Busting a Myth about Ancient Arrowhead Production in Tennessee

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is devoting a portion of its 2015 posts to public archaeology outreach in Tennessee. Our goal is to deliver interesting and memorable archaeological information, both small and great, to the ordinary citizen of Tennessee. This particular post is devoted to dispelling an archaeological folk myth that has been circulating in Tennessee for a very long time. Although we do not know exactly how long, it may have been circulating for more than 100-150 years.

Wise old grandfathers, public school teachers, citizens with excellent college educations, and just ordinary folks in Tennessee have been telling generations of children that ancient Native Americans had a very special, water-based technology for making arrowheads. Arrowheads are usually referred to as projectile points/knives (pp/k) by professional archaeologists in Tennessee. Interestingly, most of the prehistoric arrowheads found in Tennessee were never used on arrows. They were used as the tips on atlatl darts or as hafted knife blades. The atlatl was a unique spear-throwing device used in hunting and warfare by ancient Native Americans in Tennessee prior to the Mississippian Period (A.D. 700-1600). Hafted knife blades were often resharpened so many times they became mere nubs, leaving the illusion that they were once the tips of atlatl darts. The term arrowhead is used throughout this post because most Tennesseans are familiar with this often incorrectly used term, and they have developed a visual template of one in their minds. For those who have never seen a Native American arrowhead, some examples are shown in Figure 1.

Tennessee Arrowheads

Figure 1.  Prehistoric Arrowheads Found in Tennessee

What was this very special technology ancient Native Americans were using to make arrowheads? Well, the story goes something like the following:

The ancient American Indians made arrowheads out of flint rocks, usually picked up in stream beds. An Indian brave who wanted to make an arrowhead would go down to the creek and pick out a roughly spherical hunk of chert. He would then take it back to his camp and build a roaring, superhot fire. The hunk of chert was then inserted into the fire until it got red hot and glowing. Then he would quickly run down to the creek or spring to fetch some ice-cold water. Next, the Indian man would fish the red-hot chert out of the fire and use a plant straw to apply cold drops of water to the hot flint. When a big drop of cold water hit the hot hunk of flint, the extreme difference in temperatures would cause the hunk of flint to break into large pieces. The American Indian man would then select a broken piece of flint nice enough to make an arrowhead. After doing that, and while it was still red hot, he continued applying cold drops of water in strategic places on the broken piece of flint, and the difference in heat would cause tiny flakes of flint to pop off the piece. This process would continue until the cold drops of water had popped off enough flakes to create a really nice and perfectly shaped Indian arrowhead.

This old story sounds delightful to kids, and on the surface, it appears to be intuitively plausible to the average adult. However, this story is pure fiction. It is a very old folk myth that has been passed down carelessly from one generation to the next by well-meaning―but quite ignorant—people who knew virtually nothing about prehistoric arrowhead-making in the United States. Prehistoric arrowheads were not made like this. As a practical matter, it quite simply does not work. Furthermore, American archaeologists know for certain how ancient Native Americans actually made their arrowheads, and it had nothing to do with dripping cold water onto hot flint. In fact, historic-era Native Americans, such as the famous Native American man named Ishi in California, were still making arrowheads in the true, ancient, time-honored ways during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  You can read more about Ishi at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishi

Unfortunately, the citizens of Tennessee (and other states) have been misled for generations by all sorts of pure nonsense, false ideas, and fraudulent stories about prehistoric Native Americans, their artifacts, and the archaeology of Tennessee. In his new book entitled Chiefdom on the Cumberland: The History and Evolution of Middle Tennessee Archaeology, professional archaeologist Donald B. Ball (2015:183-184) has touched briefly on this persistent and terribly misleading mythology:

It would be a pleasure to believe that the “myths” of the region’s prehistoric past have been laid to rest and the advance of scholarly archaeology has replaced the folk tales and unmitigated romanticism of a prior century. Such is not the case. Recurrent tales of ancient pygmies and giants in Middle Tennessee remain alive and well in the realms of contemporary Internet “new age” and counterculture science (cf. Corliss 1978; Pilapil 1991; Williams 1991:273). Other beliefs concerning the inhabitants of the region likewise appear to remain well engrained in the “folk” mindset. At various times since the late 1960s, the author has been inundated with “authoritative” comments from well-intentioned folks regarding “skinning rocks” and “bird points.” Several individuals have explained in great detail how Native Americans made “arrow heads” by heating chert to red hot temperature and then carefully dripping water from a straw onto the glowing rock (though admittedly none of these informants had ever personally tried doing this). Vendors at flea markets have adamantly maintained that they or a trusted friend personally found the “thunderbird effigies” or carefully crafted flint fishhooks they were selling.

