That’s not a knife! This is a knife. Or is it?

By: Andy Martin

Today we’re talking about one of the less-discussed pieces of the Native American/pre-contact tool kit…the knife. There has been seemingly endless amounts of ink spilled about projectile points and axes and pottery but believe me (I’ve looked) there’s a lot less out there about knives, particularly in the mid-Atlantic.

Knives would have been every bit as crucial to the pre-contact tool kit as the above-mentioned artifacts, so where are they?  The short answer is that knives are definitely present on prehistoric archaeological sites, but not necessarily in the way we think of knives today.

First off, let’s touch on an important topic. Until the bow and arrow became widespread around 1,300 years ago, your safest bet when identifying a stone tool that has been bifacially worked (flaked to a cutting edge on both sides) is to call it a “biface.” Want to get more specific? Let’s call it a hafted biface (that’s the term I dig personally). Hafted simply means attached to a handle (or haft).  The hafted bifaces shown below (Photo 1) are beautiful examples from Texas showing what we mean by hafted biface.

Photo 1: Example of Hafted Bifaces (Texas Beyond History 2020).

 

Hafted biface is a broad but useful term covering both hafted cutting tools like knives and projectile points (bifaces meant to be thrown or shot at something). To further muddy the waters, hafted bifaces are what could be called ‘long-life tools.’ Making a biface is labor and time intensive, so these tools would often have different uses over their lives. A tool might begin its life as projectile point, but due to damage or the need to perform a different task, it might then be repurposed as a knife or a drill. This is where it’s important to try and think different about the tools people used in the past. Today, a knife is a knife (except for you Simpsons fans out there when it is actually a spoon, in which case we can see you’ve played knifey/spooney before). But a tool might segway from a spear point to a knife and eventually to a drill or an awl (a small pointed tool for piercing or puncturing holes) as damage and need dictated.

So if a hafted biface can be used as both a knife or projectile point, how do we go about determining which it is?

In incredibly rare instances, it’s obvious because the hafted biface in question has been found still attached to their bone or wooden handles. Unfortunately, such finds are uncommon because soil conditions in the mid-Atlantic aren’t very conducive to preserving organic materials like wood or bone. Intact hafted tools are usually recovered from oxygen-free, muddy environments like river bottoms or bogs, or dry environments like caves. On the coastal plain, where our site was located, the chemical composition of shell middens can also preserve organic materials. So, if we aren’t finding knives still attached to their handles, how do we figure out if something is a knife or a projectile point?

Looking carefully at the edge of the tool to see how it was used is probably the best…wait for it….tool in our arsenal for determining how a hafted biface was used.  In the case of projectile points, such as arrowheads or spearheads, you see very specific types of damage such as impact fractures—cracks that result from an arrow or spear striking a target or the ground resulting in a tip or other fragment breaking off. A great example of this is the Brewerton Corner Notched projectile point in the photo below (Photo 2, center artifact). On hafted bifaces that were used as knives you tend to get very different type of damage relating to a prying or twisting motions; this damage is referred to as a “transverse fracture.” You will also see damage on the sides of the tool related to the knife being used in a sawing motion.

Photo 2: These Projectile Points Were All Recovered from a Site in Northern Delaware. From left to right, we have a possible Bare Island, a Brewerton Corner Notched, and a Poplar Island. Recent research has shown that Bare Island and Poplar Island projectile points appear to have been in use from the Late Archaic (starting about 5,000 years ago) to the Middle Woodland (ending about 1,000 years ago) periods. The Brewerton Corner Notched point has a tighter date range of 5100-4300 years ago, within the Late Archaic period.

 

Let’s take all this data and apply it to an artifact Dovetail recently found in Delaware. First a word about our hafted biface. It’s about 47.46 cm long and 14.78 cm wide, or a little longer and thicker than a golf tee (Photo 3). It’s made of jasper, a stone found in many streams and rivers in the mid-Atlantic as well as in quarry sites in both Pennsylvania and Delaware. One such quarry site in Delaware is just a few days walk from where our artifact was recovered. As seen in the photo below, it is narrow and has serrated edges on both sides of the tool. It has also been “heat treated,” as evident by the purple base. Purposefully exposing stone to heat for a long period of time makes certain stones easier to work. The Brewerton Corner notched projectile point, pictured above, is a beautiful example of a heat-treated (also referred to as thermally altered) stone tool.

