Ben Swadley demonstrates flint knapping to MT Rotary

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ben Swadley, the superintendent of Parkin Archeological State Park, demonstrated flint knapping for the Marked Tree Rotary Club last week.

Ben Swadley, superintendent of Parkin Archeological State Park, demonstrates the percussion method of flint knapping.

Flint knapping is the process of chipping off flakes from flint, chert or other fine-grained minerals to produce stone tools such as spear points and arrowheads. Flint knapping can be done on conchoidal fracturing stones, which means they break in a certain way. A chip in a window is an example of this.

Swadley said the oldest method of flint knapping involves hitting the edge of a rock with another rock. This causes pieces to flake off. These flakes are sharp enough to cut a piece of leather. Swadley used an antler hammer -- a worn-down deer antler -- during his demonstration.

Modern flint knappers use different materials to make spear points. "Some use glass, TV screens, and johnstone, which is the ceramic from toilets," Swadley said. He even showed off a piece of ceramic tile from a space ship booster module that could be used. "Crowley's Ridge flint is very popular among flint knappers," he said.

There are two types of flint knapping, which Swadley demonstrated -- percussion and pressure flaking. In percussion, a piece of sandstone is used to prepare the edge of the rock before striking it with an antler hammer. This is repeated until the rock has been chipped away into the desired shape.

Swadley said percussion is all about angle manipulation. "I manipulate the angle and look for a spot in the rock I want to hit. It's all about angle and direction of force." The time it takes to finish a point depends on the type of point one is making. "Some take 10 minutes or a half hour. A four-inch Dalton point takes an hour," Swadley said.

"All the cultures shaped their points differently," he said. "You can tell when a point was made by the shape of the point. They were constantly improving the design, and the design depended on what they were hunting."

The other type of flint knapping Swadley demonstrated was pressure flaking. Instead of striking a rock to chip of flakes, pressure flaking involves pressing a piece of bone or antler against the rock (modern flint knappers use a piece of copper pipe fitting hammered to a point) until a small piece breaks off. This method breaks off much smaller pieces than percussion and is used for smaller details like the notches in arrow heads.

The earliest known spear points in the North America are the Clovis points, which do not have notches and date to the Paleoindian period around 13,500 years ago.

Before flint knapping, Swadley heat-treats his rocks by leaving them in a turkey roaster at 500 degrees for a few days. "This makes the rock glassy and smooth and changes its color." He said some Indians heat treated their rocks and some did not. The ones that did heat treat their rocks buried them in the sand and built a fire on top.

Swadley also said it is easy to fake a point. "It's hard to tell if a point's authentic. The only real way is to see it pulled from the ground yourself or if it is well documented. A certificate of authenticity is very important. The only real way to tell is if you dig it up or an archaeologist dug it up and documented it."

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