Several [artifact] collectors have remarked with a straight face and the greatest sincerity that some of the sites they had visited were ancient Indian battlegrounds “because all of the arrowheads were found pointing in the same direction” although one must wonder why this is the case in that most fields have likely been plowed for well over a century. In one instance, a gentleman spoke in almost mystical terms of a large quartz crystal recovered from a site in Franklin County (south-central), Tennessee. According to him, when correctly held to the rays of the sun the image of an “Indian princess” could be clearly seen. Another gentleman was firmly convinced that his house burned because he had unleashed an ancient curse when he knowingly disturbed an Indian burial and removed some of the bones. While many (though certainly not all) of the myths surrounding long vanished races of giants and pygmies in Middle Tennessee have largely disappeared into the dust of the past, a new generation of folklore has arisen in their place. The myth is not dead; like the Phoenix of old, it has merely been reborn and risen anew.

How were ancient Native American arrowheads actually made? They were made through a combination of percussion flaking and pressure flaking. In percussion flaking, a rounded rock hammerstone was used to break a raw chunk of flint into large pieces. Large antler percussion tools were often used to hammer off smaller flakes of flint. More refined flint working was done by using tough antler or bone tools to remove small flakes by applying hand pressure to the flint.

Intuitively, a person might think percussion and pressure flaking would be very difficult to control when hitting a brittle piece of rock like flint. Would hitting it not just shatter the flint into a million random pieces like breaking glass? No―not exactly. Good quality chert was pretty easy to work in ancient times. Some flint flakes did zoom randomly through the air, but an ancient flint knapper had an amazing amount of control over his flint raw material during the knapping process. Like anything else in life, the ability to make an ancient arrowhead from flint required some talent, knowledge, and frequent practice.

Over the past 150 years, archaeologists have learned in great detail how ancient Native Americans and other ancient peoples around the world made arrowheads. If you would like to know how arrowheads were really made in ancient Tennessee, please watch the following short video clip. It shows a British flint knapper making an arrowhead from a raw chunk of flint. Just click on the following video link—and be sure to read our safety warning below the video link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6QO2DthGPc

SAFETY WARNING

Flint knapping poses a significant safety risk to the person doing the knapping and people standing, sitting, or kneeling near the knapper. Flakes can fly through the air in any random direction and hit any of these people. These flakes are sharp as broken glass. Knapping can easily lacerate hands, arms, and other exposed body parts, turning them into a bloody mess. Safe flint knapping requires technical knowledge of the knapping process, basic safety knowledge, and physical safety measures such as wearing safety-grade eye protection devices and using leather pads and appropriate clothing to protect your hands, arms, and legs from severe cuts.

If you have never done flint knapping, please do not try it on your own at home. Get in touch with an expert flint knapper who lives in your area. This person can most likely teach you the principles of flint knapping and the safety precautions that go with it. Although some modern knappers do not use eye protection, we here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog believe standard eye protection measures are a must in flint knapping. You might not be able to do it with the Red Rider B-B gun you got for Christmas, but you really can shoot your eye out while knapping flint.

References

Ball, Donald B. 2015.  Chiefdom on the Cumberland: The History and Evolution of Middle Tennessee Archaeology.  Tuscaloosa: Borgo Publishing.

Corliss, William R. 1978. Ancient Man: A Handbook of Puzzling Artifacts. Sourcebook Project.  Glen Arm, Maryland.

Piliapil, Virgilio R. 1991.  Was There a Prehistoric Migration of the Philippine Aetas to America?  Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers 20:150.

Williams, Stephen 1991.  Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Celebrate the Fairvue Plantation and Isaac Franklin?