Photo 3: Thermally Altered Hafted Biface Found in Delaware by Dovetail.

 

So is the artifact in Photo 3 a knife? We think it is, and this analysis comes down to use wear. First you can see the fracture on the distal (or top) end of the hafted biface and it appears to be more of a snap or transverse fracture than an impact fracture. This means that the point may have broken while it was being used to cut or pry something as opposed to striking a target or the ground. Second, the serrations and damage along the sides of the tool makes it likely that our biface is a knife. It’s possible that our knife began its life as a more traditional-looking projectile point and broke before being further worked and used as a knife.

So, the next time someone tells you “that’s not a knife, this is a knife,” you can tell them “it’s certainly a hafted biface, now let’s check the sides for use wear!”

Any distributions of blog content, including text or images, should reference this blog in full citation. Data contained herein is the property of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and its affiliates.

References:

Texas Beyond History
2020    Texas Beyond History. Electronic document https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/trans-p/images/Carved-Rock-hafted- bifaces.html, accessed May 2021.

Making Stone Tools the Hardaway

Making Stone Tools the Hardaway: A Paleoindian Artifact from the Graceland Site, Randolph County, North Carolina

By Joe Blondino

It’s no surprise that archaeologists like old things. That’s why we get particularly excited when we find artifacts dating to the Paleoindian period, which spans from at least as early as 12,000 BC (Carr 2018, Carr and Adovasio 2002, Goodyear 2005) to approximately 8,000 BC (Ward and Davis 1999). This period represents the earliest occupation of North America, when people were settling into new environments that would ultimately shape the way their culture and technology evolved in different parts of the continent.

For September we will look at a Paleoindian artifact that continues our series highlighting materials recovered from the Asheboro Bypass Project in Randolph County, North Carolina. Among the sites identified during this project was the Graceland site (31RD1568). Dovetail Cultural Resource Group conducted excavations at this site on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), guided by the Scope of Work authored by NCDOT (Overton 2015) and coordination between Dovetail, NCDOT, and the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology. The majority of the 3,661 artifacts recovered from the site date to the Morrow Mountain and Guilford phases of the Middle Archaic period, spanning a date range from approximately 5,000 to 3,000 BC (Blondino and Proper 2018). However, a Hardaway side-notched point dating to the late Paleoindian period indicates that the site was being used much earlier. Excavations at the Slade site in southeastern Virginia suggest a date range of 8,250–8,050 BC for the Hardaway phase (McAvoy and McAvoy 1997), making these points approximately 10,000 years old!

Hardaway side-notch point photo

Hardaway side-notched point from the Graceland site.

The Hardaway point from the Graceland site is made of a metavolcanic rock common to this part of North Carolina and quarried by the prehistoric occupants of the site as a material from which to make projectile points and other stone tools. The site itself is located on a slight slope near a natural drainage which channels surface water during heavy rain. As a result, there is more erosion here than in nearby areas, exposing the bedrock and making it easier to get to. The distribution of artifacts across the site suggests that people were obtaining stone from near the drainage, where it could be found closer to the surface, and then taking it up to the flatter land above to work it into tools. Prehistoric people would visit sites like this when their stone toolkit was in need of rejuvenation. Stone tools like projectile points and knives can be re-sharpened, but this process removes material, and eventually the tool is too small to be used and simply must be replaced. It is likely that this was the case with the Graceland Hardaway point. You might notice from the photograph that the point is a little lopsided- if you look at the tip of the point, it is not directly above the center of the base. This often happens because the point has been re-sharpened more on one side than on the other, perhaps because it was being used more as a knife than as a projectile point. When its owner visited the Graceland site during the late Paleoindian period, they may have made themselves a new point (or a few of them), and simply discarded this one, only to have Dovetail archaeologists find it again 10,000 years later. Now that’s doing things the Hardaway!

Graceland Excavation Site - Image

Excavations at the Graceland site. The Hardaway point was recovered from the excavation unit under the canopy on the right.

 

 

Any distributions of blog content, including text or images, should reference this blog in full citation. Data contained herein is the property of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and its affiliates.

