The first humans to settle in North America had to face horrendous problems, not least of which was finding suitable lithic materials – rocks – to use in the making of their tools and weapons. Those who entered through the Beringia passage would have had a relatively easy time of it because as they moved down the continent temperatures were warmer and resources – animals, wood, rocks and food – were plentiful. If they moved east and settled Eastern Canada and the US, they would have had all these resources at hand along the way.
It would have been a different story for the Solutrean settlers from Europe – if you think that this might have happened – as they arrived in a cold environment without the experience of thousands of years of exploring the continent for what they needed for their daily lives. Settling in what was the tail end of the retreating glacier, with vegetation slowly taking over vast areas of scraped ground, their pattern of establishing themselves in this new world would have been different and certainly more difficult.
This beautiful National Geographic map which I have, in the cause of public education, disfigured with my graphics, lays it all out before you. (Should National Geographic be upset I will remove it immediately.)
If the Clovis culture gradually made its way to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence over a couple of millennia, then it could have provided evolved models for tools and weapons for the settlements in the Maritimes, Prince Edward Island in particular.
If, on the other hand, Eastern North America was colonised long before the Clovis culture existed by adventurers from the culture we refer to generically as Solutrean, and which was concentrated in France and Spain, then they would in time provide evolved models for the lithic implements we refer to today as Palaeo-Indian.
Only time will tell which hypothesis is the correct one. What I want to discuss in this particular post is the question of raw materials that the colonisers of our region would have found and the techniques they used for making these rocks into tools and weapons.
What the prehistoric colonists brought with them.
They would have brought a tool kit with wood, bone, antler and stone implements. The stone implements would have been varied. Obviously, there would have been spears for throwing, javelins for thrusting, knives for stabbing and cutting and scrapers for processing the hides of dead animals. There would be hammers for shaping stones into tools and weapons by knocking off flakes, pecking a surface flat and using another stone to polish the surface in a flat or curved manner.
There would have been axes to cut wood. There would have been implements to prepare various kinds of food – tools for butchering carcasses and for crushing bones. When you look at specialised books on prehistoric tools and weapons you are amazed by the sheer number and variety these people developed and used.
Replacing broken or used tools and weapons.
Obtaining wood, bone, ivory and antler would not have been a problem in prehistoric times. On the other hand, the right kind of stone for the right kind of tool or weapon was another matter. Hammers and axes would not have been a problem because dense cobbles were to be found in most places after the melting of the glaciers. Raw material for the sophisticated blades and points of the Late Palaeolithic or Solutrean period was another matter and I will take it up in my next post.
Sources of stone on the Island in Palaeo times.
Prince Edward Island is famous for its red sandstone and red clay that sits on top of it. Most people believe that only sandstone is to be found on the Island, but that is not the case. When the glaciers melted vast quantities of stone from far-away places that had been caught up in the movement of the ice, and ground and polished into boulders and cobbles, were left behind. The pattern of deposition on the Island varies a great deal and you can learn more about it by studying Prest’s 1973 map, The Surficial Geology of Prince Edward Island, available here as a pdf file.
Boulders of hard dense stones, called erratics, were deposited in heavy concentrations in the eastern part of Prince County. In this detail from the back of the Prest map you can see where these boulders were deposited, often in large numbers.
This would have been a rich source of stone for the Palaeo people, providing them with any kind of hammer stone they could possibly desire as well – and this has not yet been explored in the Island stone deposits – special stones like chert, chalcedony and jasper that could have been transformed into the thin blades beloved of these people. In 1986 I visited the beach at North Enmore in Percival Bay and found it littered with massive boulders of igneous stones, one, I believe, a huge block of porphyry, the beloved purple stone of Imperial Rome.
Because the Island has been constantly eroding at an alarming rate since prehistoric times, its shores, in some places, are covered with cobble beaches dotted with erratic boulders. North Cape, with its great reef going for miles into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is such a place.
