Monday September 17, 2018

More from the Shell Ring Diaries: Another Bone Pin

I learned to work bone early in my career, and it's been years since I've been intimidated by the challenges of working this material, but here I am invoking some of the streamlining processes I've discovered over the years. In working on this bone pin ("crutch-top" style, center) today, I used an improvised live oak jig. This is essentially a section of heartwood with a lengthwise seasoning crack, and live oak being what it is, the crack is fairly stable and unlikely to continue to split. Laid lengthwise along the split, the bone pin blank becomes more stable than it would be on a solid surface, allowing for ease of abrading or scraping (as was done with the large square-edged flake, right). Also, flakes and bifaces can be tapped into the split to create a stationary "bench tool" for scraping and planing by drawing the bone across the stone edge. This makes use of minimal stone and available materials (flake driven into cleft, left). This topic and more are covered in "The Prehistoric Workshop" chapter in Postcards to the Past. Length of pin is about 11 cm, or just over 4 inches, guitar pick for scale.

Monday September 10, 2018

Beavers, Native Americans, and Archaeology

By 1999, several years had passed since beavers had moved into my small creek at The Woods homestead, and the marvel with which I viewed their environmental handiwork had become strongly integrated into my teaching. I understood that prehistoric Native Americans of the southeastern Piedmont would have recognized (and utilized) upland beaver ponds as small-scale wetlands in those areas between major rivers. That same year, I acquired a copy of Charles H. Wharton's The Natural Environments of Georgia (1978).

A single line from Wharton's work inspired me to expand my thinking about beaver workings beyond mere opportunistic utilization. I began to view the presence of beaver ponds as a potential influencing factor for the location of archaeological sites. Wharton says, "I suspect, on smaller streams in the mountains and Piedmont, that the Indians may have utilized the silt-floored and treeless beaver ponds as corn fields, allowing beavers to reclaim them periodically" (1978: 103). My vision of preferential exploitation of beaver habitats as upland mini-wetlands was, and remains, inclusive of all time periods, extending across nearly the entirety of southeastern prehistory. My original draft from 1999 was entitled "Rodents of Change: The role of Castor canadensis in the Alteration of Landscape and Culture". As I further developed the key themes, I changed the title to "Gnawing Desire: The Role of Beavers in Prehistoric Culture", which was published in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology in 2001 (22: 54-59). Although my ideas were clearly oriented to my home in the southeast, I tried to make the Bulletin version somewhat more broad-based for a wider regional audience. This is the version offered here (click to download PDF version), used by agreement with the former editor. (Also, back issues of this and other volumes are available at Other versions of Gnawing Desire were later published in Early Georgia (2003: 31: 53-64), and in A View to the Past (2008: 201-211). It was my original work and Bulletin article that inspired the collaboration between Mark Williams and myself to write a paper for the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in 2001, addressing the likelihood of beaver impoundments as influencing settlement patterns for late Mississippian (Lamar) peoples. This paper, entitled "Lithics, Shellfish, and Beavers", was also included as a chapter in the book Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians (Pluckhahn and Ethridge, eds. 2006).

Tuesday September 04, 2018

And Now for Some Cheat-and-Chip

"Don't paint all flintknappers with the same brush" is practically a mantra for me, meaning that there are different levels of skill and approach to the craft. I'm known to be one to work with difficult and poorly understood materials, working in a more-or-less authentic way in the interest of learning and research. But sometimes you've got to take a walk on the wild side. This knife, impressive as it may be, is not the product of studious bifacial lithic reduction. I pressure flaked it entirely from a slab of obsidian sawed on a lapidary saw, in the manner of much contemporary commercial knapping. The blank (several, actually) was obtained from a friend, so that I could fulfill an obligation (a knife) to a third party.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A New Pottery Paddle

I was intrigued by this Early/Middle Woodland sherd from South Carolina. Though it is somewhat weathered, I discovered that it is a variety of Deptford Check Stamped with the check pattern interrupted by areas of straight lines. The paddle with the design (as I interpret it) is shown in the middle photo, and a test patty of marsh clay, which has not yet dried sufficiently to fire. For the pottery-paddle obsessed: The grooves in the paddle are relatively deep and V-shaped, cut in with stone tools; you will also note that the lands and grooves on the test clay are flat. The implication? The stamped design you see on pottery isn't necessarily an accurate representation of the paddle itself.