Several years ago, The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville ran a story about a planned celebration of the old Fairvue Plantation in Sumner County, Tennessee. Best I can recall, the item I read made little mention of the early 19th century man who owned the old Fairvue Plantation. However, it seemed to me that one could not separate the plantation from the principal man associated with it in Tennessee history. In my mind, the two necessarily went hand in hand, and it was hard for me to envision how it was possible to celebrate one without simultaneously celebrating the other. This disturbed me enough to write a reply to the newspaper article, which is shown in a revised and edited form below. You may think or feel differently about this, and you are entitled to your thoughts and feelings. This is what I thought and the way I felt about it at the time.

As a professional archaeologist and a sometimes historian in relation to it, I have mixed feelings about celebrating the history of the old Fairvue Plantation in Sumner County, Tennessee. I think it would be more appropriate to leave out words such as celebrate. The phrases “telling the history of Fairvue” or “telling the story of Fairvue” would be better. In addition, I do not think the historical telling of this story should be sanitized to remove or gloss over the evil that once resided within it and its 19th century owner (Isaac Franklin).

When I was growing up in Gallatin, Tennessee, in the 1950s and 1960s, an inherited memory of the American Civil War (1861-1865) was still an active force in Sumner County. As in the book Gone with the Wind, many of the local citizens seemed to feel that an ancient culture and way of life to which they were entitled had been ripped from them by the awful and unjustified actions of President Abraham Lincoln. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was suddenly on the scene in the 1960s and taking actions that destroyed even those few broken remnants of the Old South that had been salvaged, however imperfectly, under Jim Crow. Among the wealthy old dowagers of Sumner County and their spouses (long dead), there seemed to be a powerful impetus to attempt a resurrection of the Old South and its culture in Sumner County by purchasing broken down antebellum homes, restoring them, and implementing snobby tea parties at 4:00 p.m. on weekdays.  Naturally, I had nothing against restoring the old homes, but I thought the assorted attempts to recreate what was regarded as the precious social graces of an elite class of people from a lost time were more than a little disgusting, especially when one considered the economic behaviors and practices that funded tea time in 1845.

As I look back on the history of the old Fairvue Plantation, the baseline truth of the matter is that Isaac Franklin was a reprehensible human being. He was not just a slave owner but also―above all else―one of the Old South’s most important slave brokers and traders. He worked at the very pinnacle of this disgusting industry in Natchez, Mississippi, and he was a broker in human misery.

The life of Isaac Franklin deserves no celebration whatsoever. He made a place for himself in American history, but it should be remembered always as a dark, sinister, and evil place, unless we are willing to again embrace the low-life behaviors that won him his fortune, which I doubt many would want to do today. Isaac Franklin may have been a man created by his own time in history, but in the total sweep of human history, the things he did were evil. I think he needs to be judged by American history on the basis of the evil he did. No beautiful mansions, thoroughbred race tracks, grand acreages, or afternoon tea times should act as a pleasing curtain to hide the historical actions of this man from future generations. As the neighborhoods of Ferguson and Baltimore burn, we need to remember that the original historical remains of the old Fairvue Plantation were in some measure built and maintained with money from the sale of human beings into slavery, and the negative fallout from the institution of slavery still haunts us to this very day.

Photograph of Archaeology in Tennessee Blog Owner

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog has been operating for almost 3 years now, and it occurred to me one day that most of my readers have never met me in person and have never seen a photograph of me—not that you would want to do so.  The trouble is that I have seen photographs of most of you at one time or another in assorted contexts, and I thought it only fair that you should get a view of me.  I do not have snakes for hair, but there is still some risk that a glimpse of me might turn you to stone.  A photograph of me, taken just a few days ago, is up on my Linked-In  profile.  It shows the Environmental Scientist/Professional Archaeologist/Professional Technical Editor and Science Writer in his natural environment—the office—in this case my upstairs office at home—but my work office often looks much the same.  The URL is as follows:

https://www.linkedin.com/profile/preview?vpa=cxn1&locale=en_US

Nice to meet you all!!!

Tracy

New Book Available: Chiefdom on the Cumberland

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is proud to announce the publication of a new book on Middle Tennessee archaeology.  After many years of dedicated research and writing, Mr. Donald B. Ball has just completed a book presenting the history and evolution of archaeology in Middle Tennessee and focusing on the Mississippian archaeology of the Middle Cumberland region. The title of the new book is Chiefdom on the Cumberland.  This hardcover book contains 408 pages, including the main text, copious annotations, 12 appendices, more than 65 pages of references, and an extensive index.  The publisher is Borgo Publishing, a full-service, independent publishing company headquartered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  This is the same excellent company that published Mr. Ball’s recent, 2-volume editorial work entitled Stone Age Man in the Middle South.

