Millennia Research is one of the longest established and most respected consulting archaeologist firms in British Columbia, not least because they have an occasional blog. They’re doing some really cool and advanced work on 3-D imaging using LiDAR and photogrammetry – you can see for yourself some of those posts, e.g. and e.g.’er. But today’s topic, while cutting edge in its own way, is more at the speed of your humble scribe – some very small engraving tools they’ve uncovered in Prince Rupert Harbour, site GbTo-54. The reason I’m posting it here is because they’re looking for input on the function of these and for any comparable artifacts people might know of, and I want to cast the net wider through this blog’s readership. I’ll get the ball rolling.
One of the singular features of this site is the presence of around one hundred (!!) carved antler bracelets, and inferred goat horn bracelets as well. Remarkable. So fine tools would be needed for these decorative items. And for carving, you know, wood, as well. The item above, which is leftmost in the top picture, is the one I have an analogue for.
This is described as an “engraving tool” from Point Barrow, NW Alaska, purchased around 1893. It is “jade” (probably nephrite) and based on the width of the tool at “15 mm”, the tip of the tool, which is clearly facetted much like the Prince Rupert example, would be about 3 or 4 mm wide where the bevels start. The incredible tensile and compressive strength of nephrite would be perfectly suited to a small tool which one could really lean into. As the Millennia blog notes,
Another new artifact type from the Kaien Siding project is what we have called the miniature stone chisel. Three exceptionally small, finely finished green stone and possibly basalt chisels were recovered from GbTo-54. These are highly polished on all surfaces and taper toward the distal tip (see below). All were made by incising or sawing along the long edges to groove then snap the stone, and then the point was made by grinding facets. GbTo-54:188 is complete. They must have been hafted into handles to allow fine manipulation as they are much too small to hand-hold. Functionally, they would have served to carve fine lines or relief in detailed work; perhaps some of the 100 antler bracelets or the inferred goat horn bracelets at these sites. The working tip of :188 is less than 1 mm wide, and much thinner. To our knowledge, no other comparable artifacts have been noted for any Northwest Coast assemblage.
The rightmost of the tools is more enigmatic. In plan view apparently it has a straight (chisel-like?) working edge only a millimetre or so wide, while from the side it clearly tapers to a point like a pencil. A delicately groovey tool, for sure. And from the picture, not showing use-wear like, say, a drill. (The post by Millennia immediately got me wondering again about bead manufacture on the NW Coast, as we covered here and here). I don’t have a really good analogue for these, but turning the clock back a little, the picture below from my MA thesis shows two nephrite (probably, hi Jesse) “drills” which if memory serves were kind of enigmatic and pointy.
And as you can see, the width on these is also around the magic 4 mm mark. Some of the beads we’ve talked about have sub-millimetre holes drilled in them, so these probably aren’t the tools in question, and drills are usually quite distinctive and definitive in their use wear patterns. But these make a lot of sense for fine engraving of delicately-carved materials like antler and horn, the former being quite tough, the latter probably quite soft. And assuming you use a reasonable screen mesh and water, you aren’t too likely to miss these sizes of tools either, I don’t think. Four millimetres is about 1/6th of an inch – so 1/8th screen should be fine, barely, but 1/4, very risky. Still, enough people use 1/8th inch mesh these days, don’t they?
Anyway, if you have any thoughts on these micro-engraving tools then the comments are below, or go over to Millennia’s blog and leave them at the source.