A Workbench from Pompeii

Daedalus and Pasiphae discussing the pantomime cow. Wall mural from Pompeii, 1st century A.D.

The art and artifacts from Pompeii have been much on my mind since the major new excavations have been published the past couple years.  I was looking at this wall mural and noticed the very Roman workbench in the lower left, complete with bench dogs while the young carpenter whacks away with hammer and chisel.

Detail from Daedalus and Pasiphae.

At his feet lies his bow drill and what may be a small adze of some sort.  I have no idea what he’s working on here but it might be germane to the larger legend of Queen Pasiphae of Greek myth (here meeting with Daedalus the artificer who is constructing special hobby cow for her to ride in for special activities).

Of course, I wish there were more details of the carpenter but this looks very much like one of my benches or one of a million others built since Pompeii was buried; a heavy plank, four friction-fitted legs, and placed at a comfortable sitting height.  Standing all day is for suckers.

If you don’t know this story it is a Roman interpretation of a Greek literal interpretation of a Minoan myth about the daughter of the Sun and Ocean who became queen of Minos and did some very weird things.  I suggest you look for it elsewhere in order to keep this page PG-13.

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Primitive (but useful) Sewing Kit

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Tools, clockwise from lower left: large awl, sewing awl, rivercane needle case, bone toothpick, sewing needles in center.

Sewing

I do quite a bit of sewing and I feel it is an essential skill for nearly everyone.  My sewing includes new buckskin trousers, cotton shirts, shoes, a few leather bags, backpacks, and repairs to clothes to name just a few projects.  All this has caused me to think about sewing without manufactured goods.  Over a few evenings I decided to make a better primitive sewing kit. Although I can’t say that bone could fully replace the smallest steel needles in my day-to-day sewing basket, I have been able to make some very small ones indeed from some deer legs I have lying around.

This 7 centimeter (2 3/4 inch) needle, dated to approximately 50,000+ years before present, was made and used by our long extinct Denisovan ancestors, a recently-discovered hominin species or subspecies.  the material is bird bone.  Photo: Siberian Times (click the image for the full article).

Needles

I’ve learned that very small holes can be made with a largish stone flake or knife if it has a sufficiently acute point, drilling from one side and joining it with a hole from the other.  From a sewing perspective, the smallest hole possible will provide the strongest needle. during the finishing on the smallest needles, I had a 50% failure rate splitting out the eye.  It isn’t generally a total loss since the needle can be shortened and the hole drilled again.  I actually found that using the flake like a knife (as opposed to a drill bit) was the best way to start a tiny hole, scraping a small slit until a significant indent is made.  As with all new skills, knowledge and experience were gained along the way.

Eyed needle from the burial at Horn Shelter, Texas (links to overview of this remarkable shelter). Click the image for and article explaining the needle context specifically.

Despite their fragility, bone needles are found far back in the archaeological record of Europe, Asia, and North America.  Small, eyed needles are generally considered, in the Anthropological community, as proxy evidence for tailored clothing or, in a few cases, surgical or first aid related.  Unfortunately, needles don’t often survive and, no doubt, many small and broken fragments have been lost through the screen during excavation.

Awls

Awls are essentially a small spike used to pre-punch holes in tough or thick materials.  Both the awls shown here are also based on archaeological examples; the awl being a universal tool in human communities.  The metacarpal “knob” on the sewing awl still needs a bit of refinement but the round handle works well for repeated stitching in buckskin.  Bone (and antler) can be made surprisingly sharp and hold an edge reasonably well.

Storing the Needles

Needles are sharp and dangerous to leave lying around so the next obvious step was to make a case to hold them.  This is a simple affair made from rivercane with a yucca stem stopper.  The cordage strengthens the tube and prevents splitting and the whole thing was rubbed down with pine tar for preservation (hence the dark coloration of the cord).

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In use on buckskin lacing project.

Finally, with a thin scrap of bone I ground out a bone toothpick to keep in the travel kit as a toothpick is always a handy thing to have in the bush.

