Yesterday the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory (TARL) hosted a lithics and flintknapping workshop. I know next to nothing about lithics and honestly am not very interested in them, but I’ve been told that it’s something I should know about if you do archaeology in Texas. Also, I’m tired of going to meetings and presentations with my local archaeology group and hearing words like “chert” and “debitage” and “Folsom point” and “biface” being flung around casually and having no freaking clue what’s going on. I’m lucky to have a very patient friend who majored in anthropology. I have gotten very good at sending clandestine text messages to her during presentations going, “HELP! WHAT IS DEBITAGE? I AM SO LOST!” Thanks, Christine!
My husband, Paul, has very little interest in archaeology, but he enjoys working with his hands (woodworking is a hobby of his) and I invited him to come along. We dropped our daughter off with his parents for the day and headed over to the UT Pickle Campus to see the mythical TARL. Everyone also flings “Oh, such-and-such artifacts are stored over at TARL” or “Yeah, I was at TARL” around casually, so visiting the lab had become this sort of archaeology rite-of-passage in my head. It’s like I’m not a serious archaeology student unless I’ve been to TARL for some reason. Well, I finally had a reason!
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t get to see much of TARL except the bathroom, one of the portable classrooms, and the finds washing station out back (which was pretty cool). The first half of the workshop was a quick-and-dirty hour and a half presentation over lithics in general. The instructor was super friendly and interesting to listen to. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be bored to tears or not (seeing as I’m not interested in this stuff that much), but I found it fascinating. We learned about the different kinds of stone that’s used (‘chert’ is just another word for flint) and the various stages of tool production. There were lots of great examples of typical stone tools and I now know the difference between an arrowhead and a dart. Some of the artifacts he showed us I’d heard about at other presentations and the digs where they’d been excavated. I was probably a little too thrilled that I could finally start making connections! Well, I don’t care. I’ve only been doing this for about 8 months and I’m excited that I can start putting two-and-two together!
The team at TARL pulled a ton of examples that were spread out over two rows of tables and, with few exceptions, we were allowed to pick up and handle the artifacts. I finally know what chert, debitage, Folsom point, and biface means! I can now nod along sagely with the rest of the archaeology enthusiasts at meetings instead of frowning and dashing frantic texts off to Christine under the table!
We grabbed some lunch at Jimmy Johns up the street and then headed back for the second half of the workshop, which was actually getting a chance to try flintknapping. We spent about 30 minutes watching Sergio, a professional flintknapper, make a replica Folsom point from scratch, explaining his thought processes about where to strike as he shaped the tool. Sergio said you have to see the finished tool inside the rock. I was reminded of when I studied in Italy and visited the Galleria dell’Academia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s “David.” The tour guide told us that Michelangelo saw the finished statue inside the marble before he started sculpting and said it was his job to release the statue from the stone. I’m not an artist, but I got the concept.
Then it was our turn. We spread out under the permanent canopy near the wash stations, where a bunch of tarps were laid out to catch the flakes that came off our pieces of chert. Our seats were a bunch of overturned 5 gallon buckets. I just bought a new pair of gloves for field school and I was excited to break them in a little before next month. The pieces of chert they gave us were huge and not at all like the smaller, flat pieces that the professionals had used for demonstration. I was a bit frustrated because I have no idea how to break those big cores down into a smaller, workable piece. I just banged away at the piece with my hammerstone, which I succeeded to break twice! I had to go get another one. The original piece of chert I started with was about three times the size of the finished product. I wound up with a prehistoric paperweight that you couldn’t even use to knock out a mammoth, but you can see where I soft-of tried to achieve the leafy shape of a spear point:
Paul didn’t fare much better, but no one really did. We all laughed at our bad creations. Paul picked up a chert flake from the ground and managed to slice his leather gloves open and cut his thumb. That is impressively sharp! Fortunately, I carry bandages in my purse (it’s a mom thing). I can see just how effective those tools are when properly made!
On Time Team, they always go to the pub at the end of a long day of archaeology. Paul and I opted for Starbucks, seeing as it was only about 2:30 in the afternoon:
I do want to try flintknapping again, hopefully with a better piece of chert that isn’t twice the size of my hand! Seriously, that stuff was huge!