Cumberland Chiefdom

You may read more about Chiefdom on the Cumberland and Stone Age Man in the Middle South in the following flyer from the Borgo Publishing Company:

Borgo Publishing Flyer

We believe Chiefdom on the Cumberland and Stone Age Man in the Middle South are must own books for anyone interested in the Mississippian archaeology of the Middle Cumberland region of Tennessee, Middle Mississippi Valley, and Southeastern United States. The Archaeology in Tennessee blog highly recommends both books to you. You may purchase the new book right now at Amazon.com or the Seattle Book Company for the price of just $55.  Stone Age Man in the Middle South is also available from Amazon.com.  Please click on one or the other of the following links to make your purchase of the new book:

http://amzn.to/1BeFURy

http://www.seattlebookcompany.com/chiefdom-on-the-cumberland-the-history-and-evolution-of-middle-tennessee-archaeology/

Donald B. Ball has a B.S. degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University (1970) and an M.A. degree in anthropology/archaeology (1977) from The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. Upon completion of his graduate studies, Don accepted a job offer for an archaeologist position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Louisville District, in Louisville, Kentucky. He managed cultural resources for USACE until his retirement in 2004. Throughout his long career, Don has maintained an unusually wide range of professional interests that include (but are not limited to) prehistoric archaeology, historical archaeology, the history of American archaeology, history of Tennessee and the United States, Southern Appalachian folk culture, grist mills, historic cemeteries, and firearms artifacts. His list of excellent professional publications is both long and formidable. For a number of years, Don was the editor of the Proceedings of the Symposium for Historic and Urban Archaeology. Currently, he serves as the editor of two regional journals, Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology and The Millstone: Journal of the Kentucky Old Mill Association. In addition to being a member of several professional organizations and archaeological societies, Don is a Registered Professional Archaeologist in Kentucky.

Theme Song for the Archaeology in Tennessee Blog

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog has been going full steam for nearly three years and with no end in sight. Everyone in our household loves music―classical, rock & roll, pop, opera, disco, bubble gum, rhythm & blues, country, bluegrass―you name it. Dad and mom have been music aficionados for decades, and our two children have continued the tradition by playing violin and viola for many years in the award-winning string orchestras of the Oak Ridge school system. Music is all around us and everywhere. Considering this omnipresence, it has occurred to me on several occasions that the Archaeology in Tennessee blog ought to adopt an official theme song. On and off, I have been listening for just the right song for the past three years―something special and spot-on that embodies the sometimes very serious and sometimes quite whacky personality of the blog—but also captures what it is truly like to work (and play) in the unusual little world of professional archaeology. No matter how much I listened, no song ever seemed quite right. That ended today, and the blog now has its theme song.

Before you play the song at the end of this post, I would like to lay out a bit of the thinking behind the choice of this song and how it relates to me personally, the blog, and the world of professional archaeology. Unfortunately, those of you who are incessantly focused on presenting a very cold and clinical view of American archaeology to the public and private sector business world, so people will one day respect archaeologists as professionals in the same sense that they respect attorneys, medical doctors, engineers, and corporate executives, may not like this way of thinking. However, I hope you can find a way to adjust. Here are some thoughts related to the theme song:

1) After receiving my graduate degree in anthropology/archaeology at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) in 1982, I was burned out on too many years of school and too much archaeology. Along the way I had accumulated a great deal of unhappiness and disillusionment about the weird little world of professional archaeology and the many things that were just plain wrong—morally and socially unconscionable—within the “system” nationwide. I was upset about it too.  Therefore, right after my graduate degree was in hand, I intentionally gave up my long-held Ph.D. dream, decided to leave American archaeology cold turkey, and insisted that I would never come back to it again.   (Normally, I am not a quitter.  In fact, throughout my professional career, I have been the one person who doggedly stayed to finish the job when the other 99 people wimped out early.)  Some of my professors and closest colleagues probably thought I had lost my mind for laying it all aside. Nonetheless, the sense of putting a lot of space between me and American archaeology, starting all over again, working in a new professional arena, and just having some time off from the incessant archaeological grind was both scary and exhilarating. It all felt so right—a little bit crazy too—and my emotions really did echo in all of that newly empty space between me and American archaeology.

