I’ve added a photo gallery in the sidebar to the right of the main blog feed. I think nearly all these projects have been shared here over the years but this makes for easy viewing. I’ll continue to add images and re-post some older work as I get time so please check back feel free to continue the feedback, and I hope you enjoy.
I study the technology of prehistory. Because of this, I believe strongly in the benefits of experiential archaeology. It gives perspective on a very deep level. We can walk in the shoes of our ancestors, so to speak. I say experiential here not experimental and I’m glad to hear this word coming into the dialog of other primitive technology people. While not trying to dwell on the words themselves, it is an important distinction. Experimental generally implies the ability to replicate an actual experiment (i.e., testing a hypothesis to see what you find).
True experiments are things like:
- Can a tree be cut down using an exact replica of a prehistoric axe?
- Is it possible to move a ten ton stone over long distances using only the technology and manpower available in the Neolithic?
- Can fire be made by rubbing sticks together?
- Will a Medieval arrow penetrate 14 gauge armor plate?
You certainly gain the experience through these experiments but you are also testing something specific with something like a yes or no answer. Experimental archaeology can create some popular misconceptions as well. Just because something could be done, doesn’t mean that prehistoric people must have done it that way.
Experiential archaeology integrates this and everything else learned along the way. E.g., How comfortable are these shoes, is there more or less back pain using a tump line on a pack, what kind of wear can be expected on arrow fletchings over time? This allows us to ask even more questions and have a fuller knowledge of ancient peoples.
I really enjoy the various directions replication takes the maker. Learning the finer points of cutting and scraping with stone flakes or abraders, working with antler and wood, creating glues and mastics, and developing an appropriate paint or sealer as on the spear thrower below.
Whatever you do and whenever you learn, it’s all good.
Power Tools and Preindustrial Technology
Recently, I realized I needed to make a new batch of darts (spears) for an annual atlatl event at Blackwater Draw. This is a recurring problem when teaching large groups, so several years ago I came up with a system that works well for mass producing these Ice-Age weapons with just a few common power tools. Nothing about this project is particularly difficult but if you need to produce darts by the dozen, it can get pretty tedious and take many hours. Power tools, in this case, decrease the necessary time and energy allowing free time to pursue more satisfying occupations.
After several decades teaching and demonstrating primitive technology I have learned that people are not careful with other people’s hand-made items (kids doubly so) so making robust and easily replaced models is a real time-saver. Also, having tried many designs with kids and adults, I have found a size, weight, and flexibility that I think covers a wide range of body types and skill sets so that most people, most of the time, can have some success in just a few throws (except Jim Gnapp, he’ll just never get it). After promising to do this for several years now, I put together a recipe for mass producing atlatl darts.
GEORGE’S RECIPE FOR LARGE BATCH ATLATL DARTS –
- Straight-grained kiln dried hardwood, 3/4″ oak or hickory; three side planed or better
- Super glue, gel type or favorite fletching glue
- Strong, thin thread (I use silk for my personal arrows and darts but any standard sewing thread is fine)
- Glue-on archery field points, 190 gr. or better
- Two part epoxy
- Feathers, TruFlight full length arrow feathers or other feather splits; three dozen or package of 50
- Table saw
- Bench sander
- Sandpaper, 100 and 150 grit; finer paper optional
- Optional: arrow taper tool for centering and precise fitting of points
- Small hand saw, band saw, or similar to cut shafts to length
- Tapered countersink drill bit
Preparing the Shafts: Rip board into 1/2″ strips, then re-saw to create 1/2″ square cross-section.
Set table saw to 45° to further re-saw shaft into octagon section. This can then be smoothed by hand with sandpaper or on the belt sander.
Cut shafts to length. I generally cut them to 7′ (84″).
At this point you will notice that the shaft is far to wide for standard arrow field points so some free-hand shaping on the sander will be required. Taper the final 3-6″gently down to a scant 3/8″ diameter, rounding the shaft as you go.
Taper the shaft to fit the field point and test fit a point.
Repeat until board is consumed and all shafts are all prepared. At this point, further shaping of the shaft can be accomplished on the bench sander to round out the octagon shape.
Mix a small batch of epoxy and attach the heads to the dart. I give them a final tap after insertion by holding the dart point down over a hardwood scrap and dropping it a couple feet, sealing the point. Wipe off any excess epoxy and wait the recommended cure time.
