I have witnessed flintnapping and done a little myself (thanks Scott and Don). I know the basics and am well versed in the principles. In contemporary flintknapping of obsidian, the artists are often wasting material. I say this with all deference to the artists of this extremely technical and difficult art-form, many who do practice some form of economy. Many artists today may be after a single blade from a large rock that they can sell for a good price, and in this process they produce a lot of waste material. I think that master flintknappers of the past had cultural techniques which were much more economical when they were making tools for hunting and household use.
Many artists today are after producing a large blade they can sell for a good price. Many call this a wealth blade. Today all manner of flintknappers create knives or ceremonial dancing blades from the trade blanks they normally produce from a larger piece of obsidian. Many professionally slice down the large to medium obsidian blocks, with a rock saw, into thin wedges that they can easily shape, ensuring the most economical use of their store of obsidian. The focus of the art form for sales into the curio or art market changes the dynamic of the art-form. Artists do not have to save material because in the end their wealth blade will fetch a good price. There is little or no need to produce something from the debitage as few people want a small spearpoint as they are not as impressive and so are not too much in demand.
In pre-history, wealth blades would have been the uncommon blades, normally produced from a trade blank. Normally the trade blanks would be carefully and strategically split and flaked from so that the majority of the flakes could be utilized as arrowheads. Smaller spearpoints would have been much more important for regular hunting. Small household knives, awls and other tools would also be produced from these flakes. It would not have been economical to waste a five or ten pound block of obsidian to only produce a single spear point, like those we see today in exhibitions and video displays. These displays and exhibitions may give a false impression of the traditional art-form.
Its far more likely that native people valued the resource so much that they would utilize every bit of it they could. The trade blanks were roughed out and shaped pieces of obsidian would have been quarried at a far away volcanic site and brought into areas were the people did not have a ready quarry. Trade blanks could be traded for clothing food, canoes, baskets, hunting implements and the goodwill of the tribe. In native societies there were numerous ways of utilizing the large pieces of debitage from the larger rocks to create small spearpoints. Using pressure flaking every possible flake would be turned into a useful hunting spearpoint. Then when larger points or knives broke, they would be remade into smaller spearpoints.
So be aware of the economy of flintknapping when watching a display. The needs of today’s fairs and art markets alter the focus of the art-form significantly.
Anthropologists need to be aware of the notion of economy when practicing experimental archaeology. The amount of waste of the debitage is a significant factor when thinking about how Native peoples practiced the art-form. Some societies may have had methods of preserving obsidian, especially those where obsidian is rare and very valuable; whereas others may not have cared much, especially if they were closer to the quarry and or on a regular trade route from the source. In addition, I would assume there is a similar situation with other materials, especially chert.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.