On the Antiquity of Gourds

Gourds have played an important role in human history in both the Old World and New.  The origin, domestication, and spread of this and other plants was a topic of much conversation when I was in graduate school.  It seems now that its antiquity and introduction to the Americas is becoming much clearer.  This humble but amazing plant is securing its place in early American prehistory.

Ancient Humans Brought Bottle Gourds To The Americas From Asia

Thick-skinned bottle gourds widely used as containers by prehistoric peoples were likely brought to the Americas some 10,000 years ago by individuals who arrived from Asia, according to a new genetic comparison of modern bottle gourds with gourds found at archaeological sites in the Western Hemisphere. The finding solves a longstanding archaeological enigma by explaining how a domesticated variant of a species native to Africa ended up millennia ago in places as far removed as modern-day Florida, Kentucky, Mexico and Peru.

Read more about it here:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/12/051214081513.htm

Primitive Arts

Today I’m prepping to present some primitive skills on Saturday, from raw materials to finished goods. I’m also getting some kid’s activities together to draw in the latest generation.

An assortment of stone-age technology laid out to take to the public.

Archaeological Work in Progress

I don’t normally share my professional work on this blog but thought it might be of interest.  We were out re-recording a rock shelter yesterday known for some rather mysterious pictographs.  Mysterious in that they are vague and probably mostly wiped out due to weathering.  Only the protected portions of the shelter contain clear images and only one image is a petroglyph (pecked as opposed to painted).

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Looking for hidden glyphs.

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There are no clear cultural symbols that would tie these panels to a single time period or affiliation but there are some hints at an Archaic connection (or at least stories about the Archaic).  It is strongly suspected that the site has been known and has been collected on for at least two centuries as Europeans  had a presence here since the early 18th century.  This may account for the complete lack of diagnostic artifacts on the site.  However, diagnostic points have been collected nearby and show a strong association with the Missouri Late Archaic tradition in the form of Langtry points.

Hope you enjoy some vicarious archaeology.

Spear Thrower Follow Up

 

A quick follow-up on yesterday’s post in the wee hours of the morning.

Hook engaged.

Hook engaged.

Based on a question that came in yesterday it seems appropriate to show the thrower in use.  This is my favorite dart but I’m a little embarrassed by the sloppy fletching.  The base (proximal end) of the dart is carved out in a shallow cone and reinforced with some very fine hemp, coated in hide glue.  The indent should not be too deep or the hook only catches the rim and will break off bits when thrown.  It should “bottom out” for best contact.

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Hook detail.

The hook is pulled out here to show length.  I find that if the hole and pin are too deep, the release is not smooth as it binds up during the throw.

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Hole oblique.

Nothing magic, just a technology we all knew back in our family past.  I should say that there are three primary types if connection for spear throwers; this on just seems the most popular.  I hope to address the others sometime down the road.

In a spin about fletch wrapping

arrow_anatomyFinding “handedness” in archaeology… using the fletching of arrows as an example. As a professional archaeologist AND primitive technologist I am very skeptical when someone claims they can determine which hand of a maker is dominant on an ancient tool or weapon. One reason for the distrust is that the archaeologist may not have experienced creating the object in the same way the original maker did. I think the Leatherworking Reverend has a valid point in the following article (and not just because it affirms my own experiences).

The Reverend's Musings

At most find-sites that have arrows there will be a non-equal mix of S- and Z-wrap on the bindings. The dig report will assert that left-handed fletchers were responsible for those that aren’t the majority direction arrow binding, probably without mentioning whether it’s the Z- or S- that they are talking about. I can’t find where it was written down the first time, but it has been repeated until it became lore. Consider the Ötze website:

According to technical archaeologist Harm Paulsen, the two arrows could not have been fashioned by the same person. The fletching shows that one was wound by a left-hander and the other by a right-hander.

and the Mary Rose Trust:

Hopkins (1998) studied 408 shafts from chest 81A2582 (O9) and recorded that, in every case, the binding thread had been wound in a clockwise direction from the tip end of the shaftment (ie, the portion of the arrow…

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Ancient Dutch Ovens and the Ceramic Hibachi

“A good meal ought to begin with hunger.” French Proverb.

