Saturday, January 14, 2012

Forsaken artifacts: crude stone tools

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Forsaken Artifacts: Crude Stone Tools


In 1998, I began surface collecting for artifacts in fields and at construction sites near my home on Buckeye Lake, in southern Licking County, Ohio. Soon after I started scouring the ground in search of points, the only artifacts I knew of at the time, I noticed a pattern of an over-abundance of hard stone rocks about the size to fit a hand and sometimes presenting somewhat common shapes and features. They were concentrated in certain areas, such as on a rise in a plowed field, near artifacts, or amidst flint debitage. I began to more closely examine all the stone material I found. I took stones home and removed soil by rinsing in water.

What emerged, to my thinking, were artifacts- the rocks appeared to have been modified by humans. I became so interested in these stones I began to seek them as my primary prey in artifact hunting. Over the years I have collected them and I’ve developed acumen for them. I have found them in several Ohio counties such as Perry, Fairfield, Delaware, Franklin, Hocking, Morgan andSummit. Most of the artifacts in this paper are from theBuckeye Lake area, specifically, Licking and Union Townships in Licking County, but a few are from the aforementioned counties.

Buckeye Lake as it sits today is man made, created as a feeder reservoir for the Erie and Ohio canal system. In prehistoric times it may have been a somewhat ephemeral swamp/lake-land area. Its use by early inhabitants has been described: “"Big swamp," or "Two lakes," sometimes, also, called by the Indians "Big lake," and "Little lake,"' or what is now called the Reservoir, was resorted to by the Indians, in considerable numbers, for the purpose of fishing” (Hill, 1881:490).

As an ironic aside, here is an account of the construction of the reservoir: “The Mound Builders' works are found in various parts of Licking Township, the stone mound about a mile south of Jacksontown being of the greatest magnitude. It was of gigantic proportions, measuring one hundred and eighty-three feet in diameter at its base; and when found by the pioneer settlers, was between thirty and forty feet in height. Many hundred wagon loads of stone were removed from it, and used in the construction of the reservoir…(Hill, 1881:489).”

The Wisconsinin Glacier advancement boundary line runs throughLicking County. Most all the raw material for the tools of this paper is likely sourced from terminal moraine deposits. The proximity of Flint Ridge to cobble and pebble deposits from glaciated times made for a rich and diverse source of lithic resources for the early inhabitants of the region. Artifacts from all temporal and cultural periods have been found in abundance in this area.


The following are the definitions in use for purposes of describing these artifacts.

-An opportunistic stone tool is a rock selected for its naturally advantageous form, not modified for use, but exhibiting evidence of handling and/or wear.

- A crude stone tool is an opportunistic rock which was more so modified for use by making breaks, chips, or by grinding, etc. to achieve the desired end-form, and also exhibiting evidence of handling and/or wear.

Eventually I began to examine rocks smaller than the hand-sized ones I noticed at first, and discovered some of them, too, indicate evidence of human modification. These are the definitions I apply to the larger and smaller tools. These definitions are different from ones used by other archaeologists and geologists:

- A cobble tool is one held in the hand and with contact with the palm

- A pebble tool is one held by and in contact only with the fingers and thumb


Following my interest, I set out to learn what others have written and know about these types of tools. Reference material about crude tools seems scarce, at least to this layperson. Smaller pebble tool information seems non-existent. I have found some information about crude tools interspersed with information about more refined stone artifacts. Crude and opportunistic artifacts covered in the literature are certain abraders, hammerstones, grinding stones, cup stones, pestle-rubbers, for example. However, many of the artifacts I have found differ from the well documented types. The tools which are well documented seem to yell “artifact!” even though they are considered crude. Many of the tools I have found have very slight features. They only whisper. They are the crude of the crude.

I have not found them listed on inventory lists from archaeological sites. I have not found any books or articles dedicated to them. Not even easy-to-publish, and to search for, internet sites. I have not been able to determine if they are recognized or studied by archaeologists in all the diversity I have found.

I have spoken with many professional, academic, and hobby archaeologists, artifact collectors, artifact dealers, geologists, authors and a consultancy, all of whom shrugged unknowingly, or worse- discouraged me from wasting my time.

I am most interested if readers can direct me to reference material or people with knowledge in this area. I wonder if any of the artifacts shown here look familiar to anyone.


It is easy to find rocks anywhere which “sweetly fit in the hand” which are of course not artifacts. The line of inquiry into crude stone tools undoubtedly enters a very highly interpretive area. However, such interpretation is precisely the job, and the duty, of the archaeologist. I have set out here to describe some general characteristics and more specific attributes based upon my own casual observations.

Context is first. To be considered are: a) the micro context, such as finding rocks or pebbles among flint debitage or artifacts, and; b) the macro context, such as “very near Buckeye Lake and in an area which is known as a rich source of artifacts,” and; c) a self-referential context, when a) and/or b) may be unknown, but several cobbles or pebbles are found in near proximity to each other, which are candidates by their attributes to be crude or opportunistic tools, and possibly even an assemblage of tools.

