Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Knapping a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Knife; A Photo Essay

The Knapper
Here's a photo essay documenting the steps and tools that I use to reproduce a Dorset Palaeoeskimo knife blade from a stone core.  The stone that I'm working in this demonstration is chert from Newfoundland's Port au Port peninsula.  In this scenario, I am making a new blade to fit into an existing handle.  This would have probably happened many times over the life of the antler handle, which I think is actually a very stylized polar bear carving.  From an archaeologist's perspective, the stone blade seems permanent, but to the person who made and used these knives every day, the handle would be the part that they would own for years and the blades would wear out and be thrown away. These photos were taken by Michael Burzynski in Gros Morne National Park on March 25th, 2011.

The finished knife, with an antler handle, chert blade and sinew binding.  The Dorset Palaeoeskimos made knives like this when they lived on the Island of Newfoundland between about 2100 and 1300 BP.
Reference knives, the chert cores (top right and left), hammerstones, antler billet (bottom middle) and antler tine pressure flakers used in this demonstration.  The tools are pretty generic - I use this same kit to reproduce tools from a number of cultures.  Probably the most Palaeoeskimo inspired tool that I use is the small, cigar-shaped grey-green hammerstone in the middle.  Hammerstones found at palaeoeskimo sites in the province are often long like that and can be used like a short billet.
This is the original knife blade that I want to copy.  Normally this would be worn out and much smaller when it was replaced, but for the sake of the demo, its still new.   I'm holding it in front of the core where I intend to remove the flake to make its replacement copy.
Weighing the hammerstone.  I use a large hammerstone to remove the initial flake from the core.
I support the core on my thigh against a leather pad in the hopes that I will keep the flake in one piece when I strike it off with the hammerstone.
I detached a triangular flake, thin at the base and a little larger than the blade that I want to make.
I use the gritty white, round hammerstone to abrade the edges.  I use this same abrading stone throughout the demo to grind the edge and prepare sturdy platforms for flake removal.

The first few shaping flakes that I remove from the flake are removed using the little cigar shaped hammerstone.  I swing  it like a short antler billet.
The antler billet is soft.  It grips more of the edge and lets me take off wider, flatter flakes that help thin the biface down.  A biface is a tool with flakes removed on both surfaces, like a knife or arrowhead.
swinging the antler billet
After a few shaping and thinning flakes are removed, the general triangular shape of the knife blade starts to appear.  On the left is the original knife blade that I am working towards.
Most of the final shaping is done using pressure.
I hold the small antler tine against the edge of the tool and push flakes off.  The Palaeoeskimos may have used dense sea mammal bone pressure flakers from walrus bone or seal baccula. 
I brace the back of my left hand inside my left thigh and the elbow of my right arm on my right thigh and squeeze with my whole body to generate the force needed to push a flake off the stone.

I'm trying to even out the edge and create the final shape.  The original knife blade is on the left and you can see that it has a clean straight edge, compared to the blade in progress.

Examining the edge.  There's a lot of stopping, thinking, and planning involved in knapping a tool.
With more pressure flaking, the new knife blade starts to take on the thinness of the original blade. I'm especially careful to thin the base, where the knife will fit into the handle.

I have left the edge thin and sharp and slightly serrated.  The outline is finished and its ready to notch.  The flat piece of antler in my hand is the notching tool.

My notcher is filed flat like a screw-driver head so that its both strong and narrow to fit into the little notches.  The notches on a Dorset Palaeoeskimo knife are relatively shallow and placed on the side.  I use the notcher to nibble them in place - taking a few little chips out on one side, flipping it over, and taking out a few more little chips in the same place.

When the knife is fit into the slot in the handle, the notches will line up with the groove.
Fit in place.  This is why it was so important to thin the knife - especially at the base.  Its part of a composite tool and the thinner the base, the easier the hafting ob will be.
The final step is using a length of moist sinew to tie the knife blade in place.  The sinew shrinks and dries and holds the blade firmly in place through the side notches.

