This is the first post in a new series called “What’s the Point?” Allen Denoyer and other stone tool experts will be exploring various aspects of technologies and traditions.
(December 28, 2020)—In this post, I want to talk a little bit about what happens to projectile points when they are shot. The vast majority of projectile points made in the past ended up broken—which was the expected outcome of hunting with them. Hunters could only count on one shot with a stone point, and though they might get lucky and get more, they had to plan for just one. It’s clear they would have carried a few foreshafts to allow multiple shots without having to stop and work on their equipment.
It is important to remember that projectile points are just one component in hunting systems such as the atlatl and the bow. Dart and arrow points were all hafted to foreshafts, which then socketed into the dart or arrow shafts. When they were shot and subsequently broken, hunters would retrieve the wooden element that could easily have a new replacement point hafted into it. In hunting camp settings, it’s common to find broken bases of points. Sometimes people lost foreshafts on hunts and lost points in camps, which is why we occasionally find complete points.
By examining the base of a projectile point, experts are usually able to discern what tradition it was made in and about how long ago it was made.
Projectile points are made by the process of striking flakes. Every flake is a wave of energy that travels through the stone to create a fracture. Controlling this fracture allows a toolmaker to shape the rock into a projectile point.
The surface of the projectile point bears the scars of these flakes, which show how the point was made. Some material types show these scars better than others. The scars can tell us a lot about the life history of the projectile point. On larger projectile points—dart points used with the atlatl—it is common to see evidence of sharpening or reworking after a break. Flake scars that originate from the point (distal) end of the projectile point are almost exclusively created through impact.
Flakes originating from the distal end are almost exclusively created by impact fractures. Sometimes, if the point was not broken too much, people could reshape and reuse it. Analysts can sometimes tell that a point was reshaped by looking at the flake scars.
Another way projectile points break is by receiving too much pressure from the side. This causes them to bend and snap in two. This is a common kind of fracture when making a point. Another way it could happen is if a hunter were to drop a foreshaft on hard ground.
Toolmakers of the Clovis tradition (13,000 BP) and other Paleoindian point traditions ground the hafting areas so that the bindings would not be cut. Clovis and Folsom points (10,000 BP) have biface thinning flakes struck up their bases. This also allowed easier hafting.
The basal portions of projectile points usually help analysts identify their age and what tradition they were made in. These hafting areas may have remained more intact because they would have been wrapped in sinew and some kind of mastic, such as pine pitch.
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