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.

A “Killer” Artifact for Babies

A Partial Bone Disc Recovered from the Houston-LeCompt Site

By Sara Rivers Cofield and Kerry S. González

This month we are going to revisit an artifact that Dovetail recovered from their data recovery excavations at the Houston-LeCompt site in New Castle County, Delaware. This work was sponsored by the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) as part of the DelDOT Route 301 study. Thousands of artifacts were recovered during the fieldwork, some of which have been discussed in previous blog posts (see April 2016, December 2015, January 2015, and March 2017). For this blog, we not only have a guest author, Sara Rivers-Cofield, Federal Curator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab), but we are unabashedly highlighting an artifact we misidentified in 2013.

When Sara took on an analysis of the clothing-related artifacts from the Houston-LeCompt site in 2014, she photographed this partial bone disc (Photo 1) because she thought it might have been a button mold. One-holed bone discs were often used for making thread- or cloth-covered buttons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the holes for such buttons were usually much smaller. For that reason, this artifact was not included in Sara’s subsequent analysis and report.

Photo 1: Partial bone disc from the Houston-LeCompt site
(Test Unit 80, Feature 18, Strat. I, Lev. 2).

 

As it turns out, leaving the artifact out of the clothing analysis was the right decision. Earlier this year Sara was researching artifacts online when she stumbled across an Australian archaeological report showing several similar discs labeled as “bone feeding bottle nipple guards” (Stocks 2013:79, 110, 161, 184). It was an “aha” moment because she had seen nineteenth-century baby bottles that had long tubes with a nipple at the end (Photo 2). The bottles are famous for having been difficult to clean and therefore a perfect breeding ground for bacteria that led to illness and death for many infants. As a result, the bottles were nicknamed “murder bottles” and eventually were removed from the market (Baby Bottle Museum 2016). By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, other materials like rubber and celluloid were available for bottle nipples, however according to the 1902 and 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogs some guards were still made of bone (Figures 1-2).

Photo 2: Many babies were photographed with their bottles, perhaps to keep them happy and still for the photo session (Parent24 2018).

 

Figure 1: Disc-shaped nipple guards can be seen on bottles, nipple shields, and teething rings in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck Catalog. The description of the glass nipple shield specifies that the guard is made of bone (Sears, Roebuck Co. 1902:454).

 

Figure 2: Two teething rings/pacifiers featured in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalog specify that the nipple guard is made of bone (Schroeder 1971:794).

 

It was exciting to have a lead on that tricky bone disc that she remembered from Houston-LeCompt. Not long after this discovery, Sara found a complete bone guard in a collection from the City of Baltimore that had just been delivered to the MAC Lab, and this example even has a rubber lining remaining in the ring (Photo 3). No doubt there are many more of these in collections that have never been properly identified.

Now that we can recognize these bone discs for what they are, it is possible to connect the Houston-LeCompt site to an interesting era in the history of parenthood when new bottles were designed to make parents’ lives easier by letting babies feed themselves. How awful it must have been for parents to realize that their adoption of these convenient feeders could have such deadly consequences.

This artifact is just one example of the importance of retaining archaeological collections. Human beings have made an amazingly diverse array of products, and it just isn’t possible for any one archaeologist to know about them all. Archaeology is an ongoing learning process that keeps going once the initial written report is finished.

 

Photo 3: Complete nipple guard with surviving rubber in the center. From the Albemarle Rowhouse site (18BC50/40H-292).

 

 

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:

Baby Bottle Museum
2016   Murder Bottles: Baby feeding bottles that could kill. Electronic document, http://www.babybottle-museum.co.uk/murder-bottles/, accessed November 2018.

Parent24
2018    Timeline: From ‘killer bottles’ to baby cages, weird and wonderful baby gadgets from the past, electronic document, https://www.parent24.com/Baby/Fun/timeline-from-killer-bottles-to-baby-cages-here-are-baby-gadgets-from-the-past-20180522. Accessed August 2018.

Schroeder, Joseph J., Jr, editor
1971    Sears, Roebuck & Co. 1908, Catalogue No. 117: A Treasured Replica from the Archives of History. DBI Books, Inc., Northfield, Illinois.

Sears, Roebuck Co.
1902    The 1902 Edition of the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue. 1986 Edited reprint by Bounty Books, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, New York.

Stocks, Robyn
2013    Miscellaneous, Organics and Non-structural Metals Report: Darling Quarter, Darling Harbor. Vol. 3, Section 8.2 of the Casey & Lowe Darling Harbor report. Electronic document, http://www.caseyandlowe.com.au/pdf/darlingquarter/DarlingQuarter_Volume_3_Section_8.2_Misc_Report_Part1.pdf, accessed November 2018.

Frog Legs: The Other White Meat

A Wrought Iron Frog Gig Recovered in Randolph County, North Carolina

By Kerry S. González

People have been consuming frog legs for centuries. In 2013 National Geographic reported that 10,000-year-old cooked frog bones were found in England , long before the French were first documented as eating frog legs (Zuckerman 2013). According to cookbooks from the eighteenth century frog legs were part of haute cuisine in France, while in England the idea of eating frog legs “filled the British with disgust” (Zuckerman 2013). In the Americas, frog legs were an easily obtainable source of protein, provided you lived near a water source. Any source of protein was important, especially during hard times. But how do you catch frogs for consumption? Keep reading if you would like to know more. If frogs make you squeamish maybe stop reading here.

Frogs were captured using a tool known as a “gig.” The frog gig shown below was recovered from the Trogdon-Squirrel Creek site in Randolph County, North Carolina. Dovetail Cultural Resource Group conducted data recovery excavations at the site on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Work was guided by the data recovery plan authored by NCDOT (Overton 2014).

The wrought iron frog gig appears to have been modified or hastily made as evidenced through an x-ray image. The gig was heat joined likely as a repair after one of the original three tines broke (pictured below). Heat joining, or forge welding, simply refers to heating two pieces of metal and joining them to create a solid bond. Frog gigs and eel gigs often have this trident shape and were used to pierce the skin of a frog or eel for capture. Frog gigging typically occurs at night when the creatures are most active but can certainly be done during the day.

Photo 1: Wrought Iron Frog Gig Recovered From Trogdon-Squirrel Creek Site. On left is an x-ray image of the frog gig and original is on right.

 

Photo 2: Wrought Iron Frog Gig From Personal Collection of D. Brad Hatch Showing Possible Original Form.

This form of gigging, also used at times to capture fish, has been used for centuries. A watercolor painting titled The Manner of Their Fishing done by Captain John White in 1585 illustrates Native Americans using spears and traps to catch fish (White 1585) (Figure1). While the spears used in the Mid-Atlantic during White’s time were made of a combination of bone, wood, and stone, the gig-construction method varied over the course of time. As illustrated in Hooks, Rings & Other Things (1988:155–156), there were many styles of spears which varied in shape depending on time period and purpose. The multi-pronged form, such as that found at the Trogdon Squirrel Creek site, was one of the most popular.

Next time you are at a restaurant and you are trying to decide between chicken or the steak, look to see if they offer frog legs, ‘the other white meat.’

Figure 1: The Manner of Their Fishing (White 1585).

 

Figure 2: Various Styles of Frog, Fish, and Eel Spears From the Nineteenth Century (Barnes 1988).

 

 

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:

Barnes, Frank T.
1988   Hooks, Rings & Other Things. The Christopher Publishing House, Hanover, Massachusetts.

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.

White, John
1585   The Manner of Their Fishing. Electronic document, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspxassetId=22109001&objectId=753504&partId=1, accessed October 2018.

Zuckerman, Catherine
2013   Frog Legs: A British Innovation? Electronic document, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131107-frog-legs-england-france-food-archaeology-britain-wiltshire-french-english-british/, accessed October 2018.