Shortly after we arrived in Maryland, my wife, Nancy, and I walked along Cove Point's Bay-facing beach, which consists mostly of quartz sands eroded from the face of Miocene Age Calvert Cliffs, a mile or two north.
Although one is more likely to come across teeth of the extinct great shark (Carcharocles megalodon) here, Nancy looked down to find a beautiful Native American projectile point, glistening black against the white sand.
Today, this area is the site of an offshore liquid natural gas facility with its immense onshore storage tanks towering above the cliffs. This entire strand is off-limits to beach strollers, as well as the adjacent shore and marshes, which are protected by the Cove Point Trust.
Later, we moved to Osborn Cove, on the nearby Patuxent. Nancy's cousin Wendy and I were walking down the beach when she stopped to pick up the largest shark tooth we'd found during our three years in Maryland. Disappointed that I hadn't found it, I looked down, only to find an arrowhead right at my feet. This was the first clue to what is perhaps a 1,000-year-old Native American habitation next to our home.
In the days before metallurgy, humans relied on other natural materials for their crafts. Worked stones, and the debris left from creating them generally do not degrade, and are among the most permanent pieces of evidence for human activity on the landscape.
Around the Bay, the record goes back almost 16,000 years. Stone tools from this era include elegant Clovis points. One found in Virginia is about 4.5 inches long.
Point types are typically named after the first site where they were found: Madison, Piscataway, Levanna, Selby Bay. Michael Smolek, director of Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum listed 37 categories, spread in age from 9000 B.C. to A.D. 1600.
During the Americas' Archaic Period (7500-1000 BC), human populations were very small. Along the middle Potomac, for example, there may have been only 2,000 people. This would later rise to 5,000, then to 7,500 or more in the late Woodland Period, A.D. 800- 1250.
Europeans, who had progressed from stone tools millenniums ago, and were hundreds of years into the age of steel when they arrived in North America, had long forgotten basic crafting with stone.
They brought pikes, halberds, crossbow bolts, axes and knives made of iron and steel and ignorantly described the natives' arrows or javelins as headed a "bit of bone" or a "splinter of stone" without looking at how well- crafted these pieces were and how superbly these piercing and cutting instruments performed. They were oblivious that these items had once been part of their own, earlier culture.
They also forgot that their then state-of- the-art flintlock weapons required knapping to make the gunflints that strike a steel frizzen and make sparks necessary to ignite gunpowder.
Often, the purpose of a Native American stone points is unknown, nor is it clear what kind of shaft it may have been hafted (mounted) to: spear, dart, arrow, knife, or even a drill. Frequently, a damaged point was reworked for a new purpose.
This process of working stone is called "knapping,"-breaking off flakes to shape a larger piece with a sharp blow. This skill has fascinated anthropologists and archaeologists for more than a century, and some modern "experimental archaeologists" make a career out of reconstructing or re- inventing the technologies used to make these tools.
There seems to be a progression in the form of points over time. Some of the largest and most finely worked examples are also the oldest. Some infer that these were developed to kill Pleistocene megafauna like the woolly mammoth. Later, smaller, more simple pieces propelled by bow did the job just as well, but took less time and labor to create.
The Chesapeake archaeological record shows a range of skills across types of stone. Quartz and quartzite cobbles were the dominant rocks on the outer Coastal Plain, where European contact most frequently occurred. These stones were moved about during the post glacial period by ice and stream flow and were fairly common along eroding shorelines especially of the Western Shore Chesapeake.
Quartz, a granular stone, is relatively hard to knap, though. As a result, tribes close to the Bay traded with tribes farther inland for partially prepared blanks or "performs" fashioned from other kinds of stone, from which much of the excess weight had been removed, making them more portable. These would then be worked into usable points. In turn,coastal tribes traded such items as ornamental shells and seafood-such as oysters shucked, dried and threaded on strings-items not available to inland peoples.
Even when hostility between tribes separated them culturally, cautious bartering still occurred, a practice that continued with European settlers. The point Nancy found at the edge of Chesapeake Bay likely came from the Iroquois, perhaps through middleman tribes. These flints and rhyolites came from regions west of the Coastal Plain, or at the very least from the rocky Piedmont Fall Line, such as the Catoctin Mountains, and were otherwise unavailable on the coast.
Over the millennia, native peoples had solved numerous problems associated with crystallography: changes in minerals when heated in measured fashion, the physics of material fracture, levers and the trajectory followed by accelerated projectiles.
This was a necessary craft for all Algonquian men, from the Paramount Chief Powhatan to a warrior. All of this needs to be relearned today if we are to truly appreciate the skill and economy of effort shown by Native Americans.
Historic interpreter and primitive technologist Tim Thoman, a specialist at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard, MD, offers a simple illustration for understanding the principles of knapping: A stone flies into a car's windshield, forming a bull's-eye. In reality, it is almost a nearly perfect cone, the apex of which is the spot where the stone struck, the cone spreading exactly in line with the blow and, expanding through the glass until it stops on the far side as a circle. Unless the window breaks, the "cone" with a crack around it stays in place. Striking the edge of a stone for knapping-called percussion flaking-produces a similar, though partial, fracture cone.
To show this, Thoman gave me a plastic cone to hold against the stone, so we could predict where the cone would spread. If the edge of a stone was struck at a particular angle, the cone principle still held but only a portion of the cone was inside the stone, so a "flake" traveling across the surface of the stone was removed; the rest of the cone being in the air.