Wednesday August 29, 2018

Avian Gastroliths as Artifacts

Some years ago I pioneered and promoted the idea that gastroliths-- gizzard stones-- from large birds should be present (and recognized) as artifacts on archaeological sites. I won't go into the details here since I covered the topic in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology (2010, no. 40: 33-34) and also included it in Postcards to the Past (2015), but I picked up this one today from a site (9OG480). An exceptionally smooth quartz pebble less than a centimeter long, it caught my eye on the soil surface of an eroding hearth feature. It is not surprising that these "artifacts" are seldom recovered, both because of their small size (often overlooked and/or they fall through 1/4" mesh screens during data recovery) and that they aren't flashy or obviously manufactured. Nonetheless, they have the potential to refine our knowledge of the subsistence practices of past peoples.

Monday August 27, 2018

Thinking About Late Archaic Pottery (Again)

Being an Archaic kind of guy, pottery is not my strongest skill. It is nonetheless a remarkable craft, and I delve into it from time to time, often with a (predictable) focus on Late Archaic forms. About twenty years ago, my interest lay in fiber-tempered (Stallings Island type) ceramics, but my recent work on the South Carolina coast has piqued my curiosity about the Thoms Creek type. Shown are two small bowls made of marsh clay collected near Edisto Island, SC. The naturally black clay--gathered from a relict marsh creek bank-- was used as-is without the addition of any sort of temper, which is consistent with the sherds examined at the site. The surface treatment on both was done with the shell of a marsh periwinkle (Littoraria irrorata), the bowl on the left decorated with crescent-shaped indentations created by using the edge of the shell opening; the one on the right shows punctations made by using the pointed spire of the shell. The periwinkle shell is shown in the center of the photo; to its right is an ark shell (probably Noetia ponderosa), used to scrape the interior of the vessel; and flat oyster (Crassostrea virginica) as a smooth-edged scraping/shaping tool. These shells lie on a pottery paddle made from a section of the leaf petiole base of sabal palm. In the foreground is a conventional, undecorated wooden pottery paddle. This side project is only half done...the pots have yet to survive being fired!

Sunday August 19, 2018

Old Dog, New Atlatl

Revising some of my long-held dogma regarding atlatl design. Despite my usual preference for weighted, flexible throwers in the 22"/56 cm length range, I'm revisiting some concepts regarding shorter, rigid ones for launching slightly stouter, heavier spears. Newly minted atlatl here made of chinaberry-— not a native wood, I know, but pretty nonetheless— 15"/36 cm long, antler tine hook.

Saturday August 18, 2018

Last Gasp of the Upland Piedmont Archaic

When, in 2010, we moved the 20 or so miles from the Woods to the Winterville location, it seemed like an apples-to-apples relocation. I fully expected to find myself once again in an area rife with lithic scatters. I was wrong: instead of being in the high uplands within a single drainage, the current residence lies exactly on the divide between the Oconee and Broad Rivers. This is evident if one drives from downtown Winterville to US 78 on the Arnoldsville Road, onward to Lexington, and then southward on GA 77 to Union Point—this route, which follows the old Seaboard System Railroad, scarcely crosses a single creek. Despite much lore about such divides being preferred "Indian trails", the reality is that they were thinly occupied in prehistory, and archaeological sites are often scarce.

I've adjusted my expectation of what constitutes a site, with subtlety playing a major role. This is demonstrated by a site (as yet officially unrecorded) that lies along a wooded and eroded pasture edge across the road from our house. Over a period of several years I have collected this sparse lithic scatter: a flake here, a chunk of diabase FCR there, a scant few (maybe 4?) bifaces and pp/ks, some made from the marginally workable local quartz. (I urge the reader to consider the source here: when I say quartz is "marginal", it qualifies as "unworkable" to virtually anyone else.) My sense was that the site is Middle or Late Middle Archaic in age, based on the assemblage and the small number of ovate bifaces and points. But last week, I recovered this mangled Coastal Plain chert pp/k base. Despite being damaged, it is consistent with the slightly later Elora/Paris Island point types, both of which date to the early part of the Late Archaic. These types represent the last manifestation of the intensive occupation of the high uplands of the Piedmont, after which the focus for the classic Late Archaic (Savannah River period) shifts to more riverine environments. Paris Island period artifacts are to be expected in the uplands here, but I am a bit surprised to find them on multiple sites; earlier this year, I recovered a fragmentary atlatl weight on another site a few hundred meters to the west of this site. The site yielded no diagnostic points, but the weight is of a type associated with this time period. The pp/k pictured is made on an older point, and the remaining intact shoulder/barb is weathered, and shows differential patination on both sides.