The top photo was taken in the late 1990s from the light chamber of the lighthouse and the other, at the same time, on the reef itself. Millions of cobbles, and a great granite boulder, are visible.
This supply of rock was augmented by smaller collections that made up pebble beaches. These were formed where violent streams once running under the glaciers dried up and their polished pebbles fused by time into conglomerate rock, only to be dissolved again by the action of the sea.
Cobble beaches can be found all over the Island. They are usually associated with glacial detritus such as eskers and drumlins, filled with clay and rock, being dissolved by the action of the waves. The countryside where I live in Belle River is dotted with drumlins and eskers which can be seen snaking through the landscape. The major ones are recorded in Prest’s map of the surficial geology of the Island. Just to the south of the harbour mouth, on a solid sandstone base, is this assembly of cobbles, perhaps a dissolved esker laid out, as it were, for your pleasure. It has all been sorted and washed by the waves.
The great majority of the cobbles are of quartzite, a difficult stone to work because of the unpredictability of its fracturing pattern.
Quartzite is a very hard metamorphic rock that started out as quartz sandstone. Over millions of years heat and pressure caused by tectonic movements changed the sandstone into quartzite.
Another kind of rock found in this mixture is black basalt, a heavy, dense volcanic rock, formed by the rapid cooling of lava rich in magnesium and iron. Most of the volcanic rock found on earth is basalt. It is ideal for making hammers and was sought after by the first aboriginals for that purpose. Diorite is another massive igneous rock composed mostly of silicate minerals. Diorite can be polished to a bright finish and it was used by the Ancient Egyptians to make special statues of their Pharaohs. On the Island the aboriginals used it to make hammers and hand axes. Cobbles of granite are also found on our beaches. Granite is another igneous rock generally made up of crystals of quartz, feldspar and mica. I have seen it used for hammers by prehistoric peoples, but its crystalline nature makes it prone to fracturing.
It is possible that a search of a cobble beach might produce rare specimens of jasper, andesite, rhyolite, maybe even some chert, an extremely fine-grained quartz sedimentary rock that fractures somewhat like flint. Of these I have only found jasper in my explorations.
THE TOOLS AND WEAPONS WE FIND MADE OUT OF COBBLES
Perhaps because it was ubiquitous, or perhaps because it was lighter than basalt or diorite, and therefore desirable for some purpose, I found this well-used quartzite hammer at the Archaic site I discovered at Midgell in 1983. Hold it in your hand as a cobble, turn it around and it’s a hammer stone – a pleasure to hold in either the left or right hand. It is easy to see the crushed area of impact from repeated blows of the hammer. Such a stone could also be used to polish other stones that had been roughly shaped by hammering.
Cobbles, as found, can be used for all kinds of purposes where simple pounding or smashing is required. The Palaeo-Indians had many thousands of years of experience of studying stones and instinctively knew the right stone for the right job. Here is a very heavy hammer probably made out of diorite which I found at Midgell.
It had received a great deal of use before it was discarded when it began to fracture. It is easy to pass this kind of artefact by because it lacks a recognisable form – it just looks like a rock! But when you look at it closely you can see many signs of use and wear. It may even, like this one, have been shaped to fit more easily in the hand.
Not all hammers were so crude though. At a quite early date, well before the building of Stonehenge and the Pyramids I believe, the aboriginals created specialised hammers out of dense cobbles by pecking at the desired stone with another equally dense stone until two flattish sides, tapering downward (or upward) were produced. Then with a suitable polishing stone – maybe several grades of polishing stones – they ground those sides smooth, sometimes with a slight polish.
I am particularly interested in these kinds of hammers and have discovered a number of them, three of which I have photographed.
In an earlier post I spoke about the beautiful specimen I found at Trout River in Prince County and how I still keep it near me to hold and fondle from time to time. The other two specimens shown are both from my Archaic site at Midgell. Both had eroded from the hearth matrix and the third one in the picture had been in the water for a long time, as evidenced by secondary wear caused by being tumbled around. You can see how in the last picture, in order to make it fit into the hand more comfortably and securely, the profile of the cobble was tapered. All three hammers were treated in similar fashion. They also seem to have an angular top on which to place a finger to control the action of the hammering.