Fletching: Tear off about 1/2 inch of the vane or barbs from the quill (the barb is the hairy or fuzzy part). Place a dab of super-glue on the forward end of the quill and hold down about 7-8″ forward of hind part of the shaft. Once this sets, repeat two more times placing the feathers evenly around the shaft (one-third way around). Trim the rear of the feather to make all three match in length.
Using a scant quantity of glue, attach each feather to the shaft. You can skip this and just tie them down but the glue makes for a robust and neat-looking fletching. Whip down the front and rear of the feather with thread and coat lightly with super glue to prevent unraveling.
Using the tapered countersink bit, create a notch in the base of the dart. For security and strength, I recommend whipping the final 3/8″ of the shaft with thread and coating with super glue to strengthen to wood.
Take a break, drink a beverage, and congratulate yourself on a job adequately done. You now have a set of tough darts for play and learning that should, with some care, last for several years of hard use.
Now for the thrower… “It is to be created in the usual fashion, neither too long or too short, too heavy or too long.” ~pt
Seriously though, there are myriad ways to create a stick with a hooked end and I won’t go into the finer points here. I will say that this is really the simple part and can be achieved with either hand or power tools in a short time. There is much about spear thrower design (atlatls) on the web and it is important to remember that most cultures world-wide used these efficient tools. As their prey and use varied, the styles varied as well. They broadly fall into a few categories but the most common in the U.S. are variations on the “Basketmaker” or “Great Basin” styles and what I like to think of as the hammer-handle styles (above). The latter are more akin to the early designs from the Ice Age and are found throughout Europe, often make from reindeer antler, over many millennia.
My second favorite; Osage orange wood, buckskin, sinew, pitch glue and red argylite.
As for style, I personally recommend finding a cultural group you are interested in or just a design that strikes your fancy and dive in. Wood is cheap, easily worked and plentiful. Worry about the details later.
FINALLY, FIELD TESTING:
They work! and all survived a day of heavy use.
Oh but wait! There’s more! Here are a couple other respectable links to get you started:
A quick follow-up on yesterday’s post in the wee hours of the morning.
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.
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.
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.
I recently finished another Paleolithic inspired spear thrower (a.k.a. atlatl). This came about due to some throwing over the past year that re-energized my feelings about this technology and it’s sporting aspects. As usual for this type of project, I made several at once since the tools were at hand. Here’s a quick rundown on the process of connecting an antler hook to a wooden handle.
My favorite style is the Western European Upper Paleolithic “hammer-handle” style thrower. It works well with heavier darts and is a solid companion.
I recently got around to repairing my partner’s atlatl for an upcoming throw at the Landmark. It’s been in use for seven years now and suffered some dings as well as losing it’s wooden hook. The handle is oak and the original cocobolo hook has been replaced with antler which will hopefully last a lifetime.
The hook itself can come under a lot of stress, especially if it lodges in a too-deep socket on the spear or dart. I started keeping them fatter and flatter, more like Upper Paleolithic specimens from Europe, making them stronger with a smoother release. This design works well for me.
The hook above is held by elk sinew and hide glue. It may need another round to smooth it out.
Sinew is an amazing material to work with. I learned about it when I was a teenager by reading Larry Dean Olsen’s classic book Outdoor Survival Skills and have been a proponent ever since. Real sinew has many advantages over modern materials including the so-called “artificial sinew” in that it adheres to many surfaces, bonds perfectly with hide glue (sharing much of the same chemistry), and shrinks as it dries making for a tighter bond. Another advantage to sinew as a survival tool is that every animal has it, so watch out.
Finally, a lot of folks prefer a leather gripped handle for a better hold when wet or sweaty. This thrower has won quite a few competitions in the past and I hope that tradition continues in it’s newest reincarnation.
For the past twenty or more years the technology of the spear-thrower has become more and more well-known as a sport. Popularly called an atlatl in the Americas as that was the name the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs gave it. This is a world-wide technology and arguably one of the greatest technological leaps for early modern humans. I feel fortunate to have lived through this increasing popularity and to see the growth of the sport.
Have a look at some remarkable throwers recreating an ancient training game reported to be from South America.
For a more European take on the subject, check out speerschleuders at this fine German website. Finally, possibly the oldest image of a spear thrower in action from Lascaux Cave.