Flint and Obsidian
Ever since our ancestors decided to upgrade from a flame hardened pointed stick to hunt for their food they must have thought about rocks. Even when thrown, heavy rocks could have limited range and be dangerous to the hunter so combining the two might have been a wise or lucky coincidence. I have often wondered at the combination of the two into the spear and much latter the arrow. I suspect that some of the earliest uses of sharpened stone instruments had nothing to do with hunting but in the rendering of the killed flesh and hides after the find or entrapment such as cliff embankment kills. Little risk, lots of flesh.
In America and the Old World, Quartz, Flint and Obsidian where discovered and if correctly struck with another often flaked a smaller sharper and useful object. In so doing sparks could sometimes be observed. This leads to another subject. Safer tooling with antler or bone would later be discovered as I would hope some leather protection for the flinter. I suspect that few of us in this modern age would know how to use this Stone Age ability to fashion weapons or tools.
Returning to FLINT or CHERT, another aspect of this rock was that if struck against metallic stones (or even against itself) one could create sparks and start a fire. Flint is actually harder than some steels. As a plants man I have always questioned the starting of fire by rubbing two sticks together. Somehow I think the rock to banging rock thing took precedence. That is not to say that the later wood hand drill came about later. Flint to flint, and later flint to hematite or iron bearing rocks seems much more likely.
Which brings me to another Stone Age stone. Obsidian. One issue being of re-use of the tool which obsidian being brittle would not survive. Chert and Flint could be re-used for fire starting time and time again. Jasper would also be in this hardness and survivability scale. About 6 to 6.5 whereas Obsidian is in the same range, one would not want to be slapping two pieces together. The Cherts and Flints are a different story and these rocks could still be hard enough to generate sparks and create fire faster than rubbing tow sticks together.
In the western part of North and South America OBSIDIAN was widely used as these glass shards could become scalpels for surgery, and even today only the best surgical scalpels have an edge on this primitive tool that physicians thousands of years ago used.
Working with Obsidian to make cabochons and jewelry leaves me wondering about my ancestors healing ability as the cuts from mistakes can be slow to heal. I deal with modern saws and grinding wheels to make something attractive out of the more attractive forms of this rock, Snowflake, Pink, Rainbow and Sheen to name a few.
Last year, a fellow rock club member did an unexpected demonstration on knapping. I wish I had taken down pictures of his ‘safe’ knapping setup or had written down his words. That is the trouble with ‘clubs’ and the modern world. Thousands of years ago, I would have sat behind this campfire and listened and watched him work. I might even have become his apprentice had I shown talent. To be a flint knapper in those Paleolithic times days would be a prestigious placement in ones society as – the herbalist or healer these were positions that kept the community alive.
Sooner or later I will take advantage of some of the talent of our club and learn how to choose good knapping obsidian and make those arrowheads, knife blades and skin scrapers etc. I would also mention that even silicified petrified wood was used by Native Americans for arrowheads and spearheads. I have in my collection some real ugly sandstone colored petrified wood from Nevada that is incredibly flinty hard and probably could have been used for this purpose.
© Herb Senft 2014
I would remind everyone that obsidian is basically volcanic glass and that knapping can be dangerous and one should clean up the surrounding area after finishing ones project.
Edit 9/12 – I had just finished this when I phoned up a friend who loved obsidian, (no answer) only to find out from another that he had died. Totally blown away. Two of my most likeable friends in the Rock Club have passed on. Foster was from MA. and like New Yorkers and Jerseyites he had a wit and tongue that sometimes got him into trouble with the ‘politically correct’ of the West Coast.
Having lived in N.J. and MA. I understood him entirely and miss his… ‘InThe Face’ attitude. By that I mean, he would always be there to help you when help was needed and unlike West Coasters if he were inclined to stab you in the back it would not happen. That was not Foster, he would confront you to your face – something that my rock club has difficulty with. Flinty and chippy, here’s to you Foster Thompson – may you be as difficult and loveable at St. Peter’s Gate.