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.

What’s THAT Doing HERE? Unexpected Discoveries at the Strawberry Run Site in Alexandria, Virginia

By Joe Blondino

In June 2019, Dovetail conducted an archaeological survey of a project area located along Strawberry Run in Alexandria, Virginia. At first, the project area seemed like it might not have much to offer. Most of the project area was located along the banks of a stream, a narrow and frequently inundated floodplain, and steep slopes to the uplands—none of which make particularly good places to live. However, the ravine in which it was located lies between two Civil War forts: Fort Worth to the northwest and Fort Williams to the east. Largely because of the potential for the project area to contain Civil War artifacts, a Phase I archaeological survey was conducted and included use of metal detectors, which is a proven way to locate Civil War artifacts.

Initially, the metal detector survey located only modern trash. The shovel test pits, on the other hand, produced prehistoric artifacts, including a projectile point dating to the Middle Archaic period (circa 8,000–5,500 years ago). The biggest surprise came as the crew was crossing the stream to access the western part of the project area; they looked down into the streambed and saw a large edged cobble! This was a piece of quartzite that someone in the prehistoric period had chipped into a “preform”—a roughly shaped “blank” that could later be modified into a finished stone tool (Photo 1). We spent much of the remainder of the day scouring the banks of the stream and finding a considerable number of artifacts that represented prehistoric populations taking advantage of the cobbles eroding out of the banks of the stream and using them to produce preforms. These preforms would then be carried off to be made into finished tools elsewhere. We thought we might find Civil War artifacts, but had stumbled across an entirely different type of site! Because no other sites like this were known to be located nearby, we saw this as an opportunity to learn more about prehistoric quartzite “quarrying” and recommended additional archaeological work.

Photo 1: Quartzite Biface Recovered from Site 44AX0240.

The results of the Phase II study, which involved digging additional test pits, as well as a few larger test units, revealed that prehistoric activity at the site was mostly restricted to the streambed itself, with relatively little on the adjacent floodplain. But we also got another surprise. Several of the test pits produced fired Civil War bullets. Now we have Civil War stuff on our prehistoric site! So, we got the metal detector back out. In all, we recovered eight lead projectiles including a Civil War-era Minié ball, five round balls, and two pieces of buckshot, all of which had been fired and impacted (Photo 2). This was a bit of a mystery too, as no battles were fought in the vicinity of the site, and the projectiles were all recovered from the valley floor rather than the steep valley walls, as might be expected if the site was used as a firing range with the valley walls as a backstop. We believe that the projectiles may represent unloading of firearms, as they were all of types that would have been fired from muzzle-loading weapons. Once such a firearm is loaded, it can be unloaded only through extraction using a “worm,” a corkscrew-like tool that taps into the projectile so it can be pulled out of the muzzle (Photo 3), or through discharge of the weapon. It may be the case that soldiers from one or both of the nearby forts used the Strawberry Run valley as a convenient and safe place to unload weapons by discharging them into the valley floor, perhaps during changing of guardpost personnel or when loaded weapons required maintenance.

Photo 2: Minié Ball and Round Musket Balls Recovered from Site 44AX0240.

Photo 3: Example of a ‘Pulled’ Bullet Showing Hole Where it was ‘Wormed’.

Dovetail’s work at the Strawberry Run Site is an excellent example of the kinds of unexpected discoveries that are often made in archaeology and goes to show the importance of thorough examination of all parts of the landscape. You never know what you’re going to find!

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.

Don’t Lose Your Temper Over Pottery – You Just Have to Find the Right Cord!

Featured Fragment – Prehistoric Pottery Shred

By Dr. Mike Klien

Image Showing Albermarle-Type Prehistoric Pottery.

In honor of Archaeology Month we would like to highlight this sherd of prehistoric pottery recovered by Dovetail during a survey in Southside, Virginia. This Albermarle-type prehistoric pottery has large inclusions of crushed quartz and has an impressed design on the exterior. The design was created with cords that were wrapped around a wooden paddle to create the textured surface. These characteristics indicate that it was manufactured between about 600 and 1200 A.D. It is difficult to say much more about a single sherd, but when numerous sherds are recovered from an archaeological site, pottery provides insight into the lives of the women who made the pots (as ethnographic research has shown that woman made most of the native pottery) and social relations within and between communities. The visibility of the attributes of the pots and the importance of pots as tools for cooking and storage are keys to interpreting pottery, and hence past societies.

The temper, the rock or shell that makes the clay more workable and reduces the likelihood that the pot will crack during manufacture or use, provides information about where the pot was manufactured. For example, oyster shell occurs only near the coast, while limestone is widely available in the Shenandoah Valley, but less common east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The twist direction of the cords used to impress the pot, difficult to see in the pot itself and even in the cords without close inspection, is, like the way a person ties shoelaces, generally learned and not changed over the course of a life. Therefore, the twist mark provides insight into learning networks within and between settlements.

Image Showing Use of Wooden Paddle to Create Cord-Marked Impression on Pot (Texas Beyond History 2016).

Measurements of the curvature of the sherd reflect the size and shape of the pot. For example, straight walls, particularly near the rim, occur on wide-mouthed jars. In contrast, a narrow neck reduces ease of access, but enhances boiling for soups and stews, similar to putting a lid on a cooking pot. If charred remains occur on the sherd, the foods cooked in the pot can be identified, and radiocarbon dating (a way to determine the age of organic objects) can provide a relatively precise estimate of when the pot was manufactured and used.

Elaborate decoration typically occurs only on the rim of pots. Because there is no functional importance of the decoration, examination of decoration on many pots serves as a window into social relations within individual communities and across regions. So, while fragments of pottery are often grouped together and used to estimate the date of sites, close analysis of the individual attributes can provide insight into many aspects of life in societies.

For more detailed information on the manufacture and use of similar pots, visit these websites:

http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/villagers/cordmarked/

http://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/PrehistoricCeramics/index-prehistoric.html

 

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
2016 Making Cordmarked Pottery. http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/villagers/cordmarked/images/cord-main2.jpg, accessed October 2017.

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.