2) I came back to American archaeology, slowly at first, in 1995 as part of my newly found environmental protection career and have not looked back since that time. Some fortune and blessings fell my way, alleviating some of the old concerns that I had had about American archaeology and the “system.” It was not necessary for me to live as a modern-day gypsy like so many people in CRM do, and my jobs were always very high-paying jobs with a full range of benefits. I indeed had the time of my life and enjoyed American archaeology once again.  You might say that I was fortunate enough to have my archaeological cake and eat it too in a way that many American archaeologists never have an opportunity to do.

My advice to others (in all things) would be to do something I failed to do at the start of my college days. Think twice. Think twice about studying archaeology and working in archaeology. Make sure it is what you really want to do with your work life. Find out all you can about the anthropology/archaeology discipline and the ”cursed system” before jumping into the pond.  Ask yourself whether you can live physically and emotionally with the many unusual ways it can impinge upon a normal life and family life. Ask yourself if you can move frequently all over the nation and enjoy a feeling of not being rooted in one place. If you grew up dirt poor like I did, ask yourself if you can enjoy a life of poverty or the always looming shadow of the poverty wolf scratching at your door.  For those of you who are already in the American archaeology pond, “think twice” before making major career and professional decisions. If you fail to do that, things can get crazy fast. Always think carefully and twice in all that you do.

3) It sometimes concerns me that many professional archaeologists have tunnel vision and are out of touch with both themselves and reality. One really could ask the question: “Who do you think you are?” If you sit back and “think twice” about a lot of things in American archaeology, you become aware that the true circumstances, social problems, and systemic problems in American archaeology are grossly incompatible with the numerous hyperinflated egos one encounters. One of the chief problems is that many American archaeologists have deluded themselves into thinking that they have a level of control they do not really have in the context of American society as a whole. A clinical psychologist would call it a unique form of dissociation.  The notion that Ph.D. archaeologists garner special status and deference in our society as a whole is more a dream than a reality. In the private sector business world, archaeologists (regardless of degree) are often thought of as occasional “necessary evils,” and real respect and appreciation for what we do is often minimal at best.  I know because I have worked there and seen it first hand. Private developers still ignore us and destroy archaeological sites on a grand scale—while we look the other way as if it is not really happening.  We are, more often than not, absolutely powerless to stop them.  In addition, professional archaeologists have waged an often vicious but highly unsuccessful war against artifact collecting for the past 60 years. The original goal was to bring an end to artifact collecting and thereby protect archaeological sites from context-destroying digging. It may have worked to some degree with federal and state property.  However, by any reasonable measure, this effort has been a miserable failure overall. With the advent of the Internet, the hobby of collecting Native American artifacts (and all of the buying, selling, trading, and digging that goes on with it) has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years and is still growing. This is what artifact collectors all over the nation tell me. So, after looking at all of this, do you really think you are in control? Where did you ever come up with that delusion?

4) Some of us might not have known it at the time, but we were really going out on a limb when we got involved in professional archaeology―just like many of our heroes did in the decades before us (Jimmy Griffin, Tom Lewis, Madeline Kneberg, Lew Binford, and many more). Like gibbons swinging from tree to tree, we all wanted to be just like them and be out on that tree limb with them. The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is one of my tree limbs, and I enjoy going out on the limbs.  American archaeology is all about living out on the edge in ways that people in most other careers rarely experience.  Just like medical doctors, we are professional archaeologists 24 hours per day all year long.

5) Do you remember when you were a member of the liddle peeple? We were all little people at one time, and many of us enjoyed playing in the dirt. It looked like fun!!! It was no mere coincidence that we entered the world of professional archaeology. We loved the subject matter and were attracted to the mystery like iron filings to a magnet. When you were young, they called it passion. Working on this blog and my own private research projects has reignited my passion for archaeology, which is why I am often writing an informative post or researching some topic just for fun.  Some of us need to find a way to reignite our lost passion and think of archaeology as being fun again. It is the F-word. The F-word is key: FUN!!! It was no coincidence that we got into archaeology. It was an irresistible attraction to the subject matter we loved—and it was fun!!! I plan to have fun with archaeology on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog and through the Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (small scale and pretentious though it may be). I have a lot left to do, and I can die in peace when it is done.