An important trait of crude tools is they are very often asymmetric. If one splits the artifact down the “middle,” the two halves are likely to be very different. This is unlike most other well described lithic artifacts such as points, knives, axes, adzes, celts, pendants, grooved hammerstones, etc.

Unlike more obvious artifacts, crude stone tools often have very subtle characteristics. Some or most of the surface can be the original natural surface of the rock. There may be some chipping, grooving or grinding to enhance grip but it can initially appear to have been caused by natural forces until other attributes are correlated to the tool.

Some were likely tools of relative expedience, made on the fly and used very briefly as compared to artifacts which indicate more time involvement in manufacture. Thus, detectible wear surfaces may not be well developed, but must be present unless there are several other very clear attributes indicated. I use a 10x lighted magnification scope to confirm and analyze wear surfaces and the like. Crude tools may not suggest “artifact” until a very careful analysis has been made. It would be easy to decide “just a rock” in the field, or even on the work table, and not pick them up or examine them further.

There should be a concurrence of the wear surface with the most advantageous grip of the tool. That is, when the tool is held in the hand in the way it feels “sweet,” the wear surface should present itself where it would be optimally accessed and utilized.

I am right-handed and think it is possible my collection is biased toward right-handed tools. The interpreter needs to be aware of this possible bias and hold potential artifacts in both hands to determine what the functional grip on that tool was. I may have pitched some when I was not able to detect a good working grip, when it could have been detected by working with the stone in my left hand.

Some more specific attributes: indications of removal of material to achieve a better general tool shape; a shape that seems molded to the hand like a ball of clay would be after squeezing; a narrowing, cone like shape; patina differences on the wear surface, the “air surface” (not in contact with anything during tool use) and the surface which would have been in contact with the skin; handling wear, where evidence of contact by the fingers or thumb is present; thumb pads created for optimal thumb contact; notches, rough spots and gashes created for placement of the grip of fingers and thumb; ridges and angles to accommodate the gripping hand; secondary or multiple wear surfaces as sometimes different parts of the tool were utilized; a knob emerging from between the thumb and index finger to improve grip; pitting; flattening; smoothing; evidence of percussion; a “push-butt” for the base of the palm, or in the case of pebble tools the thumb, to gain force and leverage on the tool; pebble tools can have a shape and feel similar to a piece of chalk in its last moments of use. The more attributes connected to a stone, the more sure one can be it was a tool.

Once a positive interpretation has been made, if one needs to quickly and easily communicate the grip of the tool to another, the tool may be marked with red, white and blue dots of nail polish where contact with the thumb, index and middle finger, respectively, was made. It is then possible for anyone not in the presence of the interpreter to pick up the tool and hold it the way it was held during active use.

Because of their lack of symmetry and complex three-dimensional nature, it is difficult to communicate the significance of opportunistic and crude cobble and pebble tools in words or in the two dimensions of photographs. The photos in this paper are for the most basic illustrative purposes. Holding the artifacts in the hand brings their splendor to life. All the artifacts shown in this paper are available for examination by any interested party.


There is a bias to flint, and flint like materials, in archaeology which needs to be countered. Flint occurs naturally in outcroppings in fixed places. It is easier to source-identify, easy to surmise how far it was carried or traded. When flint is found away from its natural source, it is easier to conclude a human left it there. The raw materials of crude tools have often been dispersed or occur naturally over broad areas. Sometimes the only specificity of source is something like “from the glaciers from the north” or “from the river valley floor.” Thus, very crude types of flint tools, such as utilized flakes and little worked pieces, have been well studied and documented in much variety. Similarly, bone artifacts seem to get sufficient treatment by archaeologists and collectors. When bone occurs in the context of other artifacts it is within reason humans may have left it there and it gets consideration. Failing to pay close attention to every cobble and pebble at archaeological sites is akin to ignoring bone material or anything of flint that is not high art.

Formally trained archaeologists tend to want “data, data, and more data,” which is well enough. However, data is much more difficult to assemble without clear classification and order. The symmetric nature and common stylization of finely worked flint and stone artifacts lends itself easily to classification, thus lithic tool data is slanted toward them. Symmetry is easy for the human eye to catch and a lack thereof may be a reason why crude artifacts have received such limited treatment by collectors and archaeologists.

Because of the biases to flint and the need for ease of classification, many archaeologists and collectors have been rendered blind to the possibility of the prolific existence and amazing uniqueness among crude stone tools. Many are probably one time occurrences. They are the snowflakes of stone artifacts. Their inclusion will greatly expand the early inhabitants tool-set available for study.

There is much work for archaeologists to do in this area. For example, each rock or pebble from a site should be very closely inspected for crude or opportunistic tool attributes. If positive for attributes, they should catalogued, measured for length, width, weight, and volume, the raw material identified, and each attribute observed entered into a database so patterns of commonalities and differences can be analyzed. Attributes not yet noticed will need to be described. Only if negative for any crude tool attributes should rocks and pebbles be disposed of. Maybe some discrete, definable types will emerge from compilations of the data. For example, rather than just a “crude hammer,” maybe there are several discrete types of crude hammers which can be described.

