Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Ramah Chert Maritime Archaic Spear

I recently completed a special reproduction using Ramah chert, which was intended as a surprise gift. Its been delivered, so its safe to post about it now. Ramah chert is an almost impossible stone for a flintknapper to get to work, unless you know an archaeologist who has been given special permission to collect samples of the rock from the quarry.

I'm allowed to work the stone for experimental and educational purposes, but its not something that I can sell. Stuart, a colleague of mine who was fortunate enough to visit the quarry and collect samples of Ramah chert, commissioned me to work his Ramah core into a reproduction of a Maritime Archaic Indian spear as a gift for his thesis supervisor, who also works in Labrador. The core was an unworked brick shaped nodule. I worked it entirely with stone and antler. My percussion tools are alway stone and antler, but I do use copper-tipped pressure flakers in a lot of my work, although I don't like using copper on Ramah. I started using antler pressure flakers on Ramah during demonstrations for a more authentic feel, but now I genuinely prefer working the material with antler pressure flakers, even when there's no one watching. Antler just grips the edge better. I think that the slightly wider and softer tip of an antler tine is better suited to the sugary texture of Ramah.

The spearpoint in the reproduction is 4 inches long and based on the very cool stemmed points from Saglek Bay in Northern Labrador. The original artifacts are amongst the earliest and most distinctive stone tools made from Ramah chert and the occupation at Saglek Bay dates between 4530 and 3890 years ago.

The shaft is made from a quarter of a split spruce pole. Its from the pole that I was splitting with the assistance of the pièces esquillées a couple weeks ago. Interestingly, this spruce pole is a recycled piece of wood from an earlier art installation by Janet Davis.
Her husband, Duke, originally harvested it to use as one of the poles in the fish flake that supported Janet's massive hooked rug called Clifford's Education Fund, while it was on display in St. John's. I like the notion of reusing the wood as I can imagine exactly the same scenario happening in the past. The poles used in smoking or drying racks by the Maritime Archaic Indians would have been a good source of seasoned wood for spear shafts and other implements when the need arose.

Stuart and I talked about foreshafts, but since there's no wood preservation from Maritime Archaic sites its impossible to know whether or not they used spears with foreshafts. Either scenario seems plausible and for simplicity's sake we opted for a spear without a foreshaft. In the end, its 5'11" long and covered in red ochre. The lashing on the spear is rawhide and I like the idea of coating the spear with red ochre mixed with oil, especially over the binding area, as a form of waterproofing. Plus, it just looks really cool.

Maritime Archaic Indian Spear Reproduction
(Ramah Chert, spruce, rawhide, hide glue, sealskin, red ochre)
Private Commission

Its a light throwing spear, almost an oversized dart, which I kind of like. I wrapped a sealskin binding around the balance point to create a javelin grip for it, and when you hold it you just want to throw it at something. But its also light enough that if the Maritime Archaic Indians used some form of spear thrower, then this could be a large atlatl dart. There's no direct evidence for spear throwers amongst the Maritime Archaic of Newfoundland and Labrador, but it seems plausible, probably even likely, that they had the technology. We just don't have any proof yet.

If you are in St. John's and interested in learning more about Ramah Chert, I'll be knapping a piece this Sunday, February 21st, 2010, at The Rooms. Everyone's welcome!

Photo Credits:
1-4,6-8: Tim Rast
5: Janet Davis

Photo Captions:
1: The finished spearpoint against a background of Ramah Flakes
2: Stuart's Ramah core and the tools used to work it
3: The Ramah Chert point used in the reproduction
4: The split spruce pole
5: Clifford's Education Fund by Janet Davis
6: The rawhide lashing in place and drying - the purple rubber band is there to smooth down the edges of the rawhide as it dries
7: The complete spear: Ramah Chert, Spruce, Rawhide, Hide Glue, Sealskin, and Red Ochre
8: The finished spear


  1. Beautiful! It must have been hard to part with.

    By the way, why is the chert source so protected?

  2. Yeah, I tend to get attached to most of the pieces I make while I'm working on them and this one especially so.

    Ramah chert is hard to get ahold of on a lot of different levels. First, the source is in a very remote part of Northern Labrador, accessible only by boat. Its a big effort just to get there. The main reason that its protected is that it is an archaeological site. People can't collect the stone without permission from the Provincial Archaeology Office. But within the last few years that process has become even more tangly as new levels of government have become involved in the protection and permitting of sites in that area. There is a new regional Inuit government that is just getting up and running in Labrador as well as the new federal Torngat National Park. The National Park status provides a whole new level of protection since you are not allowed to remove any rocks (or plants or animals, etc) from a National Park, period, regardless of their archaeological significance.

    There's also a concern about contaminating the archaeological record by letting stray pieces of Ramah out into general ciculation. Its such a distinctive stone that a lot of information can come just from tracking the breadth and scope of its trade throughout North Eastern North America. There is a legitimate concern that if there was a lot of Ramah in general circulation it would undermine the usefullness of the stone as an indicator of long range travel and trade. For example, there is a single fluted point made from Ramah that was found in a very secure context in Vermont. The weight of discoveries like that would be undermined in the future if the stone was easily and widely available.

  3. Wow, that's quite a few hoops to have to jump through for some rock. Now I see what you mean when you say it is "almost impossible" to get ahold of. As one who marks all my points, I never considered the potential for contamination of the archeological record. I sometimes forget that just because I do it, doesn't mean that everyone else does.

  4. Tim,

    It's absolutely beautiful!


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