PRIMITIVE TECHNOLOGIES

If you're looking for something to do on these dreary winter weekends, phone up one of Arkansas' archaeological parks and ask about their primitive technology workshops.

Toby the Flintknapping InstructorSeated is Toby, an Iowa transplant and freelance archaeologist who does preliminary surveys which ascertain the historical/archaeological importance of proposed construction sites. He's been making stone tools for twenty years, and if you can give him a double sawbuck and four hours of your valuable time he'll teach you the trick.

This particular flintknapping class was organized by Parkin Archaeological State Park and consisted of Toby and fifteen students. (Call way ahead of time. Those spots fill up early.) The first two hours consist of lecture and demonstration. As he whacks a spear point out of a lump of chert he'll tell you where to look for knappable flint, how to evaluate the suitability of whatever rock you find, how to obtain and use appropriate tools, the materials and tools used by tribes in various regions, a little history and culture and the basics of thinning and shaping a rock.

I was under the impression that the making of stone points and tools relied heavily on luck, that the craftsman smacked more or less randomly on a rock until he accidentally arrived at a piece that got him halfway to a shape that he could use and that he would merely refine shapes that had arisen serendipitously.

Turns out that doesn't work. Stoneworking only looked crude to my uneducated eye. Flintknapping Class at ParkinSerious flintknapping requires just a little skill, but a high degree of planning and meticulous preparation. It can be done the other way, and smaller points are routinely made of discarded flakes from the manufacture of larger tools; but to rely on luck make a tool of any size or of any deliberate shape would be like sitting by the river and waiting for a log to hollow itself into a canoe.

Here in Flintknapping 101 we learned pressure flaking, a technique in which an antler tine or rounded copper point is pressed into the corner of a piece of rock with force enough to knock off a small scallop-shaped flake. Pressure flaking is the finishing work of toolmaking, used for putting a cutting edge on the stone. It can also be used for making smaller points. When done right, each flake makes a satisfying popping sound as it flies off the rock.

Toby (who looks a little like and sounds exactly like Richard Dreyfus) also demonstrated hard percussion (striking the rock with a stone or iron tool) and soft percussion (striking the rock with an antler or bone or copper tool) and secondary percussion (using a piece of bone or antler as a chisel). The introductory class was not instructed in these techniques because of time and safety considerations. Toby bled all over himself during the demonstration when one of his blows drove a sharp piece of flint into his hand. The wound healed pretty quickly and didn't slow him down much. Occupational hazard.

I wondered but didn't ask the other students why they were taking the course. There were lots of questions about how genuine arrowheads could be differentiated from those of modern manufacture, so I'm guessing some of the students were taking the course to educate themselves against artifact fraud and others were educating themselves in order to perpetrate artifact fraud. A couple of the students seemed to take the course pretty seriously, even buying tools off Toby at the end of the class. Maybe a couple of the students were there with some kind of survivalist agenda in mind, preparation for some Y2K cataclysm or whatever. There might have been intellectual motivations at work, history, culture, craftsmanship, people seeking a psychic connection with an idealized prehistoric past.

I took the class because it was neat. My very first projectile points (and a penny)Here are the first three arrow heads I made plus a penny which I did not make. The class was wrapping up, so I got in a hurry and cracked the third one as I was carving the notch. What a pisser.

So it's not really all that hard to make stone tools, certainly no harder than woodworking or basket weaving. It's also relaxing and absorbing, not very expensive either. It takes you outdoors and makes you pay attention to rocks in a way that you probably never have before.

Other primitive technology workshops offered by Arkansas' archaeological parks include things like bow drill, cordage making, pottery, primitive fishing techniques, native American games of skill and chance, shelter construction, tracking, and so on. Pretty much any aspect of native American life is fair game so long as they can find a qualified instructor. If a guy can do like Toby and generate $300 (plus spot sale of tools minus cost of raw materials, which he told me he dug out of his back yard) for teaching a four-hour course, then I would think it wouldn't be very hard to find qualified instructors.

A note for the educated consumer: Some of these courses are for kids and some are for adults and some have sections for adults and simplified sections for kids. Ask before you sign up so you don't end up in state park daycare. (That was embarassing.)

For more information, click the hot text to go to the Parkin State Park Web Page. There's another archaeological state park near Scott called Toltec Mounds, so named because the 19th century owner of the site couldn't bring himself to believe that the ancestors of the Arkansas tribes had the moxy to pile up dirt; and therefore the mound complex must have been built by Mexican Toltecs. Hampson Museum State Park in Wilson is the main repository of artifacts from the famous (famous if you're into Native American cultures) Nodena site. You can't take active part in excavations at Nodena like you sometimes can at Parkin or Toltec, but they've got the very best of the very best artifacts on display.

Related information: Ancient Monuments in Arkansas

RTJ--3/1/99

In the neighborhood: The Marked Tree Siphons | Jimmy Hendrix Mural


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