6) I know. I know. You think I am more than a little bit loony after reading this, but you have to remember that we all had to be a bit crazy to go into American archaeology like we did.  Click on the following URL to listen to our theme song:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrbOR1nLkYU

Mihaela Noroc and the Atlas of Beauty Project

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog appreciates excellence in photography, especially photography focusing on anthropological and archaeological subject matter.  I was surfing around the Internet a few nights ago and came upon a series of outstanding and hauntingly beautiful photographs of young women in various cultural contexts around the world.  The brilliant photographer who took these wonderful photographs is Ms. Mihaela Noroc, and she posts these photographs on her project website Atlas of Beauty (http://theatlasofbeauty.com/).  We who work in anthropology and archaeology around the world know well the importance of funding,  Therefore, we here at the blog are encouraging our readers to donate funds so Ms. Noroc can continue this worldwide photography project.  You may do so at the following link:  http://theatlasofbeauty.com/support-my-project/.

All of Ms. Noroc’s photographs are excellent, but I was particularly struck by her photograph of a Kichwa girl in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.  In this particular Native American culture, girls marry when they are 15 or 16 years old.  The picture of this young lady was taken on her wedding day, and she is dressed in her wedding outfit and wearing the appropriate facial cosmetics and feathering for the occasion.  Here at the blog, we think she is beautiful, and we wish her and her new husband the very best in life.

Kichwa Girl

Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap (Part I)

As the century was drawing to a close, Lame Beaver had lived half of it and seen many things―and now he had been told that he would see a god.

—James A. Michener (1978)

1.0     Background

Although most citizens of Tennessee do not work as professional archaeologists or collect Native American artifacts as a hobby, it would be fair to say that a very large number of Tennesseans own a prehistoric lithic artifact that was found quite by accident, taken home, dropped into a drawer, and soon forgotten. Many of our citizens have an old King Edward, Swisher Sweets, or Roi-Tan cigar box full of assorted lithic artifacts that were found or otherwise accumulated during childhood. Some of these artifacts are referred to as arrowheads by the average citizen, but most of these items were too large to be used on the business ends of arrows. They were used as spear thrower (atlatl) dart points or knives, and professional archaeologists often refer to them as projectile points/knives or use the initialism pp/k when talking or writing about them.

Many of these fine citizens remember where they stashed their cigar box 35 years ago. If you bring up the subject of Native American artifacts in a living room conversation with one of these people, he will quickly run to his attic or garage, grab the box, and show off the artifacts inside it. He will proudly present his whole pp/k’s, broken pp/k’s, drill bits, and other assorted lithic tools―and then―just like with Lame Beaver―say that you will soon be seeing a small god. Then he will reach for the old, yellowed handkerchief in the corner of the cigar box, carefully unfold it, and say, “This’un here’s my pride and joy, the very best one in the whole box. It’s my rare flint fishhook.” If you look really amazed and interested, the owner may tell you who found it, how it was found, when it was found, and where it was found. Flint fishhooks are often accompanied by a background story.

2.0     Morphology of Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks come in various shapes and sizes, and they tend to be less than 7.62 cm in length (Figure 1). The most commonly seen ones are similar in shape and style to the dark-colored one in the bottom row (middle) of Figure 1. This is the typical J-shaped flint fishhook. The J-shaped flint fishhooks sometimes have an expanded, T-Shaped top for securely tying on a fishing line. Others have only a slightly expanded top for this purpose.  Still others have one or two top notches to hold the fishing line.  The bodies (sometimes called “shafts”) of J-shaped flint fishhooks are much wider than the bodies of our modern metal fishhooks, which leave the factory in a J shape. The pointed end of the flint fishhook is designed to sink deeply into the oral flesh of the fish, allowing a fisherman to snag and haul in his catch.