All animals need to eat.  All the time.  As humans, we eat every day if we are lucky.  An average Westerner will have about 275,000 meals in a lifetime, not including snacks, munchies, and other nibbles.  Once upon a time, we all caught, gathered, and ultimately made food for ourselves and our families.  If we had some extra, we might have provided for the needy, the unlucky, or even the lazy.  If we were entrepreneurial, we might have even exchanged our food for other stuff or services we needed. We cook our food to release nutrients, to make it easier to digest, and ultimately, to make it more delicious.  After all, “A clever cook can make good meat of a whetstone” Erasmus.

rats

…or so they say.

Throughout our evolution here on Earth, food never came from an assembly line or even a grocery store.  As time went on, we could choose to put some effort into our cooking and make delicious stuff.  For this we developed cooking apparatus beyond the simple fire and we adapted just about every food into some sort of cooked dish.  As true meat-loving omnivores, humans eat just about anything.  “If it has four legs and is not a table, eat it!” Cantonese proverb.

Enough digression, on to some minimalist cooking!

Cook of the SMS Ranch_ near Spur_ Texas_ Lee Russell_ 1939-600Every cowboy, Boy Scout, and classic camper in North America knows the amazing versatility of the cast iron Dutch Oven.  Why “Dutch” you say?  Well, those clever craftsmen from the Netherlands perfected sand casting for vessels such as this in the 17th Century and by the first decade of the 18th Century the English copied them perfectly and the name stuck (at least in England and America).

dutch-oven-breakfastThis was not even remotely a new design for cookware, just a new material.  A heavy thermal barrier to spread heat and hold a high temperature without drying out the food is a useful innovation.  Moving farther afield you can find kindred spirits around the globe serving the same purpose including the Bedourie, the potjiekos, Sač oven, and the Nabemono.

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The clibanus or Roman clay Dutch oven.

Over on the British Museum Blog Sally Grainger has been writing about her experiments with, among other things, the Roman clibanus (a.k.a. clay Dutch oven).  I had no idea that the rimmed lid for holding coals was such an ancient innovation but, of course, it makes perfect sense.  Our ancestors were cooking on coals every day after all.  There seem to be many variants on this design but the example here is something of an inverted version of our modern oven.  The entire lid lifts off to expose the tray or shallow bowl lower portion.  This makes for a serving vessel as part of the cooking apparatus.

mt_5_charcoal_544Just like it’s modern counterpart, an oven like this can be used to cook a wide variety of dishes, from meats, to stews, to breads.

traychickenSee her write-up of the experiments HERE.

TajineThe descendents of this style oven may be seen in the tajine and it’s cousins found all around the Mediterranean, especially in North Africa.

And finally, a relatively simple project for the primitive camp.

A simple, slab-built portable grill could be a useful addition to one’s camp kitchen.  Perfect for cooking a Mediterranean meal of shish kebabs and perfect for simple meals anywhere.  Recent archaeological work has brought this back to light.

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Replicated souvlaki pan from Mycenae ca. 3,500 B.P.

These are a relatively recent discovery in that their use is finally understood.  Experimental archaeology is a great thing.  Sometimes we can readily predict the answer we know to be correct, but sometimes the process teaches us something and clears up misconceptions lost to time.  In this case, a type of artifact called a souvlaki tray of ancient Mycenae (Crete).  These date to a period from over 3,200 years ago.  These are rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat, and are generally discovered in fragments.  Prior to experimentation, archaeologists were not sure exactly how these were used, whether placed directly over a fire, catching fat drippings from the meat, or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbeque pit.  Attempting to cook on them directly over a fire proved useless, as the clay was too thick to allow efficient heat transfer, however, placing coals in the pan made an efficient hibachi-like portable grill.

A short article on the experiment may be found here: Mycenae Portable Grills.

