather than the final production of tools or the initial roughing out of larger chunks of raw material. We will see if final analysis of the artifacts supports this impression or not.
Another obvious feature of many of the Hatch Site flakes is their red color. This is a result of the intentional exposure of the jasper to heat. Heat treating tempers the material, increasing its durability and making it behave more predictably during the reduction process. As part of my foray into the world of the flintknapper, I decided to conduct an experiment in heat treatment.
As part of my research into the proper method, I was first instructed in how NOT to do it. A colleague explained that his first attempt was at a camping outing with family and friends. This outing may have involved the consumption of a moderate amount of strong drink. Just before retiring to his tent for the night my colleague remembered he had a good sized chunk of jasper in the back of his truck, and thought he might make good use of the remains of the evening campfire to heat treat it. Without a second thought, he tossed the nodule into the hot coals, and then went to brush his teeth.
Now it happens that jasper nodules often contain fine cracks just like the sedimentary rocks they form in, and it also happens that these cracks may contain some water. Heat, of course, converts water to steam, and steam expands rapidly in a tight or closed space.
Soon there was a terrific report, and the air was suddenly filled with jasper shrapnel and flaming coals, along with shrieks, swearing and the barking of dogs! Mercifully, no one was injured, but it produced a good deal of excitement in the campground, and was also a very teachable moment.
Armed with this knowledge, I took a palm sized bifacial jasper core I somehow succeeded in producing, and packed it in sand inside a coffee can. I placed the coffee can into the bed of coals in my charcoal grill in the evening, and the next morning I found the brownish-yellow core was now a uniform brick red. I have yet to attempt further reduction, but I’ll do so soon, and report back on the results.
A final note on flintknapping. In any and every Stone Age settlement and encampment, while all the residents undoubtedly understood flintknapping, there were certainly experts. It’s very likely that these experts were able to barter their expertise to their friends, neighbors and kin in exchange for food, clothing and other good and useful things. Flintknappers were very likely among the very first entrepreneurs and part or full-time professionals. They were the vanguard of a cultural evolution that gave us a world of auto mechanics, software designers, football coaches, chefs, EMT’s, office administrators, and yes, archaeologists. They were among our first toddling steps toward a modern economic system dominated by specialists and by trade. The archaeologist’s window into the past doesn’t just allow us to look in on our predecessors, but also to peer at our own reflection. Actually, it’s not a window, it’s a mirror.