Although not shown in Figure 1, some of the small, J-shaped flint fishhooks have narrow, thin, fragile-looking bodies with an exterior spike that protrudes downward from the bottom curve of the J.  This spike is sometimes straight, or it can be curved forwards or backwards. This extra spike was presumably added to better hold a fish on the hook, but its position often looks as if it would pose a hindrance to any fish that might want to bite on the hook.   Occasionally, a person will encounter a U-shaped flint fishhook, either with or without canine-tooth barbs.

Flint Fish Hooks II

Figure 1.     An Assortment of Flint Fishhooks

3.0     Lithic Raw Materials Used to Make Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks are usually made from high-quality, easily worked flint (hence their name), which is more commonly referred to by petrologists and archaeologists as chert, a cryptocrystalline silicate stone that occurs naturally in Tennessee and many other states. This is the brittle, waxy rock from which most prehistoric lithic artifacts are made. Chert shatters easily during knapping and exhibits conchoidal (bulb-shaped) flaking scars as a result of the knapping process. Flint fishhooks are made from many different types and colors of chert raw materials.

More properly, flint fishhooks should be termed chert fishhooks, but we have retained use of the term flint fishhook throughout this series of five blog posts because it is the term used most in American history and the term that is still used in casual conversation among ordinary citizens.

4.0     Distribution of Flint Fishhooks in the United States

Flint fishhooks are commonly found in private Native American artifact collections across Tennessee and the nation, and some museums have them in their collections and on display to the public. One such museum that has 12 of them on display is the state-supported Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex, which is located in Norris State Park near Norris, Tennessee. They have the common J-shaped flint fishhooks and the fragile J-shaped fishhooks with barbs that protrude from the bottom of the curve in the J.  Flint fishhooks are almost never encountered in the Native American artifact collections obtained from professional archaeological excavations and curated by American universities, federal museums, and federal/state archaeological research facilities. Another place where flint fishhooks are almost never seen is in the collection of an avocational archaeologist or a well-educated Native American artifact collector.

5.0     Folklore and Dogma about Flint Fishhooks

Considerable folklore surrounds the flint fishhook, and as is the case with all true folklore, it is usually passed from one person to another orally rather than in writing. It arises in conversations among professional archaeologists and among average citizens who are interested in Native American artifacts. Some of this folklore has become dogmatic in nature. For example, one often hears that no flint fishhook has ever been found by a professional archaeologist on the ground surface or in an excavation square on a Native American archaeological site. Most avocational archaeologists and knowledgeable Native American artifact collectors will tell you the same thing. This is usually followed by the casual statement that “all flint fishhooks are fake artifacts.” If a person states otherwise in a conversation, it immediately raises eyebrows, and another conversant is quick to step in and correct their obvious error. Turner, Hester, and McReynolds (2011:38) have issued the strongest dogmatic statement on this subject in the recent professional archaeological literature:

One of the most common fakes is the chert fishhook…and all experts agree―there is not, and never has been, a single authentic specimen of this form. Bone and shell hooks dominated the fishing technology of American Indians.

Another aspect of this dogma is the strong belief that a flint fishhook is not thin enough and sharp enough to puncture the oral tissue of a freshwater or marine fish. This dogma goes on to say that flint fishhooks are too fragile and brittle to withstand the intense struggle of a frightened fish that has latched onto one. In support of these strong personal convictions, people point out the fact that ancient Native Americans had several more effective and efficient means of catching fish, including flexible fishhooks made from animal bone, shell fishhooks, weighted fish nets, fishing spears of various types, portable fish traps, and weir traps constructed in stream beds.

Parts II through V of this series will address: (1) the history of flint fishhooks in the United States and Western Europe; (2) the issue of whether any credible archaeological evidence for ancient Native American flint fishhooks exists; (3) the practicality of actually catching a fish with a flint fishhook; and (4) some derived conclusions about the folklore and dogma associated with flint fishhooks in the United States.

6.0     References

Michener, James A. 1978. Teleplay for the television miniseries Centennial (Episode 1). Based on the 1976 historical novel Centennial and later syndicated in DVD format by Universal Studios.

Turner, Ellen Sue, Thomas R. Hester, and Richard L. McReynolds 2011. Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Photograph Credit – Mootsman. Arrowheadology.com (Forum: Arrowheads and Indian Artifacts, Thread: For the Non-Believers….Flint Fish Hook), September 9, 2013.