The finished tool and some of the debitage (waste flakes) from its manufacture.
 Photo Credits: Michael Burzynski

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gros Morne Trip and Filming

Moose pausing for a drink
I spent Friday and Saturday in Gros Morne National Park.  It was a quick trip and the weather was mostly white out snow squalls, but its still such an amazing place that I was able to fit in visits with old friends, spot a thirsty moose along the side of the road, fill myself up on Northern Peninsula morel mushrooms, garden grown salsa and local berries, have a caribou sausage breakfast (with a bakeapple cheesecake desert!), hike through drifting snow at Western Brook Pond and get a little bit of flintknapping in as well.

Fitting the new blade to the old handle
The flintknapping was the purpose for the trip.  Ron O'Connell from VidCraft came up from Corner Brook to film the session so that Parks Canada would have footage of stone working for the upgraded displays at L'Anse aux Meadows.  I knapped a Dorset Palaeoeskimo knife blade and fit it into an antler handle that I'd prepared earlier.  The handle is based on an artifact from Port au Choix, which we talked about during the filming, so Parks may find uses for the footage at other sites in the Province.

filming in the theatre
We filmed in the theatre at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre at Rocky Harbour.  While Ron was filming me work, a few Parks Canada staff watched and assisted.  Mike Burzynski took a couple hundred photos of the session and thanks to Ron's studio set up and Mike's keen photographer's eye - the photos turned out amazing.  So by the end of the 3 hour session we had the whole process documented on both hi-def video and still photography.  Mike gave me a CD of the images and said I could use them on my blog.  I've only included a couple here today, because they are so good and so thorough, that I want to present them as a separate photo essay at a later date to show all the stages of knapping a Droset Palaeoeskimo knife.

Fused glass cod at the Deer Lake Airport
I love the west coast, and Gros Morne, in particular.  The last time I was on the left side of the province was last spring for the Craft Council AGM.   The stone that I used in the Dorset knife demonstration was some of the chert that I collected on the Port au Port Peninsula on the way home from that trip.  During the AGM weekend we visited craft producers in the area, including Urve Manuel's stained glass studio, where we saw a large piece that she was working on for the Deer Lake Airport.  Since I flew in this time, I was lucky enough to see the completed work installed.

Urve Manuel's installation "Coming and Going" at the Deer Lake Airport.  Cod on the left and Atlantic Salmon on the right.

Cold didn't seem to phase this moose

I looked, but the only caribou I saw were on my plate at breakfast.

Bakeapple cheesecake!  

Cold, stormy day on the west coast

Wow.  Bald All-Season tires for winter driving in Newfoundland - thanks Budget!

High Seas
 Photo Credits:
1, 4-11: Tim Rast
2,3: Michael Burzynski

Friday, March 25, 2011

Packing, Shipping, Travelling

Chert knives and knapping tools
I'm sitting at the St. John's airport with my fingers crossed.  If there happens to be a break in the blowing snow at 7AM then I'll be on my way to Rocky Harbour in Gros Morne National Park in an hour or so.  Its just a quick two-day trip to film a flintknapping session for use in the Interpretation Centre at L'Anse aux Meadows.  The Parks Canada offices and the film-maker are on the west coast of Newfoundland and I'm in the east.  We've been trying to work out a time to film since I finished the harpoon and other reproductions for the site last spring and were finally able to sneak this trip in before the end of the current budget year.   I'll be knapping a Dorset Palaeoeskimo knife from chert.

Packing up the set
Yesterday, Lori packaged up the last 10 pieces in the Central Arctic set and we shipped them off to the client in Burnaby.  Its a big relief to have that order done and off my plate - although I won't be able to completely relax until I know that it all arrived safe and sound.  As soon as I get a moment to sit down at the computer again, I'll post a few more shots of the last piece in the set and do a wrap-up post on the project.

Unfortunately I had to ship the whip before leaving for the filming.  How will anyone know I'm an archaeologist now?