References:

C. Grocock, and S. Grainger 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk: beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178.

Online:

The Medieval Spanish Chef  – Looking for a perfect peacock recipe or interesting ways to cook a horse?  Have a few extra rabbit hearts and don’t know what to do with them?  Check out Suey on her blog for some really interesting, well-researched Medieval recipes.

Making Tools

Back to the beginnings.  Larry Kinsella is a great flint knapper and an all-around talented guy who, amongst other things, recreates stone-age technologies from his home near Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (one of the great cities of the prehistoric world) in Illinois.

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A 6.35 kilogram (14 US pound) nodule of Burlington chert.

Back in 2008, Larry, prompted by Tim Baumann, created a great lithic experiment for a Missouri Archaeology Month poster.

On May 28th,2008, Larry received an e-mail from Dr. Tim Baumann:
Larry, “I still need your help with the Missouri Archaeology Month Poster.
The theme for 2008 is prehistoric lithic resources in Missouri. The back of the poster will have unmodified samples of chert and other lithic resources used by Native Americans in Missouri. I am working with Jack Ray and utilizing his new book on Ozarks lithic resources. Jack is also organizing the fall symposium on this same topic, which will be held on Saturday, Sept.27 at Meramec State Park in Sullivan, MO. If you would like to give a presentation at this event, please contact Jack.

For the front of the poster, I would like to show the entire assemblage of lithic debitage and tools made from a single Burlington chert cobble or similar light colored chert. I was hoping that you and/or some of your friends at the Devil’s hole knap-in would be willing to supply the raw material and muscle to create this assemblage. I will then take the debitage and tools and arrange them with a computer design program into a spiral pattern with a background of obsidian or another dark colored lithic source.”
Since this original contact, a few things were changed. Pete Bostrom was asked to do the layout and photography, for one.
As with any project, unexpected hurdles arise and it’s up to the participants to modify their strategies and adapt to those hurdles.
 
First:
     After Larry blanked out the nodule, it became apparent that he was producing much more debitage and many more tools than he had anticipated. That’s when he decided to stick with only a Late Archaic Assemblage. The wide variability in point sizes, shapes, and chert, along with the occurrence of many different types of chert tools, during the Late Archaic, seemed to gravitate toward that time period. Also, the tools could have been heat-treated if the stone had not worked as well as it did.
Second:
   It also became apparent that this project presented a unique opportunity to try to understand the amount of material needed to produce certain point types. So, after the initial photograph of the raw nodule was taken by  Pete Bostrom, and at the suggestion of Dr. Baumann, Larry saved all debitage, from all the point-making attempts, separately. This provided the opportunity to not only see what type of point could be made from a single spall but also, the other tools could be isolated to their specific spalls.
Third:
The sheer amount of material produced during the project, presented Pete Bostrom with problems too. How could he possibly display all that material and make it interesting to the general public? After all,  that’s what the poster’s supposed to do, get the general public interested in archaeology.
So:
1) It was decided to keep all debitage, from each spall, separate.
2) Keep separate notes and times on each spall using Larry’s pre-printed forms. Like this:
3) Photograph the resulting point types with their debitage.
4) Use the debitage from each point to make additional tools.
5) Photograph each point type, its additional tools, and debitage, together.
6) Screen all debitage, from each spall, through window screen, to determine how much chert grit would have been available to do core-drilling for other projects, such as, drilling bannerstones.
7) Weigh all materials. (Dr. Bauman weighed all the material, in Larry’s absence, due to surgery).
8) Present Pete Bostrom with all the material so he could lay out and take the photographs for the poster.
9) Present the photos to the printer so the posters could be made.
 
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Initial reduction from core to useful materials.

After reduction, each piece took it own trajectory and became a projectile point, other tool, or was cast away as debitage.  Students of archaeology (and some professionals I know) can learn much from this type of experiment by examining the range and number of flaking debris generated in a single reduction episode.

nodule14lbgrouplargeAfter Pete received the materials, he created this excellent poster which is a remarkable work of art in its own right.  Have a look at Larry’s pages explaining the process and learn something of the universal human technology that put us, for better or worse, in the place we are today.

