30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 5
The field of archaeology is an engaging subject for children, generating interest and increasing awareness of Tennessee’s rich past. Introducing archaeological concepts, ancient artifacts, and prehistoric cultures in a homeschool setting let me tap into the rush of discovery and feeling of intrigue that archaeology holds over us. Waving a replica stone-tipped spear around certainly got their attention, too.
As an experimental archaeologist, I strive to better understand the past by setting up scientific experiments in the present that simulate the day to day activities of prehistoric peoples. Flintknapping is the craft of working stone into tools and a skill practiced by everyone’s ancient ancestors. By applying my expertise in flintknapping to the classroom experience, I gave children the opportunity to try their hand at an age-old skill while learning about the past.
The North Nashville Homeschool Co-Op did an excellent job organizing this class into two 3-hour sessions of ten students between the ages of 8 and 12. I covered a wide range of human history, local archaeology, and everyone got to practice flintknapping. A short, informal, yet information-packed lecture about the prehistoric people of Tennessee got everyone thinking about their place in the landscape, use of natural resources, and cultural practices. As we sat in a large circle in the center of a barn, we imagined and talked about what life may have been like thousands of years ago. What types of things did these people eat? What kind of tools did they use? How did they structure their lives and relationships? Did they travel? Why do we find so many stone arrowheads, spear points, and knives in Tennessee?
Perhaps the most memorable part of the class is flintknapping. I still recall the first time I saw a flintknapper strike a piece of obsidian with a hammerstone and the resounding crack that opened my eyes to a whole world of seemly lost technology. The arrowheads that I had found as a child with my grandfather took on a new meaning and so did all the flint flakes. As I started breaking down a large cobble of obsidian, all eyes on me, the quick tap of a hammerstone created flake after flake of the glassy stone. I explained as I knapped about why the stone breaks the way it does, how I can control that fracture, and my understanding of how all the variables relate so that I can shape it into any type of tool I want.
After just 10 minutes, I had fashioned a leaf-shaped biface out of one of the larger flakes that I had worked down. I held up my deer antler billet (hammer) and asked if they thought it would break the obsidian like the hammerstone. They quickly shouted, “YES!” I continued to work down and shape the biface into a spear point. A few minutes later, I held up a deer antler tine and explained that I would now push flakes off of the spear point to sharpen the edges and make notches in the base so I could attach it to a wooden spear shaft. I asked them to pay special attention to pressure flaking since they all would get to try it. Once finished with my flintknapping demonstration, I had everyone pick out a large flake so they could work it down into a tool, arrowhead, or spear point.
Practice, practice, practice is a common theme when a person wants to master a skill; I related flintknapping to some of the modern-day activities that take time to learn and gain proficiency. Everyone wore safety glasses and gloves and used a leather pad for protection from the sharp-edged flaking debris. At first, most struggle with flintknapping, as understanding how to hold the percussor or flaker tool, supporting the stone, where to apply force, and the angles of the stone in relation to the tool are just a few of the factors at play. With some adjustments to each student’s technique and a quick close-up demonstration, flakes began to fly. Time, practice, perseverance, and a little cut here and there resulted in numerous arrowheads, spear points, and other kinds of stone tools. As their parents arrived and pried them away from their work, they eagerly showed off and explained to them that arrowheads are just part of the picture of prehistoric life. I hope that they all continue to practice flintknapping, explore history, and discover the vast richness of our archaeological record.