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Change Islands Cache

Change Islands Cache Bifaces
Late last summer, a Newfoundland and Labrador couple stretching their legs at the Change Islands ferry terminal unexpectedly made a spectacular archaeological find.  In September 2010, Neil White and Marion Adams discovered a tighly packed cache of 32 large rhyolite bifaces.  The stone artifacts were buried standing on edge stacked together "like a deck of cards".  A few biface fragments were on the surface and caught Neil's eye.  He recognized that the stones were flinknapped from watching survival TV programs.  The tip of one of the points had been exposed on the surface long enough that it was spattered with paint from nearby construction. A backhoe used in the construction had stripped several inches of debris and soil over the cache and when the White's found them they were very near the surface.  Not realizing the size of the cache, the White's pulled the bifaces out of the ground one after the other.   As they slid each one out of the ground they could hear it rasping against another one still in situ.

Beautifully worked rhyolite
Neil and Marion immediately recognized the significance of what they had found and they didn't want to disturb the whole cache, but they were worried about its security if it was left partially exposed.  Neil said that the entire cache came from an area in the ground no bigger than an apple crate.  Originally, the bifaces may have been wrapped together in a leather or bark bundle, or buried in a small hole.  They decided to gather up the bifaces and contact an archaeologist.  They took the bifaces to the nearest museum - the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd's Cove.  Karen Ledrew-Day knew that this was something very special and contacted the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO).  Ken Reynolds drove out to the Change Island's to meet the Whites, further excavate the findspot, and collect the bifaces.  Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the whole story is the selflessness of Neil White and Marion Adams, whose first thought was to report their find and donate the artifacts to the people of the Province.  They deserve a lot of credit for how they reported the find.

An awe inspiring visit
Lori and I had the opportunity to see and photograph the bifaces when Ken brought them back to the PAO for cataloguing and analysis.  We've been waiting for the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation to publicly acknowledge the White's find before we mentioned the cache here.  Disappointingly, that never happened, but the cache was reported in the Provincial Archaeology Office's annual archaeology review earlier this week (Volume 9 for 2010 Field Season), so Lori and I can now share our photos of the bifaces.

For their size, they are very thin
Although they vary in size and 4 of them are wide flat platters, the 32 bifaces are remarkably uniform in style.  They are all made from the same material and are equally thin and well finished.  Everyone who sees them feels that they were all made by one person.  There are some breaks, but between the White's initial collection and Ken's subsequent excavation of the findspot, many of the missing tips and corners were found.  It appears that the bifaces were perfect, whole, and unused when they were originally cached.  These are not preforms in the midst of transport, or blanks prepared for heat treatment, but completed tools, that were never used.  If the larger bifaces were bifacial cores, then they were used up and the edges carefully finished.

The cache at the PAO
The exact age of the cache is uncertain and will be the subject of future research, however, there are a couple likely candidates.  The Maritime Archaic Indians and Recent Indians both made large bifaces from Rhyolite and could have left the cache.  Given the location of the find very close to the modern shoreline, I feel that the Recent Indians are the more likely candidates.  The shoreline in this part of Newfoundland has undergone several metres of submergence since Maritime Archaic Indian times, which means that an Archaic cache at this spot would likely be underwater, unless it was placed at an unusually high elevation.  If it is a Recent Indian cache, then the earlier Cow Head or perhaps Beaches complexes (ca. 2000-1000 BP) seem more likely than the Little Passage or Beothuk, because such large stone tools are rare in the more recent periods.

Some were very large
The source of the stone will also be more fully researched as there are several rhyolite outcrops and quarries on the Island that might have provided the stone.  When Ken was in the area, he revisited the Rhyolite outcrops and workshops at Brimstone Head, near Fogo and collected samples that are a very good visual match for the artifacts in the cache.  Its the closest known rhyolite source to the cache and seems like the most likely candidate for the rock.  Researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland are doing non-destructive testing on the bifaces to attempt to determine the source of the raw material.

The Change Islands Cache (click to enlarge)
For more information on the Change Island's Cache - check out the Provincial Archaeology Office's Archaeology Review, Volume 9 for 2010 Field Season, pg 137-140.

Here are the photos of the 32 bifaces that Lori and I took last fall.  You can click any of the images to see a larger version.  Thanks to the PAO for letting us see these unique pieces and especially to Neil White and Marion Adams for sharing this amazing find with the all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast
Edited April 6, 2011 to correct Marion's name.
Related Posts with Thumbnails