Just get to the point!: The controversy over stone tools

If you want to bluff your way in archaeology, step one is to rid yourself of the term "arrowhead." In the field of archaeology stone tools of this variety are classified as "projectile points" as they were often used on a variety of tools, such as spears, and not just arrows. Projectile points are frequently found by the public, collected by hobbyists, and serve as the entry point for how many people get interested in archaeology. 

This post hopes to dig a little deeper into the kinds of information stone tools can provide, why they are so critical to the study of people in North America, and help explain why they are at the center of our current House Bill 803 and Senate Bill 1054 controversy.

1. Projectile points tell us about the oldest people to inhabit North America.

Projectile points are the oldest human made objects found in America. According to a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, more than 10,000 Clovis points (the oldest known points in the US) have been found at 1,500 locations throughout North America. The presence of these artifacts across the country are so important that the location of each and every one is mapped by PIDBA, the Paleoindian Database of the Americas. Compared to the rest of the southeast, far fewer are found in Florida, particularly south of the St. Johns River. 

Image: PIDBA click on image to view source page.

Image: Florida Department of State, click on image to view source page. 

Image: FLMNH click image to view source page. 

2. You can't date a projectile point, therefore plant materials found in the same layer as the points are critical to dating.

Image: FLMNH.
The best guide for identifying points is Ripley Bullen's A Guide to the Identification of Florida Projectile Points bar none. You can purchase a copy at the Florida Museum of Natural History's gift shop, but the good folks at the FLMNH worked hard to update the information and post the Bullen Projectile Point Collection free online. 

What makes Bullen's contribution so significant, even 50 years later, is he was the first to compile a descriptive guide of Florida projectile points using consistent terminology and by getting radiocarbon dates for organic materials found in the same strata as the points. To put it another way, rather than just basing the dates on stylistic differences, he was able to put them in chronological order based on absolute dating methods, not just relative methods. But this was only possible because the points were found intact in layers where the organic materials could be tested. 

You can't date stone, at least not at that time for when the stone was modified and made into a tool. The next best thing is to date the other materials found in the same soil where the stone was deposited. This is why it's so important that the soil around stone tools be left intact. Pollen, seeds, charcoal and other organic remains have the potential to provide absolute dates but are easily disturbed especially in submerged environments such as river bottoms.

For more on the history of the Bullen guide and it's many contributions, read the 2004 forward by Jerald Milanich found here.  

3. The public is involved everyday in helping us fill the data gaps between points.

Image: Kelly-Jane Cotter, Staff, Asbury Park Press aap.com.

Remember this kid? Noah Cordle discovered a 10,000 year old projectile point in New Jersey in 2014. Noah joined the ranks of utility workers, farmers, hikers, divers, and other history enthusiasts who came forward with their find and allowed it to be documented and recorded. In fact, most archaeological sites are not found by archaeologists. We follow up on the information given to us largely by the public, and from there through careful excavation and years of study more information about the past becomes clear.

Noah's mom had this to say:

"I think it's super cool that this happened,'' said Andrea Cordle. "But it's not ours. It's for everybody. My father-in-law died recently and he collected arrowheads, and my husband thinks this was from his father. We know his father would have loved to see it. And from the bottom of my soul, I feel it's meant to be seen by everybody.'' from APP.com.

4. The kind of stone the points are made out of tell us about trade and migration.

We got very excited a few years ago that not one, but two Cahokia points were found in Jacksonville at Mill Cove. Why is this exciting? Cahokia points originate from the Missouri/Illinois border site of Cahokia, a prehistoric village and the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas (Monk's Mound). The points are identified by the stone from which they are made and the shape of the point. We can get the same information from other points if we know where they were found, we can connect our special places in Florida to those who traveled far to get here hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Image: Keith Ashley, UNF, from FPAN Storified feed.

Missed Keith Ashley's talk on Mill Cove? FPAN live tweeted the talk and the archive of posts can be found here with images included.

5. No one likes the idea of a box of points collecting dust on a shelf.

We hear this a lot, that the artifacts should not sit in a box collecting dust, they should be enjoyed. Many projectile points are on display, but far more are kept in curation storage facilities. When artifacts are curated, not just projectile points but all archaeological materials, they are stored in archival quality boxes and bags on shelves. They are stored so that future archaeologists and members of the public can view the artifacts, apply new techniques to be tested when discovered, and keep the collection as a whole for future study.

When a collector keeps an artifact, they are only available to those who the collector will let view. They may put them on display or keep in a box. Where I work, all to often members of the public come in with an artifact someone in the family had collected and they don't know what to do with it. The object, by being removed from its context in the ground or collection of artifacts it was found with, has lost all scientific potential. What remains is aesthetic value, and sometime educational value if it is an identifiable form that can be used in teaching collections. Most often the object is not a particularly good example of a type, and now it holds no value- not scientific, not aesthetic, and not educational.

Image: general meme search but also "Why I Belong in a Museum" post. 

