Posted by: Brian | March 11, 2012

A Point about Recycling (Updated)

Recycled KRF Point (photo by Forest Seaberg-Wood)

Recycled KRF Point from Orwell Reservoir (photo by Forest Seaberg-Wood)

Last fall, my students and I helped Garrett Knudsen of Summit Envirosolutions with a small survey project along the Orwell Reservoir near Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Garrett found a nicely made Knife River Flint point in a road track. This find has got me thinking about recycling of lithics in prehistory.

The point is broken at the tip and base. It’s hard to identify it to a formal type given that the base is missing, but it was either stemmed, side-notched, or more likely corner-notched. What makes this artifact particularly interesting is the heavy patina that covers much of its surface. This white coat is the result of ‘silica dissolution’ and is a kind of weathering common on KRF artifacts (VanNest 1985). The patina on this point tells a very interesting story – a story about old breaks and new breaks, of resharpening and recycling. Click below for the story and a bit of reminiscence of a Yup’ik elder.

Inspection of this artifact shows some critical details regarding the patina and the breaks. First the haft broke and the point was either lost or discarded. Over time, a patina covered the point’s surface including the break at the haft. Much later someone retouched one edge of the blade and the tip broke. Both the retouch and missing tip have exposed the original flint beneath the patination. This pattern of old breaks, new breaks and retouch suggests that the broken point was found, resharpened, used and broken by a second person many years, perhaps hundreds of years, after its use by the original owner.

(A kind of story) The freshly flaked Knife River flint point had the translucent brown color of a muddy spring puddle when it was first chipped to shape. I imagine a long ago hunter on the plains being pleased with its qualities. It was thin, light weight and well-made. With sharp blade and piercing tip, it made a lethal weapon.  A break, probably during use, snapped the point at the neck (the weak spot between the notches). I suspect that the hunter was less concerned about the broken point than about the target. A successful hit would have meant food. A miss would have probably had the hunter quickly calculating the odds of a second shot. The arrow shaft would have been retrieved if possible. At a convenient time, the hunter could easily cut the lashing that held the remaining stone haft, remove it, and then insert a new point into the shaft.

The rest of the point, the blade and tip, may have been lost when the arrow missed its target – perhaps breaking from hitting a rock or hard ground. Had the hunter successfully hit the target, the point may have broken inside the struck animal. The broken point may have been removed and discarded during butchery, or maybe never seen again by the hunter.

In any case, the broken point with missing haft was left to weather for a very long time. I imagine another hunter finding the now, dull white point. This second hunter undoubtedly recognized it as a useful tool. A little retouch was required to resharpen an edge, but otherwise the point could be recycled – especially if the second hunter was part of the later tradition that used triangular points – so the missing haft was not a problem. This second hunter may have thanked his ancestors for making this tool. He may have reused the point simply because it was convenient to do so, but he may have also considered his new arrowhead to be special because of its history and connection to the ancestors.

Somehow the tip of the recycled arrowhead snapped off. It’s possible it broke while being used by the second hunter. It’s also possible that this last break occurred more recently when a truck tire ran over this artifact (I’m trying to determine whether the break is the result of an impact fracture. The retouch along the margin does not look like it is the result of this ‘tire trampling’, but that’s a possibility too.)

The remaining mid-blade point fragment was left on a high terrace over-looking the Otter Tail River. Our test excavations at this site have produced a few sherds of grit-tempered pottery, some stone flakes and other stone tools, and some burned mammal bone – probably bison or deer (Knudsen 2012). It’s an assemblage typical of late Woodland occupations in western Minnesota. A small KRF point, whether triangular or side-notched, is not out of place in this assemblage.

I am interested in this artifact, in part because I like how its ‘biography’ can be read from the observable details of manufacture, use, breakage, and reuse. I’m also interested in the ‘formation process’ involved. I am curious about the issue of temporally diagnostic artifacts, like projectile points, being recycled by people in the past – especially if these artifacts are removed from one cultural historic context and deposited in another. With this KRF artifact we can see this recycling because of the patination. I wonder about all those artifacts where we can’t determine the passage of time between manufacture and reuse. How many of our diagnostic projectile points are recycled from an earlier tool-making tradition?

Yup'ik elder, Peter Smith, Sr., during a 1986 interview in Anchorage. Peter is demonstrating the climbing techniques he used as a young man in 'cliff-hanging'.

These thoughts remind me of Yup’ik elder, Peter Smith, Sr. I first met Peter in 1986 on Nunivak Island (which is in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s southwest coast). I was a young archaeologist working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Peter was one of the elders who helped us with our work. Peter had lived an amazing life. He grew up at a time (early 1900s) when the Yup’ik people on Nunivak were still using much of the same material culture of the previous 500 hundred years. Peter told of hunting walrus by harpoon from a skin-covered kayak. He was also one of the last Nunivak Islanders to practice the traditional ‘cliff-hanging’ techniques for netting cliff-dwelling sea birds like murres, puffins, and cormorants (Hoffman 1990; Pratt 1990).