Learning from Masters (not me, just what I seek)

Using archaeology to find out hows things “should be” done?  A response to a common question, by George Thomas Crawford

I am regularly asked about my connection to archaeology and my interest in primitive technology.  I’ve also been chided by some people in the primitive tech community on behalf of other archaeologists because they (archaeologists) are not all directly interested in the primitive skills.  There is so much more to the anthropology of material culture and our human past than just the replicative technology.  It just happens to be what I’m into.

Many of my anthropological colleagues are way smarter and more focused than I am and go in for chemistry, microscopy studies, site and landform formation, human-animal interaction, plant-use, kinesiology, geology and humans, climate change, genetics, biocultural evolution, and a slew of other cool stuff that isn’t generally covered in the popular press.

But on that note, I scan journals and the web for hints at solutions to my own replicating attempts and experiential archaeology.  These are the masters.  For example: A person who earned his keep as an archer 4,500 years ago will know an infinite amount more about bows, arrows, strings, and animals than I could glean in a lifetime of the modern world.  Lucky for me, this type of thinking ties directly to how I want to live.  That is to say, in a style that predates, in many ways, the horrors and unforeseen consequences of the Industrial Revolution.  Not as a seeker of some non-existent Golden Age but as a searcher for the truth.  We have succeeded as a species in our present form for only a very short time so far, though we think of ourselves as lords and masters of all we survey.  We even create institutions and religions to reaffirm this and place ourselves where we see fit in this scheme.

Moving on – I was given some excellent advice by an old professor when I was in college that guided my wild academic wanderings for many years. Unfortunately I expect this sort of thinking would not go far with many students today.  The advice is essentially as follows.

– Assume that most everything you will imagine as a young scholar has been thought about, examined, and studied by your predecessors.  This does not mean to lose hope, just realize you have a long way to go and a high hurdle to cross. You can’t stand on the shoulders of giants without a serious climb.

1) For a student who truly wants to learn, it is now your full-time occupation whether that is college or not.  Scholar is a job.  You have chosen to not just take up space in a classroom and have your named checked off as attending.  Those people waste all of our time and you know who you are.  Best of luck, just don’t bother us.

2) It is your responsibility to teach yourself as much as possible.  This is done by filling your spare time by exposing yourself to knowledge not mindless entertainment.  Leave that to the zombies and the drones of the world.

A simple way to learn is to park yourself in the library and to peruse journals.  Not starting with today, but starting with research from a hundred years ago, or preferably more.  I was advised (and I did this) to pick up the earliest bound volumes of Nature, Antiquity, and American Antiquity and flip through every issue.  Read the Table of Contents.  Now, pick at least one article from each and read it.  Really read it.  You may not retain all of this information but it sticks with you in some form.  You will begin to see trends in how we think and study and write about what we do.

3) Stop worrying about what you will do for a job after college.  People obsessed with this are the most unsuccessful people I know.  If you truly just want to make money, drop out of college NOW and go learn a trade.  Be a welder, mechanic, or a carpenter*.  If you don’t want to contribute to society in any real way or are just of a greedy or slightly evil turn of mind, try banking or investment.  If you just want to slide through without too much effort or reward, try the federal government or other forms of middle management.  I see too much vocational thinking in the quest for knowledge and not enough seeking.

4) Finally, develop a passion for what you want to learn.  Hopefully this is obvious and has already happened to you but sometimes we need to be told.  If we don’t love what we do, this short life will be a very unhappy one (by “do” in this sentence, I don’t necessarily mean “how we earn our money” but what we identify as; e.g., potter, woodworker, musician, or knitter).

And a final caveat: I don’t think I am in any position give real advice to others but I do feel that maybe I should answer some of the questions I’ve become so adept at evading.  Have a great day and hopefully a happy life.

GTC

*I personally think this is critical to become a well-rounded person anyway.