Friday, June 4, 2010

Collecting Chert

Buckets of rock are heavy
On the way back from the Craft Council AGM in Corner Brook, I took an extra day and collected stone and wood for Elfshot.  I've been running low on chert for quite a while and had originally planned a rock collecting trip for last fall, but I couldn't schedule it.  I've been getting a lot of my chert lately from an abandoned gravel quarry north of Botwood in central Newfoundland, but there is even better quality chert on the Port au Port Peninsula on the west coast of the Island that I've been missing lately.

Port au Port chert outcrop
In the decade or so since I've visited the Port au Port chert sources, I found that access had been cut off to one of the locations by roads blocked with boulders, gates, and private property signs from cabin development in the area.  However, the main source was still there and in good shape.  One of the challenges of collecting chert for my knapped reproductions is finding a stone that looks like those found at archaeological sites, without disturbing actually quarry locations.  Flintknappers today need to find chert sources that were not exploited in the past in order to avoid contaminating the archaeological record.

All of those nodules are chert
I know that other knappers have collected rock from the Port au Port outcrop since I started using it in 1997 and I was a little concerned that signs of that use would begin to create the look of an archaeological site, as cores are tested and flakes are produced.  But that wasn't the case.  I was there when the tide was quite high, so I couldn't see all of the beach, but at the base of the actual chert cliff I didn't see any sign that flintknappers had collected or worked stone at this location either recently or hundreds of years ago.  At this site, if I test a core and get a nice flake, I collect both the flake and the core, so that I don't leave worked pieces behind.   It looks like the other knappers who collect here do the same thing, which is great.

Chert nodules surrounded by fractured chert and sedimentary rocks

Conchoidal fracture in situ
The chert at this location is extremely fine grained and although it is prone to fractures like all Newfoundland chert, it is possible to get sizable cores with enough integrity to make 4 or 5 inch long bifaces.  The chert is all grey, with some subtle swirls of lighter, darker, or bluish grey throughout it.  There is also sprinkling of pyrite crystals throughout the chert, which doesn't impede its knapping, but add an interesting metallic sheen to many of the pieces knapped from it.

Ready to haul rock to the other end of the province
On very rare occasions, I've actually hit pockets of oil inside this stone.  It was the weirdest thing, I removed a flake and it felt wet and sticky, which usually means that I've cut myself, but this time it was a little puddle of oil encased inside the chert.

Gravel quarry of vertical chert beds
The other location that I collect chert from is a little closer to St. John's and has a lot more variety in colour, but its slightly tougher to work and is a little more prone to internal fractures than the Port au Port material.  Its an unused road gravel quarry located north of Botwood and the entire pit was excavated down through beds of chert that range in colour from green and black to red, blue, aqua, grey, buff, and purple.  Its so highly fractured that its difficult to find workable pieces in all of those colours, but the shear volume of stone that is exposed in the pit makes collecting stone fast and easy.
Chert in the quarry north of Botwood

The debris in the quarry is growing
Since my last visit to this location a couple years ago, it seems to have become a party place.  There were toppled shelters, and piles of debris and fire pits peppering the floor of the pit.  Chert is basically silica, so this quarry is like an enormous pit of broken glass.  I can't imagine a more treacherous place to have a party.  I was wearing gloves and steel-toed boots and felt lucky to get out without serious injury.   Its not a place that I'd want to be in the dark with alcohol.  Someone had spray painted "GRAD PART" in enormous letters at one end of the pit and I can't help but wonder what happened to them to prevent them from finishing that last letter.

Chert in the quarry wall
I'm a little worried that if this trend continues the next time I try to collect rock here I'll find boulders across the road blocking access, like the location that I couldn't get to on the Port au Port Peninsula.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. Cool post Tim, looks like fun! It's great to see the kinds of places where your getting your local cherts. The "Grad Part" comment is hilarious. While I suspect that they simply ran out of paint, it's certainly more fun to speculate less likely reasons :)

  2. My guess is they were too drunk to remember how to spell 'Party'.
    Really neat post Tim. Looking forward to seeing more shots from the Port au Port quarry.

  3. Steve, I put a bunch more photos from the trip in your dropbox and e-mailed a little more detailed report to you for the PAO. I'll probably post a few more photos on the blog over the summer as well. The Port au Port chert really is worth the visit, I just wish it wasn't so far away. After years of primarily working with the Botwood chert, the quality of the Port au Port material is a real treat to work.

    Yeah, coming home half cut from a party in that quarry would mean something completely different...

  4. Very cool! I'd like to see some up-close photos of the different cherts you collect. I have some big chunks of Newfoundland chert that a friend of mine brought back for me. He's a geologist and was just driving along the highway somewhere, noticed a vein of chert on the side of the road and knocked some off. I don't know where he was though. It'd be neat to compare mine to what you have. :)

  5. Caitlyn, that sounds very interesting - I haven't had any luck finding roadcut chert sources, but that doesn't stop me from checking. If you can get any more details on where your friend picked up the chert I'd be very interested and grateful. I can certainly put up some more photos of the stone I collect.

  6. I have some bright red jasper with black streaks running through it from a road cut on the Baie Verte Peninsula that I collected a few years back. Not sure if I ever showed you. You're welcome to a sample if you want to see how it works. I found similar material on the Dorset sites at Cow Cove and French Island.


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