Crude and opportunistic tools are also overlooked by archaeologists because they do not, at this time, suggest any temporal or cultural affiliation. Only with the work of data gathering from archaeologists could such affiliation ever come to light.

Crude stone tools may be a source of substances for material analysis. Five artifacts illustrated here each have different foreign substances on their surface. It has not been determined what they are and it may be that all are substances from natural earth processes. However, in each case, the substance is located only on the wear surface of the tool and no where else on it. In one case, I prodded the particularly craggy wear surface of a crude two-handed pestle with a needle and a fibrous plant material emerged from the cracks.

Crude tools can assist in site and area activity analysis. For example, a count comparison of tools used for polishing, abrading, grinding and pounding may be made. Or, a particular raw material may be correlated to polishing and finding an abundance of it at a site may be a good lead to follow.

Crude stone tools may be helpful in identification of temporary sites, where more refined artifacts are less likely to have been left behind. Places of transient occupation such as camp sites, kill sites, or places used for on-site processing of locally abundant plant material, may be confirmed or may come to light using crude tool analysis.

Crude tools may provide insight into the lithic material culture and understanding of early inhabitants. For example, it seems they were able to predict fracture results of different rock types the way breaks are predicted in flint tool manufacture. Data may eventually show a preference for certain rock types for certain uses.

Relationships between geographically disparate sites may come to light. For example, tools looking a certain, unique way, made of the same material, may be found at sites (d) (g) and (p), but no others, of sites (a – z). Perhaps, then, (d, g, p) are related.

It may be possible crude stone tools can help indicate differing economic or sub-cultural classes. For example, maybe there is a concentration of fine hard stone tools in a certain area of a site while they are not found in other areas. If crude tools are identified from other areas of the same site, there could a reason. Perhaps the tools of substantial time investment were used by the wealthy or influential, or for ceremonial purposes, while the every day work of everyday people was done with the cruder tools. Now, it seems, archaeologists may assume there were no tools found in certain area, when they were present in crude forms and have simply been overlooked.

It seems very unlikely the majority of stone tools were finely made. It seems likely that peoples who used more finely developed tools did not use only them, exclusively. It seems quite possible some peoples, at some times and places, particularly during the paleo and archaic periods, did not ever use finely ground or polished tools. Where is the accounting for all the other, crude, stone tools?

Crude tools must have been used in the manufacture of the fine ones. What were their “meta-tools,” the tools used to make the other tools? Where is the accounting for the crude meta-tools of fine stone artifacts?


Though in his seminal work “The Stone Age of North America” he never documents any crude or opportunistic stone tools as are covered here, Warren K. Morehead’s words from another work seem apropos. Appreciate he wrote these words one hundred and ten years ago:

“… The museums are full of axes, celts, pipes, banner stones, discoidals, hematites, tubes, slate ornaments and ceremonials, pestles, hammers, etc. What the museums need (as of great value to Archaeological Science) are collections from a single locality including everything found in that locality. They want the finds of the village site, the studies in unfinished specimens, the poor and the good, the imperfect as well as the perfect. In this regard, the collectors make a great error. Most of them do not save everything but cling to the ‘pretty relics’ and discard the rough and the rude. Personally, I would give more for a collection, provided it contained all the types, all the finds of a certain valley than for just the fine, perfect objects of that valley. From a collection of the latter, I would be misled, for if I accepted it as indicative of the people of that valley, I would say they made the most beautiful works of aboriginal art, nothing rude or unfinished being turned out by their artisans. In such a statement, I would unpardonably wrong (Moorehead, 1884-56).”

By their very nature, there is a most fundamental aspect to crude stone tools. They are universal, but also differing from place to place, to be found almost anywhere human beings have been and lived, in any time or culture of interest to early human collectors and scholars. They are the base of the artifact pyramid. I think there is a good possibility crude stone tools may indeed be the most commonly available early inhabitants’ artifacts for collection and study. The greater inclusion of them will immensely expand the stone tool universe available for archaeological study and analysis. They must stand as a distinguished and celebrated class of artifacts, not just dissed as stones too close to items of natural chance or coincidence.

Using the attributes and features described here, and ones yet to be identified, any Argus-eyed archaeologist or collector should be able to present a compelling case for the existence of cobble and pebble tools along with, and in greater numbers, than more fine artifacts. Beauty may be found in their workmanship, simplicity and functionality. They appear to have been overlooked, set aside or discarded. Let them be forsaken no more!

Kenneth B Johnston
Hebron, Ohio, 2004

Hill, N.N. Jr. (compiled by)
1881 History of Licking County

Moorehead, Warren K.
1894 “Information for Collectors,” The Archaeologist, Vol. 2 No. 2.