Elfshot: experimental and replicative archaeology

Saqqaq Palaeo-Eskimo flaked stone scrapers and knives, hafted with the aid of baleen. Source: Elfshot.

Elfshot is a cool blog chronicling archaeologist Tim Rast’s replicative and experimental work.  Interestingly to us out here on the NW Coast, a lot of  what he studies and replicates is from the comparable areas of the NE Coast, Newfoundland and the eastern Arctic.  That means he is using some marine sources such as baleen as well as materials such as moose sinew.  There is a lot to read at his blog, which is very well illustrated with photographs, videos, and scans from manuscripts.  If you find yourself in his neighbourhood, you can take courses and workshops on ancient technology from him, and I note that some of his beautiful replications are for sale.

Experimental archaeology is a really valuable approach in archaeology. It helps the archaeologist, who more often than not isn’t part of a traditional materials tool-use culture, understand the constraints of certain materials and likely technological sequences that would have been followed to make and use things.  While perhaps no substitute for observation and interviews, the fact is that by the time ethnographers got to most places in the world many traditional technologies had fallen by the wayside, and so there are very few descriptions of such basic technological domains as flaked stone tools.  Much of what we know about these tools and technologies comes from the work of replicators and experimentalists who set the facts of life out to help analyse the material which comes from the ground in archaeological digs.

Anyway, I strongly recommend Elfshot as a knowledgeable blog offering a lot of archaeological insight, especially for coastal contexts.

Use of the "mystery tool type" - piece esquillee - as a wood-splitting wedge. Source: Elfshot.

7 responses to “Elfshot: experimental and replicative archaeology

  1. I see today on Elfshot that he has been going in to grade 5 classrooms to do flintknapping. Wow — way to go Elfshot.

    http://elfshotgallery.blogspot.com/2010/02/open-minds-demo-day.html

    Nick! Man your pedagogy station!

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  2. Not exactly ‘replicative’ but Fine Science Tools in Vancouver sell obsidian scalpels for surgery calling for the sharpest possible edge and freedom from trace metal contaminants. As a jellyfish biologist I have found them useful for cutting soft flabby things which give under pressure from normal blades. see pics in the FST catalogue at
    http://www.finescience.ca/

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  3. Thanks for the great write-up! I really appreciate the link. I found your site not long ago through Heather Pringle’s blog and its full of amazing stuff. I’m still working my way through the older posts.

    That’s a neat about the obsidian scalpels. I gave a few flakes of obsidian to an entomologist at a knapping demo a few years ago. He makes his own glass blades for working under microscopes, but found the slightly darker obisidian blades easier to work with because the edge was more visible.

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  4. Hi george,

    Here is one of the pics you mention:

    http://www.finescience.ca/commerce/ccp4064-obsidian-scalpel—large-10110-03.htm

    I see they’re going for 93 bucks each, that seems like a market niche for Tim. Interesting that they work for flabby things which give under pressure (like me), I know that where pressure is required they have a tendency to break and the edge is extremely fragile. So their use in traditional knives must have been quite specialized I think.

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  5. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the comment and the great blog, and that’s also interesting about the colour. Does the entomologist know anything about flintknapping or does he just bust a few shards off opportunistically?

    q.

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  6. Experiments were done with obsidian blades for surgery, including cardiac surgery, on humans. I believe the surgery was done on archaeologist(s), who presumably were in need of surgery. One article about this is “Ancient technology in contemporary surgery” in the Western Journal of Medicine, 1982. I have not read it for decades….

    I made obsidian microblades when a grad student for my archaeology professor’s hand surgery in the mid-80’s – apparently they worked well though I was not an observer (thank goodness). What I was taught at the time was the edge was so much finer than steel (a molecule thick) that the incision was much cleaner and able to heal a lot faster.

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  7. Here is a summary of the article I mention above:
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/115633208

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