THE HAND AXE OR CELT
An early tool of sophistication and beauty is the ground hand axe. Older books on archaeology refer to it as a celt. A longitudinal cobble, four to twelve inches long, could be transformed into a fine or heavy-duty tool by a process of pecking it into the desired shape by controlled pounding from a suitable hammer stone and, once the desired shape was achieved, it could, with another suitable stone, be given an extraordinary polish. The polishing also kept the cutting edge sharp. The opposite end could have been used as a hammer. This lovely specimen was found at Trout River near Roxbury.
Polishing stones such as these could have been used to achieve the smoothness and the cutting edge.
Some areas of the axe were left slightly rough, most probably to enhance the grip on the stone. With a suitable piece of wood and leather thongs however the axe could be given a handle to increase the force of the blow.
Here is a tiny, almost delicate, ground and polished axe blade, also found at Midgell, and now in a private collection. It is probably made of diorite.
And here, also from the brief excavation at Midgell, is the largest hand axe that I have ever seen. I had almost no time to study it before it was whisked away and I don’t have any other photographs of it. It showed many signs of secondary use, such as the kind of battering it would receive if it were a kind of anvil, or working surface, for other kinds of working at stone. I don’t have a measurement for it, but it was a third the width of the metre trench.
Archaeologists usually describe ancient stone tools as core tools or flake tools. A core tool gives only one finished product while a flake tool may give you many blades from a single core. It all depends on the kind of stone you have at your disposal. On Prince Edward Island the first settlers had an enormous amount of quartzite, and because of its nature, one cobble gave you one blade. Like a sculptor you had to liberate the tool from the core by knocking off flakes with a hammerstone. Here is a fresh cobble found on the beach and above it is one that has been struck repeatedly with a stone hammer until one whole side has lost its polished outer surface. When you look closely at the indentations in the stone left by the flakes that were removed, you see that they are curved in with radiating scars from the shock waves of the blow that caused the flake to detach. This is called a conchoidal fracture and is the soul of the production of the vast majority of prehistoric stone blades.
Conchoidal fracture occurs when a fine-grained material made of silica, such as the black volcanic glass obsidian, is struck and a flake flies off.
This fracture happens most perfectly in fine-grained silica materials with no internal fracture planes such as obsidian and flint.
Here is a drawing from the internet by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez that names each part of the positive and negative aspects of a conchoidal fracture. It is the geological language of archaeologists when they formally describe such artefacts.
Quartzite fractures in a conchoid manner, but because it is a metamorphic rock where sandstone was heated and compressed by geological processes, the resulting material consists of a mass of quartz crystals. When the cobble is struck and broken these crystals break apart, giving the rough texture you see in the conchoidal fracture. Unlike flint, it is a very difficult stone to work and the result often has an uneven appearance. These photos of partially finished stone points found at North Lake show how laboriously the artefact emerges from the stone.
When the point is finally completed by a master it is a work of wonder as you can see in these quartzite points from the Archaic Period found at the Jones Site at Greenwich.
This then is the first part of the story that describes what materials were found on the Island by its first settlers in remote antiquity, and how they made those kinds of tools and weapons that were based on core technology.
In my next post I will try to explain how this was not enough for those early people who had already mastered in the most spectacular fashion, the production of tools based on the flake technology where many blades and points could be obtained from a single stone core.
From time to time I have used photographs that I took 35 years ago of lithic material found by Rolley Jones and which has now happily found its way into the provincial collection. I wish to give credit and thanks to the Prince Edward Island Museum as I post this material in this format.
Hodges, Henry, Artifacts: An Introduction to Early Materials and Technology, Humanities Press, New Jersey and John Baker, London, 1981.
VARIOUS ROCKS AND MINERALS
Microcrystalline Quartz – Flint, Chert, Jasper