Sunday August 12, 2018

A Slate Knife

Apart from heavy tools like axes and adzes, ground stone tools (including knives) are poorly documented in much of the southeastern U.S. Atypical forms do, however, occur sporadically in late prehistoric Lamar contexts, generally made of schist or other local Piedmont materials that split readily into relatively thin slabs. Here I have selected a thin scrap of slate requiring minimal modification to make a knife. This was done by grinding and shaping the edges on increasingly finer grades of stone, with a final edge polish done with wet charcoal. Edge polishing is not done purely to impart keenness--it renders the relatively soft stone somewhat more resistant to chipping or breakage, much in the same way that basal grinding strengthens considerably the haft areas of Early Archaic and Paleoindian projectile points. These knives are not suitable for use on hard materials such as wood, but perform well where a long cutting edge is desirable for processing soft materials such as meat or vegetation. Obverse and reverse shown.

Wednesday August 08, 2018

Experimenting with Shell Tools

In addition to Late Archaic bone pins, part of the current project involves replication and general experimentation with tools made of marine shell. I have found that chisels and gouges are often difficult to make and problematic to use. Bone and antler have long been my preferred material for working green or soft wood, but these also have limitations. Marine gastropod shell is impressively tough, and holds an edge extremely well. Shown here are two small examples of knobbed whelk (B. carica), both of which have been sharpened on the base/anterior portion of the columella. The whorled spire portion of the shell gives an impression of fragility, but it is quite durable and will withstand being pounded with a hardwood mallet (bottom). Here, a mortise is being cut into a section of green sweetgum to accommodate the greenstone celt blade.

Thursday August 2, 2018

An Archival Photo

I've been at this for a while. An archive photo of me (on right) sometime in the early 1990s, sent to me by the Archaeological Society of South Carolina. Probably from one of the ASSC's Fall Field Day events.

Monday July 30, 2018

Arrow foreshaft

Cane arrows can be foreshafted in the same manner as atlatl darts, but with some adjustments. Instead of being easily removable and replaceable, arrow foreshafts are best as a permanent installment. This one has been shouldered in such a way as to fit precisely into the distal portion of the arrow shaft. It is ultimately inserted, glued, and bound into the arrow. The arrow point can be hafted directly into the cane, but the wooden foreshaft allows for the adjustment of the weight and balance of the arrow.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Archaic Bone Pins Revisited

Early in my career I became aware of the significance of bone as a material for utilitarian and decorative items. At the time (the late 1980s), Middle and Late Archaic bone pins were a hot topic, as their black market value had soared. I made a number of them around that time, learning to decorate them appropriately with a simplified primitive version of scrimshaw. Over the years, bone pins— the precise function of which is unknown, despite much speculation— remained part of my technological repertoire, but took a backseat to practical tools such as awls.

My recent archaeological work on a coastal shell ring in South Carolina, however, has thrust these beautiful and enigmatic artifacts yet again into my thinking, and I am back to replicating them. The decorated awl-like one in the center of the photo was completed yesterday, the bold incising filled with charcoal-tempered pitch for permanence. Part of my task is to break down the stages of manufacture and decoration, and document this multi-step process. In case you're wondering, yes, the four bound pairs on the left are chopsticks. And yes, I can use them.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Fletching (Part 2)

The finished helical fletching on the arrow (left) and atlatl dart (right). I opted to bind these with linen thread rather than sinew, and secured with hide glue.

Wednesday, July 25 2018

Fletching (Part 1)

Two pairs of feathers...whatever could these be for? Fletchings, of course! I covered southeastern ("Cherokee") helical two-feather fletching in a six-photo instructional panel in A View to the Past, so this isn't strictly a tutorial, but this simple yet underutilized method deserves a bit more exposure. The white pair (top) are domestic goose, the curvature of the shaft (rachis) indicating they are from the same wing, which, when applied to the projectile shaft, will impart the proper stabilizing spin on the projectile--an atlatl dart, in this case.