This is where the term "flaking" of points arises. When archaeologists find a site where stone tools were made, it is not the tools they most often find, but the "debitage" or piles of flakes resulting from the work. In a few cases, patient investigators have stuck back together all of the debitage resulting from a single point, and thus can reconstruct every blow struck on the original perform to produce the finished stone blade.
A knapper, Thoman said, takes a stone that is roughly the shape of a lens, and aims to break off flakes from the edges in specific ways. Holding the stone in leather pad on his free hand, he supports both against the inside of his knee and using his dominant hand, he strikes its edge with successive, glancing, angular blows using either an ovoid hammer stone, or a "billet" smoothed round from the butt end of a deer or elk antler. The flakes from these downward blows always come off the bottom of the stone. This is percussion flaking and when done properly, the angle of the blow removes the flakes so that they run across the face of the stone more than halfway, thinning it.
The resulting edge of the stone is very thin and splinters if struck again without proper preparation and thin, weak flakes are likely to break at half their length, creating a little "step" on the stone face, across which further flakes will not travel. These short flakes stop the knapper from tapering his piece to a thin cross section, and leave a ridge in the center that is difficult to remove. To strengthen this thin edge before striking off the next flake, the knapper prepares a "platform" for striking, by rubbing off the sharp edge- dulling it-with the same hammer stone in hand. If he is lucky, with the next blow, another long flake might be successfully struck off.
The piece is turned over and worked from both sides, repeating the process and planning the removal of each flake toward the ultimate tool shape. For each blow, he must envision how the cone of fracture will progress across the stone and strike off the subsequent flake at exactly the right angle.
Thoman emphasized that one should never knap any material without eye and hand protection. The flakes are razor sharp and fly considerable distances.
I once walked on a Virginia barrier island beach with archeologist Darrin Lowery, who in almost the time it takes to read the above paragraphs, took a piece of soft mudstone he'd picked up at our feet, flaked both sides, then handed it to me saying: "There, tell me you couldn't cut up a fish with this! There's plenty of material for native craftsmen all around us here."
This might do the trick for scraping a hide, dismembering a carcass directly, but there is still a higher example of the flint knapper's art: pressure flaking.
In this process, the edges are again dulled, removing the very fine splintery feather edge of stone and creating a platform for further shaping. Pressure flaking was often done by native craftsmen with the tine of an antler, perhaps hardened in fire before use. The stone itself might be heated to a few hundred degrees, then cooled before working, as was done with examples found in Loudon County, VA. This, for some stone types, drives out moisture and improves the flaking characteristics.
The knapper braces the stone in his hand against a pad on the inside of his thigh and positions the pressure flaking tool on the exact edge opposite of the side where the flake is to pop off. By applying steady, strong pressure, a small flake will sort of peel away from the edge. This can be continued down each side of a point, using the removal of flakes to straighten, or add a curve, bit by bit. Working from both sides a uniform, sharp, serrated edge will result.
Thoman emphasized the ethic of making modern reproduction points. The debitage must be gathered and landfilled, not thrown aside where it could confuse future archaeologists. Similarly, every point one makes should be identified as to origin with a diamond scribe, so if it is lost it will not be confused with a remnant from the past at a particular site.
For those making an arrowhead, the base of the piece needs notches on either side for the lashings of sinew which hafts it to the shaft. This notching is also done using the pressure flaking tool, pecking bits of stone from one side, then the other, so the whole corner remains intact as the notch deepens.
Native American craftsmen producing what archaeologists style the "Jacks Reef corner-notched points" made them from New York State and eastern Pennsylvania stones-flint and jasper. They notched the points a quarter of the way into the base, which made them very secure on their shafts. This delicate work showed up in points from the Late Woodland period (A.D. 750-1250) found at Little Round Bay near Annapolis, and rarely along the Patuxent.
Attaching stone tools to a shaft or handle for use involves a separate set of skills. The binding is made of sinew, from along the sides of a deer's spine, that is teased into threads. Thoman said, "Next time you see one on the highway just slit the hide, get down to the bone and..." (Sure, Tim.) When hafting knife blades, he uses resin from conifers, melted and reduced over flame, as a filler to stabilize the sinew lashings and to keep the point from moving and loosening as it is worked.
John Smith was the first Englishman to look at this technology. He said that the natives used the "tops of Deare horns boiled to a jelly that makes a glew that will not dissolve in cold water."
A spear is a formidable weapon, but sites all over the Americas contain another artifact, the "banner stone." This stone is not flaked but ground and drilled with other stone tools to form a weight that is mounted on the shaft of an atlatl or throwing stick, which is hooked at one end with a recess to accept the butt end of the spear or throwing dart.
Native hunters, holding one end of the atlatl, could sling the spear with much greater leverage and momentum than with an arm alone. (A modern version has been patented to throw tennis balls for dogs.) Museum conservator Howard Wellman, allowed me to test a reproduction ataltl and spear. My atlatl range was twice what I achieved throwing the spear as a javelin.
The result in experienced hands is acceleration and an impact that some claim equals the punch of a .357-caliber Magnum.
Smolek, of the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, once told me about Dr. Charles Fairbanks, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, who with one throw broke the back of a wild boar, charging out of the palmettos...too quickly for the waiting cameraman to record, or the backup guy with a rifle to respond. So much for "primitive" technology.