I’ve mentioned before the terrific Back East archaeology blog Elfshot, in which Tim Rast documents his journey of “making a living as a 21st century flintknapper”. Flintknapping is all well and good, of course, but the real magic lies with ground stone, which for many years has been marginalized in archaeology as being, well, obvious and uninteresting. I think one paper I read digresses with an anecdote about the author’s toddler son independently inventing the technology! If it is so obvious, though, then why is it only selectively implemented by people in certain environments, at certain times, to certain degrees of intensity?
It is a technological domain that could support a lot more analytical weight than it has to date. That’s especially true on the Northwest Coast, where the appearance of ground stone 3-4,000 years ago coincided with a time period that marks when a lot of archaeologists (not me, by the way) think that things “get interesting.”
Anyway, how can we understand ground stone? Unlike chipped stone technology, there are not usually a large number of waste flakes produced in the manufacturing process which track the decision-making sequences of the crafts-person. Rather, one tends to find finished pieces, grinding stones, and a selection of ambiguous tools also used in the process. Most of the manufacturing traces disappear as rock powder.
If there is a topic on the NW Coast that is as under-studied as grinding stones, I’d like to know about it. Now that it is possible to, for example, extract lipids from Fire Cracked Rock and ground stone, there really is no excuse not to really bear down on ground stone technology, which must be plastered with organic residues. (Incidentally, if you have access, Thoms outlines the problems and prospects in Fire Cracked Rock studies).
But another way to address this technology is to try to understand the constraints and possibilities of manufacturing, via replication and experiment, and this is where Elfshot shines.
In a recent series of posts, Elfshot nicely illustrates making ground slate knifes (a hugely important artifact type on the Northwest coast as well) of the Arctic style, including the use of nephrite drills to make lashing holes through them. Nephrite, or “jade” is also a very important raw material on this coast and it is good to see this experimental program.
I’ve messed around with some experimenting during the course of my day job, and one interesting finding was, generally speaking, ground slate was faster to make stuff from than was ground mussel shell. I never thought of using nephrite drills of course, but we should be on the lookout for stone drills on the NW coast: something is making holes in all those ground stone beads. There’s a short video of Rast using a bow drill on stone at this Elfshot post (scroll down halfway).
So, lots of credit to Tim Rast and Lori White for such a grounded demonstration of interest in this topic. Out here, I can point to 1990s M.A. theses by Darwent and yours truly on ground stone in B.C. More recently Jesse Morin (PDF by subscription on fish cutting; shorter PDF on nephrite circulation) at UBC and Anthony Graesch (PDF download) from UCLA have started to really get to grips with material choice and circulation of those raw materials most suitable for making ground stone artifacts. In a niche where fish processing was arguably so important, the making of specialized fish knives is obviously of massive interest – and choice between, say, the very different operational sequences imposed by ground slate, by mussel shell, or by cortex spall tools has only just begun to be thought about. The same applies to ground slate points and adzes/chisels, etc. In short: why bother? What are the advantages? Be precise. Show your work.
It’s not too hyperbolic, I don’t think, to propose that understanding the daily grind on the NW Coast might end up being one of the most important keys to unlocking the secrets of the late Holocene archaeological record.
And, of course, to return to Elfshot: part of the “making a living” as a flintknapper is to sell your reproductions. Elfshot has a gallery of things for sale. I can think of more than one NW Coast archaeologist who would rather have one of these pieces for an anniversary than some useless trinket, diamond, whatever.