Friday, January 15, 2010

Getting a Handle on Lithics

I'm working on a set of Palaeoeskimo tools. I have all the stone knapped and now I'm working on the wood handles. Its kind of funny - from our modern point of view it seems like the stone part of the tool lasts forever, while the organic handle, whether they be wood, bone, antler, ivory or whatever, vanished long ago. But for the original user it was actually the other way around. The stone is the disposable bit and once it was broken or resharpened down to a nub it was tossed and forgotten. The handle might be with you for years and years. From the users point of view, the stone tip is temporary and a carefully curated handle might last forever.

That has to be part of the reason that archaeological cultures stayed stable for so long. If you owned a knife for 10 years and had to replace the stone blade every 6 months, then for that single handle there are 20 more-or-less identical stone blades lost in the ground somewhere. Multiply that by everyone in your group and the incentive to be innovative and experimental in your tool design almost vanishes. From the user's point of view they've owned one knife that had to have a new blade added 20 times. From the archaeologist's point of view, this same scenario looks like 20 different knives. Believe it or not, with stone technology its actually much easier and quicker to knap a new stone tool to precisely fit a particular handle than to carve out a new handle. Its easier and less time consuming to chip your stone tool to fit your handle than it is to carve your handle to fit your stone.

The handles I'm working on now are based primarily on Saqqaq tools from Greenland and a few Palaeoeskimo wooden handles from Northern Labrador . The simplest ones are for the endscrapers and side scrapers. They have a shallow dish shaped depression in one end that accepts the scraper. Scrapers are unifacial tools, meaning that they are knapped on only one side. The flat side of the scraper faces away from the handle. I remember when I first heard about thumbnail scrapers I didn't realize they would have been hafted, because I'd never seen a scraper handle preserved. I thought you pinched them between your fingers. Trying to scrape a hide or stick with a scraper pinched between your fingers would be like trying to shave with a razor blade pinched between your thumb and forefinger.

At the Saqqaq site, there were a bunch of cool wood knife handles found - some with the stone blades and lashing material (usually baleen) still in tact. Unlike the unifacial scrapers, the knives were bifacial, or knapped on both surfaces. Conceptually the handles for the bifaces are the same as the scraper handles, with a dish shaped depression to accept the knapped stem of the tool, except that since the tool is knapped on both surfaces, it needs a handle for each face. The two halves of the handle form a kind of two piece mold around the stone knife and are bound together by baleen. This style of handle seems to work best with bifaces with long stems. On a two inch knife, almost an inch of the blade is hidden inside the handle.

Palaeoeskimo collections from Avayalik Island in northern Labrador also contain wood handles in a lot of different forms. Many of them are one piece wooden handles with a carved slot to accept a biface. They have a narrow lashing groove and are designed for notched bifaces. The Middle Dorset Palaeoeskimo collections from this site are about 1600 years old, compared to the 3900-3100 year old Saqqaq site. Hafting bifaces like this with side notches leaves a lot more of the stone blade exposed. It seems like a more efficient way to get more of a working edge on the same sized biface. A two inch knife hafted through side notches would only have an half inch or so hidden in the handle.

Hopefully on Monday I'll have some photos of the finished pieces with the sinew and baleen lashings all in place.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
First: Assorted Palaeoeskimo bifaces and unifaces with their handles in progress
Second: A Saqqaq side scraper reproduction in progress on a page from Grønnow, Bjarne 1994, Qeqertasussuk -- the Archaeology of a Frozen Saqqaq Site in Disko Bugt, west Greenland. In Threads of Arctic Prehistory, edited by David Morrison an Jean-Luc Pilon, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series Paper 149.
Third: A pair of theSaqqaq style side scrapers and their handles
Fourth: The reproductions I'm working on and two of the references I'm using; Threads of Arctic Prehistory and the September 1980 volume of Arctic Vol. 33, Number 3.
Fifth: Assorted end and side scrapers with their handles
Sixth: Saqqaq style hafts - single piece for unifaces and two pieces for bifaces
Seventh: Avayalik Island style handle on a Groswater Palaeoeskimo knife reproduction.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails