Making the Point

Apparently scientists who study ancient artifacts like spear points and arrowheads are now able to analyze minute traces of ancient substances and, in some cases, determine what the point was used for. Finding human blood, for instance, might indicate an arrowhead was used in some sort of battle.

Or not.

I have an alternate theory. If human blood is found on a projectile point, there’s a good chance it wasn’t shed by a victim. More likely, it came from the guy who made the point.

This conclusion is based on no research whatsoever, but is supported by direct observation. I recently spent several fascinating hours learning about flint knapping. The expert who led this informal workshop has spent 40-some years perfecting his skills at making arrowheads and spear points the way ancient toolmakers did.

His materials—chunks of obsidian and flint—were certainly authentic. So were some of his tools—rounded rock hammers and the heavy base of a moose antler for striking off flakes, deer antlers with use-polished tips for finishing edges. So, I’d guess, were the palm-sized pieces of leather used to grip the sharp pieces of rock.

He also had more modern tools—”modern” in this case meaning mostly Bronze Age as opposed to Stone Age—a well-used copper hammer with an antler handle as well as copper rods mounted in plastic handles. He toted all this stuff in tall plastic buckets—modern conveniences that ancient artisans would probably have traded a couple of their best points for.

The flint knapper made a couple of spear points, explaining as he worked. How to hold the rock just so and apply just the right pressure with your fingertips to help control the energy and keep the rock from breaking. How to strike just the barest edge of the piece to flake a precise shard off the bottom. His expertise and his knowledge were amazing. Just like him, those ancient flint knappers must have been skilled rock scientists and engineers.

But even experts have to start somewhere. After a couple of hours, the students were invited to try their hands. I didn’t, having already decided that my hands weren’t up for it. A wise decision, I decided after watching for a while. Especially after I saw all the blood.

Obsidian flakes are sharp. People used to kill mammoths and bison with these points, remember. And in the hands of a novice knapper, not even leather hand protectors are enough to prevent nicked fingers, sliced thumbs, and punctured palms.

By the end of the afternoon, each student went home with a self-made spear point, a heightened respect for ancient toolmakers, and several bandaged fingers.

The ancient craftsmen might have valued those plastic buckets. Their apprentices, I’m sure, would have appreciated band-aids even more.

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