When Indiana Jones responds that an antiquity "belongs in a museum!" it is a general statement that the artifact belongs to all of us. Museums are the public libraries of historical objects and the best way for the greatest amount of citizens to benefit from possession of the object. 

I get the point that objects should be freed from being in a box on a shelf. But ultimately even points that are sold and traded often end up in similar boxes on shelves. The only thing that ultimately saves them from the landfill is if they have provenience information (location) and are kept with the other objects around it from a site.

6. Points are works of art and express more than just meeting basic needs by hunting.

Projectile points are first thought of as a hunting tool, how to meet a human's basic need of procuring food. I liked the way the Smithsonian article worded it, "the Clovis point was part of a generalized tool kit—the Leatherman of the ancient world."

But points are also works of art. Using experimental archaeology, flint knappers try to understand the complicated formation processes by recreating stone tools. An excellent video by Emory University, produced by Carol Clark, conveys that people have made stone tools over 2 million year and that they are not just tools, but detailed evidence of behavior. From stone tools you can see evolving intelligence, the evolving mind.

Image: screen cap of The Minds of Stone Age Toolmakers, click for link to video.

7. Refitting flakes may be the hardest job in archaeology.

I like puzzles as much as anyone, but it takes a special mind (and I mean special) to take on refitting stone flakes back together to further understand the knapping process. It requires every piece as every piece is used to refit the tool back into the raw core it came from.

Image: Texas Beyond History, image linked to source.

When people show me a flake they picked up, thinking it was just a random flake, the refitting images pop into my mind. There may be someone trying to refit the puzzle together who will not be working from a complete set. Even the tiniest flake matters!

For more on the crazy world of refitting, for which I have an enormous respect, check out this blog post on Putting Pieces Together: Refitting Ancient Stone Tools.  

Image: The Archaeology and History Blog.

8. The frightening reality that most often only stone survives, as other fragile information deteriorates over time. 

The Windover site haunts my dreams. It is a 7,000 year old mortuary pond near Titusville where prehistoric people were pinned to the bottom of the pond approximately 48 hours after death. Windover is most famous for the collection of organic artifacts that don't usually survive on the land: textiles, human tissue, seeds and other organic materials. 

Image: Replica cast skeleton at Brevard Museum, link to original page. 

The statistic that scares me the most: two projectile points and a single flake are the ONLY stone tools recovered from Windover (Hamlin 2001). What if every site where we find a flake or a few random points represents 169 people with a vast array of organic artifacts? That is the reality behind what the two points found at Windover represent.

9. Points of contention. 

You may have noticed I reference the Bullen guide, and not one of the many guides to collecting artifacts that include price tags. That is because to an archaeologist artifacts are only worth information, never money. The market for legal and illegal artifacts is so large in scale, one recent number from UNESCO put the illegal relic market at 6 billion dollars worldwide annually. Artifact sales may seem benign, but on a global scale sale of artifacts help fund terrorist organizations such as ISIS (according to CBS but see the New Yorker article with alternative interpretations). In sum, illegal artifact trading is not stuff you want to be involved in.

Are there examples of collectors and archaeologists working together? Absolutely! On land Montpelier's Metal-Detector Expedition program comes to mind, as does the Southern Idaho and Northern Utah Paleoindian Research Program directed by Dr. Bonnie Pitblado. These programs foster mutual benefits for both professional and avocational archaeologists. However, no citizen science program that I know of allows participants to keep artifacts on state protected land. Selling of artifacts for profit is against every archaeological society's code of ethics, it's a partnership deal-breaker that can't be overcome. 

The current controversy over Florida House Bill 803 and Senate Bill 1054 comes down to ownership of stone tools. No other class of artifact is in as great a danger in the rivers of Florida, land that is state owned and protected by our 50 year old Historical Resources law (Chapter 267). Can there be a compromise that allows for collection of single artifacts from state land? Not if ownership of the artifact passes from the state to the individual, as the current bills propose.

Image: Pitblado 2014, see reference below.

10. We are not the only ones who collected and appreciated early stone tools.

There are archaeological examples where we find stone tools that predate the culture they are buried with, meaning prehistoric Native Americans were also entranced by early projectile points and would often carry them with them. Especially in Florida, stone was a limited resource and stone blades were reshaped, reused, and recycled to make maximum use of the material. I find great comfort in the idea that what fascinates us today, what we assign value and give our careers to study, was also of interest 1,000 years ago as Floridians then pondered what life was like thousands of years before them. We are part of a great chain of those who have questioned Florida's past, and we can all be part of finding the answers.

Text: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff
Compiled from information where images are cited and referenced below.
Images: cited in text 


Hamlin, Christine. 2001. "Sharing the Load: Gender and Task Division at Windover." In Gender and the Archaeology of Death, Bettina Arnold and Nancy L. Wicker (eds.), Chapter 7. AltaMira Press. 

Pitblado, Bonnie L. 2014 How Archaeologist and Artifact Collectors Can—and Should—Collaborate to Comply with Legal and Ethical Antiquities CodesAdvances in Archaeological Practice 2(4):338- 352.