References:

Blondino, Joseph R. and Earl E. Proper
2018    Addendum: Archaeological Survey and Testing of Newly Defined Areas of Potential Effects for the Asheboro Bypass, Randolph County, North Carolina. Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Carr, Kurt
2018    Peopling of the Middle Atlantic: A Review of Paleoindian Research. In Middle Atlantic Prehistory: Foundations and Practice, edited by Heather A. Wholey, and Carole L. Nash, pp. 219–260. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

Carr, K.W., and J.M. Adovasio
2002    Paleoindians in Pennsylvania. In Ice Age Peoples of Pennsylvania, edited by Kurt Carr and James Adovasio, pp. 1–50. Recent Research in Pennsylvania Archaeology, No. 2. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Goodyear, Albert C.
2005    Evidence of Pre-Clovis Sites in the Eastern United States. In Paleoamerican Origins: Beyond Clovis, pp. 103–112. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

McAvoy, Joseph M. and Lynn D. McAvoy
1997    Archaeological Investigations of Site 44SX202, Cactus Hill, Sussex County. Virginia Department of Historic Resources Research Report Series n. 8, Richmond, Virginia.

Overton, Brian
2015    Request for Proposal: Intensive Archaeological Survey and Evaluation, Asheboro U.S. 64 Bypass. North Carolina Department of Transportation, Human Environment Section, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Ward, H. Trawick, and R.P. Stephen Davis Jr.
1999    Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. The University of North Caroloina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

What’s Your Point?

Featured Fragment – Arrowheads, Spear Points, and Knives

By Joe Blondino 

When you think of Native American artifacts, one of the first things that probably come to mind are arrowheads. But did you know that most of the artifacts that people call “arrowheads” were not actually used on arrows? Although eastern North America has been occupied for over 13,000 years, the bow and arrow was not introduced into our region until the last 1,500 years or so. The “arrowheads” from before that time are more likely spear points, knives, or tips for atlatl (spearthrower) darts. Because it is often difficult to tell exactly what these artifacts were used for, archaeologists often refer to them as projectile points, PP/Ks (projectile point/knives), or simply as “points.” Many of these tools were probably multipurpose, serving as projectile points, knives, or whatever other kind of edged tool that was needed at the time. They were even re-sharpened like modern tools, and sometimes their use would change as they got smaller and smaller after repeated re-sharpening.

joe

Using an atlatl. The atlatl (pronounced ”at-lattle”) essentially acts as an extension of the arm. In physics terms, this makes a longer lever, which makes it possible to apply greater force to the spear or dart. The atlatl basically pushes the butt of the spear or dart with more force than could be applied with the arm alone, thus making it go farther and faster.

atlatl_final

An atlatl. The butt of the spear or dart would rest against the spur at the end of the atlatl. These spurs could be made of wood, stone, or bone, or carved into the atlatl itself.

So how do we know when we can use the term “arrowhead” properly? Fortunately, it is pretty simple! Prior to the introduction of the bow and arrow, most projectile points and knives had some form of stem or notching around the base. Archaeologists refer to this as the “hafting element” because it is what allows the point to be attached firmly to a spear shaft or knife handle. However, these hafting elements make the points too big and heavy to make good arrowheads. As a result, true arrowheads are triangular and relatively small—less than 2 inches long. The base of the triangle is often thin and concave (angled in) so that it can be inserted into a thin notch in the arrow shaft, but there is no stem or outward notch on the arrowhead itself. These triangular points are an indication of the use of the bow and arrow, and along with certain types of pottery, are one of the hallmarks of the Late Woodland Period (circa A.D. 900–1600). True arrowheads aren’t as common as you might expect them to be. If you think about it, though, it makes perfect sense—people only used them for about the last 1,500 years as opposed to the thousands of years before that when Native Americans were using the stemmed and notched points and knives that most people are used to seeing. As a result, there are a lot more stemmed and notched points in the archaeological record simply because they were used for a much longer time. So next time you see an “arrowhead,” try to figure out if it really would have been used on an arrow and, if not, think about all the other things it could have been used for!

points_final

A stemmed point (left) and a triangular point (right). The stemmed base of the point on the left would have facilitated hafting to a handle or spear shaft. Once attached, it could have been used as a projectile point or as a knife. The triangular point on the right is a true arrowhead. Its thin tip was ideal for penetrating the flesh of an animal, but wouldn’t have made a very good knife.

Any distributions of blog content, including text or images, should reference this blog in full citation. Data contained herein is the property of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and its affiliates.