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 Flint 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:

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.

Piiapil, 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.

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