Archaic: The Story in Stone

Florida Indians knapping chert to make darts.

Florida Indians knapping chert to make darts for their atlatls.

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The Knappers:

Watching his uncle, the young man places a piece of leather over his upper leg. Placing a piece of leather in his hand to protect him from the sharp edge of the chert, he picks up a shaft of deer antler. The antler has been carefully shaped to make a kind of hammer. After studying the stone, he makes his first strike.

I believe the world of the ancient people was anything but primitive. It was complicated and they were sophisticated. Their lives were dependent on understanding. They were intimately aware of their relationship to the world around them.

That relationship blended with the sacred. They saw all life as equal. Their lives were dependent on the lives and well being of the other creatures. They understood that the cat and the wolf killed and ate other animals. There was no more meanness in that act than in eating a plant. All of these things nourished their bodies.

Skilled Technicians

We modern people tend to think of those ancient hunters as backward savages. But remember when the Caribbean bumped north, making central Florida bulge up? The limestone in those hills eroded away leaving the ground littered with large lumps of chert, a flint-like rock. When those ancient hunters discovered the landscape was covered with miles upon miles of the raw material for stone points, they went to work. The Clovis people who had inhabited the area thousands of years before, simply utilized the rock just as they found it. They broke it open to look for its quality and used only the best. The rest they tossed aside.

As thousands of years passed, the best chert was no longer available and men had to come up with a way to make the poorer rock work for them. They developed a method of heat-treating the chert. At the correct heat chert becomes glass-like, breaking in such a way as to leave the point very sharp. Problem of it is, each rock has its own heat tolerance. Too much heat and the rock is ruined. Too little heat and the rock is still unworkable.

The heat needed for different rocks could vary between 400°F and 1000°F. It took about four days to fire the rock in the old way. The ground had to be heated and dried out with a fire. After the ash was scrapped away, slabs of chert were placed edgewise in the bottom, then covered with sand.

That shallow mound of sand was then covered with a little wood and a new fire is kindled. The chert was heated very slowly for if it was heated too fast, the chert will explode. Once the heat has been brought up to its maximum temperature, it has to be maintained until it penetrates the stone equally. Then, the temperature was brought down slowly. The slabs were not removed from the sand until the entire mound has cooled naturally.

These illustrations are stemmed archaic points. Just like in our modern world, there were some knappers (people who work flint or chert) who were more skilled than others. When folks show me these kinds of artifacts, I always look for the story they offer.

Sometimes a point conjures up a personal scene for me. Kids back then had to learn too. Certain crudely made points suggest that to me. I imagine a boy sitting beside his uncle. As his uncle works, he leaves behind pieces of chert which are not of good quality, but they are perfect for a kid to learn on.

The ancient people talked to the spirits of all the things that sustained them. To them, plants were alive and as hungry for life as animals. They honored all life and the world of which it was a part.

Still, they made their mistakes.

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