Plant, Animal, and Stone

Posted on November 24, 2009


Did you miss me?  So did I.  In this post, I’ll talk about the museum I visited the weekend before last and about flintknapping.

As I said, the weekend was a lot of fun.  My father took me to visit the Connecticut Museum of Mining & Mineral Science in Kent, CT.  There a man named John A. Pawloski spent a good deal of his time showing me the museum and teaching me about primitive technologies.

The exterior of the museum was paved with bricks, but not in the usual way.  Historically, brick makers have frequently imprinted their bricks with a mark indicating the manufacturer.  Usually brick is laid so that this part is hidden.  But at this museum, the brick marks are all turned outward so we can see them.  That’s a good place to begin describing the character of the place.  It’s about technology, but more fundamentally it’s about people.  Everywhere you look it tells you a story not just about the way something worked, but who made it work and how it affected people.  When I saw that, I felt I had really come to the right place.

First, John showed me around the museum.  It’s amazing.  A lot of work has gone into it and when John tells me about it I can hear in his voice that he is proud – as he should be.  The mineral collection is beautiful, with samples far more impressive than I’ve seen at more famous museums.  He told me about many improvements planned and in-the-works.  It is an ongoing labor of love, and it definitely shows.

Here are some more photos (courtesy of John A. Pawloski).  Click to enlarge:

John is a primitive technologist.  What that means can range from hobby to profession.  I think in John’s case, it’s a little of both.  It turns out there are many organizations devoted to studying, teaching, and practicing primitive technologies.  Here are some links to the websites of a few of them:

Primitive technologists are frequently involved with experimental archeology.  Experimental archeology seeks to learn about the distant past not just by examining artifacts but by actually trying to experience aspects of ancient life.  Sound familiar?  😉  By making a concrete attempt to reconstruct a way of doing things conjectured based on material evidence, archeologists can discover which theories are plausible, from a practical standpoint, and which are not (i.e. “We have discovered, by trying it out, that this would not have been a practical way to do it.”).  It is the same question of practical plausibility that leads archeologists to look at indigenous American cultures to help answer questions about cultures in the paleolithic era – using similar materials and pattern of subsistence, they are an example of a way of life that we know works.

Although I specifically asked about making stone tools (flintknapping), John told me a lot about all kinds of ways a paleolithic person might make tools (and other useful things).  Tools can be made from plant parts, animal parts, stones, and combinations thereof.  As discussed in a prior post, you can use vines for tying things and fibrous plants to make cord / rope, for tying things even better.  You can also use sap, and other plant products, as an adhesive.  And of course, woody plants give you … wood!  Wood can be carved into all kinds of useful shapes.  Soaking strips of wood in water can temporarily soften them so they can be bent into shape.  Sticks and tree branches can often be used as-is.  Wood, and dry leaves, also do something else very important.  They burn.  But there will be another post all about that.  😉

Dead animals are also extremely useful for making things.  Bones can be turned into cutting tools, skin can be used for clothing and as a covering for a shelter, and strips of skin can tie things together as can ligaments.  Mollusk shells can be used for scraping or they can be fractured to form a sharp edge and used for cutting.

Finally, rocks.  Rocks come in many varieties and shapes naturally, so you can often pick one up and find that it’s already a useful tool.  At the very least many of them are good for banging on things to break or dent them.  But some very useful rock shapes are hard to come by in nature, so humans have devised ways to reshape rocks to meet their needs.  It’s called “flintknapping” and it amounts to chipping pieces off of rocks until they’re the right shape.

But the name is misleading.  Flint is one type of rock, but there are many kinds of rock out there, often more plentiful than flint, that can be chipped with varying degrees of difficulty.  Why does flint get all the fame and glory?  It is easier to chip than many other kinds of rock, but its main advantage is the way it fractures.  Geologists call it “conchoidal fracture”.  Named after the curved shape of a conch, it is the fracture pattern seen when the fracture is not constrained directionally by the properties of the material.  In addition to flint, most notably, obsidian (a volcanic glass) fractures this way.  Not surprisingly, it is also a favored rock for making tools.

Conchoidal fracture is useful for two reasons.  Firstly, the way the rock breaks depends on how you strike it, not on the orientation of a crystalline structure.  That makes it easier to work with.  Secondly, the edge formed by the crossing of two conchoidal fractures can be extraordinarily sharp.  Sharper, even, than the sharpest steel blades (but more brittle).  So this makes for some really good cutting tools.

John sat with me and demonstrated the various techniques of flintknapping along with ways the resulting tools can be used.  Here and there my father also chimed in with helpful information.  As it happens, he is a geologist.  Now I will tell you about those techniques, but I will also use the book “Flintknapping”, by John C. Whittaker, as a reference.

First we have hard-hammer percussion.  The idea is simple: just hit the core (the piece you are knocking flakes off of) with another rock.  It works best if you use a fast motion, grazing the edge of the core.  If you hit the middle of the core hard, the whole thing will shatter into many small pieces.  Hard-hammer percussion can get you long, smooth, sharp edges … if you do it just right.  This takes a lot of skill.

Photo by Stanley Schleifer, courtesy of John A. Powloski

A technique which is easier to control, but which creates a more “serrated” edge, is pressure flaking.  This is how the typical arrowhead is made.  The idea is that you apply controlled pressure to a spot on the core and increase the pressure until a small piece breaks off.  This is done using another tool.  John demonstrated using a piece of antler.  The book also recommends wearing something to protect your wrists while pressure flaking, as sharp flakes are likely to strike you there.  And, of course, eye protection is a given for all of these techniques.

Soft-hammer percussion is often used for creating finely shaped edges.  This is like hard-hammer percussion, but you strike the core with something softer such as a bone or piece of wood, rather than another rock.  Generally, the “soft hammer” would be hit on the other side by a rock to drive it percussively into the edge of the core.

John also demonstrated shaping other, softer rocks, such as soapstone, by grinding them with harder rocks (or bones).  He also let me try drilling the soapstone with a bow drill (a tool I’ll discuss more for fire-making).

I did get an opportunity to try some of these techniques there at the museum, but I didn’t have any eye protection, so most of my work has to wait until I get some.  John wears prescription eyeglasses, so he was fine.

The mining museum is actually part of a larger site called the Connecticut Antique Machinery Association.  So before I left, John and some of his fellow antique machinery enthusiasts took me to another building at the same site.  It was the “Industrial Hall of Steam Power”.  Incredible.  Huge, historical steam engines rebuilt and operational.  I’ll write more about that later, because I’ll surely return there when I get to steam engines!  In the mean time, I recommend this place.  Go see it for yourself.  …when it opens again.  It was closed for the season, but John agreed to show me around anyway.  🙂

When it was time to go, John sent me home with plenty of materials to practice on.  Thank you, again, John!  And also thank you to my dad.  I’d better get cracking!  Er … flaking, I mean.

Thank you for reading!