One of my favorite stories Peter told was how he used to go and dig around old sites (as a kind of indigenous archaeologist). He partly did this because he wanted to connect with his ancestors. He described how he would go to the site nearest his village and point back to his home while telling his ancestors how everyone was doing. I never asked whether he thought he was actually speaking to ancestral spirits, but that was my impression of his story. He also dug at the sites to find useful tools. In particular Peter told me that he would look for harpoon endblades made of stone. He would then take these back to use in his own harpoon heads. Again I didn’t think to ask him why he did this, but my impression was that he thought the ancient artifacts were special, but not necessarily superior to the metal endblades he could otherwise have used.

Harpoon Head owned by Rex Matthaw, a Yup'ik elder living in Bethel, Alaska in 1986. This harpoon head was part of Rex's equipment he had used as a young hunter. This photograph is a close-up of the harpoon head showing the hand-made brass endblade. Peter Smith would have used similar brass endblades (unfortunately I didn't think to ask).

My point in recounting Peter’s story and my point of this blog post is a point about points and the recycling of temporally diagnostic artifacts. The harpoon endblades recycled by Peter Smith would have been out of place in the material culture of his youth. If I were to excavate the midden left by Peter’s family from this period I might assume the slate or chipped stone points were displaced artifacts unintentionally redeposited by Peter or his family during their daily activities. This interpretation might be weakened if I found no other evidence of an older component at Peter’s home site. Still, it makes me wonder about some of the multi-component sites in places like western Minnesota where lithic artifacts are the predominant finds. While archaeologists often discuss the potential of artifact recycling in our analyses of technology and site formation processes, it’s not often that we have such strong evidence for the displacement/reuse of temporally diagnostic artifacts as the Orwell point and Peter’s anecdotes.

UPDATE: If you’re interested in the KRF photograph, Forest has a post on the challenges she faced in getting an image that showed the breaks, retouch, and patination.


Hoffman, Brian W. 1990. “Bird Netting, Cliff-Hanging, and Egg Gathering: Traditional Procurement Strategies on Nunivak Island”. Arctic Anthropology. 27, no. 1: 66-74.

Pratt, Kenneth L. 1990. “Economic and Social Aspects of Nunivak Eskimo “Cliff-Hanging”. Arctic Anthropology. 27, no. 1: 75-86.

VanNest, Julie. 1985. Patination of Knife River Flint Artifacts. The Plains Anthropologist 30, no. 110: 325-339

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  1. Some of the best Arctic Small Tool Tradition pieces from Kodiak that I have ever seen (and Don Dumond and Don Clark both agreed that they were clearly ASTt) came from an early 19th century historic site on Kodiak. A single component site. The tools were made from Alaska Peninsula chert, and I am convinced that they were picked up at an old eroding site on the Alaska Peninsula and brought back to kodiak to be used as gunflints! Patrick

    • Hey Patrick – that’s a really interesting example of recycling – re-purposing for gunflints.

  2. [...] Points From an archaeologists on what he calls point recycling A Point about Recycling Old Dirt – New Thoughts I am sure most people have come across this in their collections but its makes for a very [...]

  3. What a wonderful teaching tool! It’s so rare that we find objects or contexts that so unambiguously teach us. It’s so easy to become complacent in our study and thoughts and our use of methodologies. How many re-worked tools or other objects with complex life stories have we studied and missed …?
    I once took an investment class (which is a joke in itself). Someone asked about the merits of going with a market averaging mutual fund vs. a particular stock. The instructor pointed out that for a particular stock you have to follow the trend of that commodity, general market trends, the history of that company and a hundred other details. His final piece of advice is the punch line. He said that “In the end, you don’t know what you don’t know”.
    I don’t mean that we should cripple ourselves with self-doubt, but it’s good to be reminded that we study people whose stories are as complex as our own, whose lives were often lived in contexts unfamiliar to us and that our interpretations and understandings must always be open to revision and re-examination with the certainty that there is always more to the story…

    Chuck B

    • Yes – ‘there is always more to the story’ one of the reasons that archaeology is so much fun. Thanks for your comment. I’m looking forward to finding more to the Jeffers story this summer.

  4. I like Patrick’s gun flints example: I’ve visited a Solutrean open air lithic scatter that is also an historic gun flint lithic scatter. It isn’t always easy to decide who made any given tool or flake – and perhaps this is because of a certain amount of reuse of the Paleolithic tools by the historic flint makers. Did the historic folks recognize that they were reshaping ancient tools? Did they care? Of couse, this situation doesn’t have the heritage immediacy of the Alaska examples…

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