An examination of the dark pair (bottom, from turkey) will show they are from opposite sides of the bird. "But Scott", you may ask, "don't you say to ALWAYS use feathers from the same side or wing of the bird?" Generally, yes, but this is the exception that proves the rule; both of these feathers are straight, symmetrical, and the vanes of both are similar in size and thickness, making it possible to use these together for arrow fletching. The second photo shows both pairs with the vanes and shafts trimmed in preparation for attachment to the dart and arrow.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Some Early Archaic Foreshaft Replications

I no longer officially make reproduction exhibit items, but I agreed to make a small number of items the Edisto Island Museum, as well as compose the exhibit text and provide some source images of my replications. This photo shows four of my Early Archaic foreshafts. The top two in the first photo are among my oldest ones, made sometime around 1990 (the upper one is hafted using pitch, the other with hide glue). The lower two are recent, with the bottom example on track to tip the atlatl dart for the Edisto exhibit. The second photo is a closeup of the business ends.

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Favorite Thing

A Savannah River pp/k I made sometime in the early or mid 1990s. The material is banded rhyolite. For a time, it was just another large biface I'd made, and early on it saw a fair amount of hands-on use. At the time, however, I needed a "big arrowhead" to help introduce the projectile point concept in my "12,000 Years in 45 Minutes" show, and it fit the bill admirably. It became integrated into my school program material, and well over two decades of handling and occasional use have given it a lovely patina, making it an artifact (of sorts) of my work and career.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Kombewa Technique (part 4 of 4)

Schematic showing Kombewa flake production.

José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Public domain image/Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Kombewa Technique (part 3 of 4)

Side view of the flake tool. Bulbs of force are evident on both faces (at top).

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Kombewa Technique (part 2 of 4)

Reverse of the flake tool posted yesterday. Note that this side also has a bulb of force (and erailure scar) at top. Retouch is also more evident on this side.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Kombewa Technique (part 1 of 4)

As nearly always for me, the most interesting artifacts aren't big, flawless projectile points. So no one will be surprised that I was most intrigued by this artifact from a collection at the 2017 Athens artifact show. In the wake of the interest and discussion about it, I thought it would be worth publicizing the little-known technique by which it was manufactured. Not unlike the strategically complex Levallois technique, this artifact (a carefully retouched flake tool) was made by the Kombewa method, the execution of which also requires considerable planning and preparation, and is extremely unlikely to be produced by accident. (When I first learned about this technique--now well over 20 years ago--I expended a fair amount of time and stone replicating it, so I speak from experience here.)

Correctly done, this results in a percussion bulb on both faces of the flake, and no ridges or arises. This is sometimes desirable since ridges can be a source of friction during tool use. Judging from the patination, this Coastal Plain chert artifact appears to be Paleoindian or Early Archaic in age, and is unique in that it this method is heretofore virtually unknown in the New World. As I noted in a chapter in "Postcards to the Past", it was occasionally used for handaxes in the Old World as well as for the distinctive obsidian tanged knives of Easter Island.

Photos by Joe Wilkinson

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Odds and Ends from the Knapping Debris Pile

You don't have to be around me long to learn that I value self-study as an means of understanding archaeological materials and processes. Here are some items recently recovered from my scrap heap, most of which I estimate to be 20+ years old.

Top row, bifaces (L-R: coarse rhyolite, two glass, quartzite, quartz, and local metavolcanic); center row, two unifaces (quartz, Tallahatta quartzite, working edges on top), three retouched flake tools/knives (working edges on left, lower distal tip of the middle example appears to have been used as an expedient drill/perforator). Bottom left, discoid biface, judging from the step fracture (visible at top), this is an aborted small Levallois core (yeah, I went through that phase); burin spall (a diagnostic byproduct of my long-standing microdrill fascination); flake of green chert that I can't identify--while I can typically ID probably 99% of the material in my pile, this isn't one of them. It's NOT St. Louis, Ridge and Valley, moss agate from India, nor the heat-treated green component of the Coastal Plain chert. It's not right for Normanskill, either. I suspect it's an exotic given to me by someone. And a soapstone effigy bird--one of several such items made by Emma not long after she moved in.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Welcome to the blog!

Greetings all, welcome to the Media Prehistoria blog. Having largely ceased activity on Facebook, I decided I would go old-school with a platform that allows me to post items of interest. If you’re interested in primitive skills and want to keep up with what I’m doing, I encourage you to follow this blog.