By DAVID RAINER
During my ramblings outdoors as a kid and even now, when I was lucky enough to find an arrowhead I marveled at the craftsmanship involved and always wondered how Native Americans were able to achieve such meticulous detail with only primitive tools.
After a trip to Moundville Archaeological Park and the Flintknappers Class and Gathering, I don’t have to wonder any longer.
The flintknappers there demonstrated how one can take the right kind of rock and a few primitive tools and fashion an arrowhead or knife blade as sharp as or sharper than one made from the finest steel. The keys, according to the veteran flintknappers, are finding the right material, getting a little instruction and then practice, practice, practice.
For those introduced to the craft, the practice part comes easy. In fact, addiction was a common theme among the flintknappers.
“It’s very addictive,” said Stan Payne of Slapout, who owns Flintstone and Bone Creations. “It’s just the self-satisfaction of being able to take a piece of stone and one blow at a time make it look like you want it to. It’s a sophisticated form of carving, one chip at a time. Unlike blacksmithing, you can take too much away with this. If you do, you can’t put it back. It’s very tedious. You’ve got to be very careful about what you take away.”
Steve Cook of Deatsville said once you’ve made a point out of a piece of rock there’s no way not to pick up another rock. Of course, Cook warns that not every rock will produce a point.
“When you get to beating on a piece of rock, and you find that first point in that piece of rock, you’ve done something,” Cook said. “It’s real addictive. You pulled out that point that’s been in that rock for millions of years. If you can get that point out, you’ve done something. If you make a pile of gravel, you haven’t done a whole lot.
“The first point I made I thought was a beautiful thing, but compared to what I do today, it was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. If you take something that’s slick and has high silica content, you can usually get a point out of it. It just takes a lot of experience.”
Cook was among the instructors teaching a group of wannabe flintknappers at Moundville, one of the richest sites in Alabama in terms of Native American artifacts.
“We’ve got several students coming in and before they leave here, they’ll probably be able to make a point,” Cook said. “But you’ve got to learn the mechanics and the piece of rock. You’ve got to learn where you can hit it, where you can’t hit it. It’s just like a diamond cutter. If you don’t know what you’re doing, all you’re going to do is make gravel.”
Although the Native Americans in Alabama usually had to fashion their points out of quartzite, Cook prefers flint and obsidian (volcanic glass). His billets (hammering tools) are made from antler (deer and moose), brass and copper.
“I really don’t know how the Indians around here were able to make the points they did out of quartzite,” Cook said. “It’s hard to make a quality point out of quartzite, but they managed to do it.”
Payne, meanwhile, was hammering away on a piece of Fort Hood Flint with the femur from a cow.
“There’s usually a point in every rock, but if you make a bad lick, you may move where that point is in the rock,” said Payne, a member of the Cherokee tribe of Northeast Alabama. “I got my first lesson from Jim McCullough many years ago, and I’ve been on fire ever since. I went from a handful of rocks to probably 8,000 pounds now. I’ve got a big pile of rock at my house.”
Fellow Slapout resident Steve Todd views Payne’s pile of rock as something much more valuable.
“It’s like a gold mine,” Todd said as he flaked off a piece of flint with a precision tap of his brass billet. “I started knapping because I couldn’t find any points in the field anymore. I met an Indian named Doyle Grayson from Oklahoma at Fort Toulouse (Wetumpka) at a re-enactment they have. He gave me a few lessons and a couple of pieces of rock to get me started.”
Todd and Payne met at a yard sale in Slap Out. Todd overheard Payne tell someone about making arrowheads and they’ve been buddies ever since.
“I asked Stan to show me the finer points of flintknapping and how to get stones better than the ones I was picking up out of creek beds or on the side of the road,” Todd said. “Most of the points I’d collected as a kid were white and red quartz. I like some of the more exotics, like Indian bloodstone and Brazilian agate. There is some coastal plains chert that I like.”
“There’s an art to it. You find some of those quartz points and you think, ‘this guy wasn’t all that good.’ But after I started doing it, I realized he had to be good to make something out of those quartz stones.”
Payne, who makes hunting points and arrows for primitive archers, said each rock is pretty much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.
“There are days you can pick up a piece of stone and just clobber it and make anything you want to make,” said Payne, who fashioned a knife out of obsidian for Alabama football coach Nick Saban. “Then there are other days that you’ll tear up every piece of rock you pick up. When I have a day like that, I put my billet down and forget about it for that day.”
Todd echoed: “Sometimes you’ll have a point almost finished and you’ll make a bad lick and break it in half. When I do that, I put everything down and find something else to do. That’s just the nature of flintknapping.”
Although flintknapping is a craft that relies heavily on experience, it is not without science, according to Betsy Gilbert, education outreach coordinator for Moundville Archaeological Park.
“You’ve seen where a BB has gone through a window pane,” Gilbert said. “Where the BB goes in, it’s really small. On the exit side, it breaks out in a cone. That’s called a conchoidal fracture. It always, always breaks on a 130-degree angle. That’s the whole principle of flintknapping. They’ll take that rock and take a tiny bit off the end, but it’s still a 130-degree angle. By changing the angle, you can determine how much you take off.
“Flintknapping was a worldwide occurrence. Prior to Desoto arriving in Alabama, the weapons were made of flintknapped stone or bone. People have been in this area for 10,000 to 20,000 years. The big points you find are spear points, so flintknapping has been a part of the Indian culture here for about 20,000 years.”
Gilbert said the flintknapping class is just one of many activities held at Moundville Archaeological Park during the year.
“We do a lot of different one-day classes – baskets, pottery, gourds, and we have summer day camp (July 23-27) where we do everything,” she said. “That’s for kids 9-13. We do plants, pottery. We go through the archaeological lab. It’s a lot of fun. We have our Moundville Native American Festival (scheduled Oct. 3-6) and we usually have between 12,000 and 16,000 school kids come in during the weekdays and another 3,000 to 5,000 general public on the weekend. It usually coincides with homecoming at the (University of Alabama) campus. Our headlining act this year is Martha Youngblood, a Choctaw blues singers whose dad is from Moundville.
“We keep it southeastern Indian specific, because kids have the ideas of Indians as movie Indians. They’ve got the war bonnets and all and that’s not what was going on in the Southeast at all. Our programs are built around the southeastern culture.”
Visit http://moundville.ua.edu/ for more information on the park and activities.
TOP: Stan Payne of Slap Out, who has been flintknapping for 15 years, strikes a piece of flint with the femur from a cow as he searches for the point that will make some kind of arrowhead, clovis point or other primitive tool at the recent Flintknappers Class and Gathering at Moundville Archaeological Park.
CENTER: Payne used a piece of crimson obsidian (volcanic glass) to fashion a knife for Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
BOTTOM: Steve Cook of Deatsville used obsidian and about 40 hours of labor to fashion this knife, one of his show pieces at the flintknappers event at Moundville Archaeological Park.