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

1 comment:

  1. What a nice photo essay! What beautiful craftsmanship!


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