Go & Do: Take a knap — the ancient art of tool making, that is


PORTLAND — Buy most of your tools at the hardware store?

There’s another way, you know: Knap it.

Knapping is the process of crafting objects by striking harder materials, such as stone or animal antlers, against softer materials such as flint, coral or obsidian. Stone working of this sort has existed for millions of years, and for much of human history it was the exclusive means by which we made stone weapons and tools.

On a recent Sunday, geology and archeology buffs from around the state traveled to the University of Southern Maine to attend the school’s annual “Knap-In,” a daylong event centered on ancient tools and technology.

USM students gave informational seminars in the department’s labs and partook in the knapping demonstrations. Approximately 50 people attended the event, participating in tool-making demonstrations, a mock archaeological dig, atlatl throwing and educational seminars held in the college’s labs.

In one of the university’s labs, surrounded by hundreds of stone fragments and primitive tools, organizer Abby Mann, who is also president of the Geography-Anthropology Student Association at USM, explained the importance of this ancient technology.

“Knapping is an art form,” said Mann. But it has also been a useful skill throughout history. “Anyone, prehistorically, who was knapping was making tools. Tools for cutting, for hunting.”

Nathan Hamilton, USM professor of archeology, added, “It’s the longest term technology that humans have been engaged in. Millions of years of manipulation of stone. You could master this technology and be a winner on ‘Survivor’ . . . but the more fundamental aspect is to see that it’s not that difficult to make a stone tool.

And because “different time periods produced different tools,” Mann said, the study of prehistoric knapping is also a study of prehistoric societies. Knapping was done by all human groups. By examining the processes and materials used by these different groups, archaeologists can glint information about the societies that employed it.

That explains the anthropologic reason for learning this ancient skill. Dick Doyle, who has led knapping demonstrations at USM’s Knap-In for the past six years, said there are a number of reasons why modern knappers continue to learn and pass on the technology.

Some people shape rock as an art form, he said. “Modern lithic artists . . . they can make a piece of rock stand up and sing.” Others, the more practical, utilize the tools they create. For Doyle, a member of the Maine Archaeological Society, there is also something intrinsically important about understanding the processes of our ancestors.

“They had stone technology 2.5 million years ago,” he said. “It was something that made (our ancestors) somewhat like us . . . and it’s something that makes us human.”

The flinty process

Modern knapping looks much like its prehistoric counterpart, said Doyle, albeit with some new tools. Some knappers have replaced the moose-antler billets with hammers, but “the process is the same,” he said: Strike one object against another.

Beyond that, according to Doyle, there are many approaches. A knapper can work one side of a blade or both, serrate the edge through grinding, and pressure flint (pushing sidelong down the blade to break off any raised areas) to create a thin or thick blade.

“It’s pretty hard, but fun,” said Jacob West, 13, of Otisfield. He was working away on a small obsidian arrowhead, scraping intricate serrations into the edge. “I think I would study archeology,” he said without taking his gaze off his arrowhead.

West was in the process of pressure flaking, and explained as he worked. “You just press it with this harder rock, find little raised areas and break them off, and you shape it . . . really slowly.”

West was accompanied at the event by his uncle and a family friend, Mike Heickman, 29, of Windham. Heickman was also attending the event for the sheer enjoyment of flint knapping. “I’ve always known about knapping,” he said, “but I’ve never been to something like this.” Heickman explained that he participates in “a hobby called primitive archery. It goes hand in hand, making the arrow, the arrow head and firing it. I’ve always been interested in that.”

Twenty-two-year-old Danielle Fecteau, a student in the department, was attending the event for a second year. “It’s definitely fun,” she said, “but it could also be practical, you know, if you were lost in the woods.”

Jim McDevitt, of Scarborough, said he was not a natural knapper. “Well, except maybe late in the afternoon sometimes,” he joked.

For McDevitt, who attends archaeological digs as a hobby, learning the craft is part of better understanding his hobby. “I’ve dug up so many of the flakes and projectile points in different digs, I just became interested in how they were made,” he said.

“It’s interesting to look at the technologies that ancient people developed,” said Skye Hinkley, a senior in the department of geography-anthropology. “You can see the evolution” of the culture “from the different types of tools that they used.”

More knapping in store

The Geography-Anthropology Student Association has hosted this event for the last six years. “Last year we got around 150 people” in attendance, said Mann. “And we always see new people.”

Mann credited Hamilton with getting the first Knap-In off the ground and for helping administer the event over the past six years.

Many of those who attended the event, said Hamilton, “are more curious, more interested. And there’s a camaraderie among people who are interested in this. . . . There’s a community that’s interested.”

“In Maine there is a burgeoning community” for stone knapping, added Doyle. There are many archaeological sites here, he said, but in terms of a community of knappers, there is room to go.

The USM Knap-Ins are held annually in the spring in the Department of Geography-Archeology at USM’s Gorham Campus.

For readers interested in knapping, there is an upcoming event focused on prehistoric living and featuring flint knapping. The event, The Ancient Ones, will be held June 4 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, at 56 Game Farm Road. For information visit www.theancientonesofmaine.com.

Power knap

For readers interested in knapping, there is an upcoming event focused on prehistoric living and featuring flint knapping. The Ancient Ones will be held June 4 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, at 56 Game Farm Road. For information visit www.theancientonesofmaine.com.

Tools made from deer and moose antlers are used in flint knapping. 
Jake Rogers, a student from Byfield, Mass., rummages through an assortment of obsidian and chert, types of knapable stone.