Experimental Gauntlet: Replicate This!

Sayles-A-butted1

“Butted knife”  41VV2239  FN50156

By Steve Black

As the principal investigator of Ancient Southwest Texas (ASWT) and as faculty sponsor of the Texas State Experimental Archaeology Club, I hereby challenge the 2016 ASWT crew and Club members to convincingly replicate the use wear pattern(s) apparent on the recently recovered biface pictured above.

This distinctive artifact was found in situ on 3/28/2016 at Sayles Adobe (41VV2239) by ASWT 2016 Intern Kelton Meyer working under Victoria Pagano who is directing the Sayles investigation for her thesis research. The artifact was found about a meter below the surface of this terrace site amid scattered FCR (fire-cracked rocks) that I would guess represent the upper and outer part of an earth oven facility where desert succulents like sotol and lechuguilla were baked. (It could be the edge of a buried burned rock midden, perhaps an incipient one?)

In our previous six seasons in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands (LPC), ASWT has found no other example of this quite formal artifact type, but several were found during the Amistad salvage era at the Nopal Terrace and Devil’s Mouth sites.  They occur fairly often in the Kerrville area and in the western Balcones Canyonlands.

Sayles-A-butted2

What kind of a “fist axe” would have such a delicate blade, a butter axe?

These unusual artifacts have been given many names.  What is in a name? Some have called them fist axes or hand axes because of their somewhat similar appearance to Old World artifacts, most of which date tens or hundreds of thousands of years earlier.  There is a simple morphological reason why these Old World terms seem functionally inappropriate – what kind of axe would have such a delicate cutting edge? (A butter axe?)  The latest edition of Turner and Hester (but cf. earlier editions) uses the type name Kerrville biface, which is geographically appropriate, if dissatisfying to some. Typological maven Elton Prewitt prefers the descriptively appropriate term butted biface. I prefer the functionally appropriate term butted knife; that these are some sort of cutting/slicing tool seems obvious.  Consensus, however, has yet to emerge on either the name or the specific purpose(s) of these tools.

Butted-Bifaces-TBH

Even though I pride myself on not being “artifact-oriented,” this unexpected new find in excellent context has me in a dither. When I initially looked at the artifact in our field lab the evening it was found, it set my intellectual juices flowing and I harkened back several decades ago.  Then, as is still true, I was convinced that I knew exactly what butted knives were characteristically used as: sotol trimming knives (plus Agave lechuguilla in Lower Pecos?).

I recall that I once envisioned experimentally replicating the striking use wear that most butted knives display:  remarkably bright “silica polish” rather evenly distributed across both faces of almost the entire blade of intact examples. I even took several modest steps in the experimental direction.  For instance, Glenn Goode kindly made a fine replica to be used experimentally.  But alas, I failed to follow through with the hard work that a rigorous replication project would entail and my Goode-made biface sits gathering dust in my TxState office on my show-and-tell shelf.

Goode-butted-knife

Butted biface replica made by Glenn Goode out of Georgetown flint.

Within an hour of seeing the Sayles Adobe specimen, I took several pictures of it and sent one to my former mentor and long-time boss, Dr. Thomas R. Hester, UT-Austin professor emeritus and former director of both the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at UT-Austin and the Center for Archaeological Research at UTSA.  I also sent one to Elton, who most of us Texan archaeologists regard as a stone-tool typological guru of the first water (most of us think the same about Tom Hester). The subject line of my email was “Butted agave knife” and I closed both email messages with “I knew you would appreciate!”  Sure enough, they both replied right away and here are tidbits.

Hester:  “We call them Kerrville “bifaces” because the polish/wear has never been satisfactorily replicated.  But, I’ve long thought they were plant-working tools, not necessarily slicing and dicing, but mebbe chopping/hacking into an agave or some other soft plant where the distal got “imbedded” and the polish eventually appeared.”

Prewitt: “Nice butted biface. I do not like the term “Kerrville Biface” since it has never been appropriately defined as far as I am aware (I could very well be wrong, but …). And, yes, we do have good ideas about their uses.”

Sayles-A-butted3

These are called “butted” because the thick, proximal end of the tool is typically the outer cortex-covered surface of the original chert nodule. It was obviously made this way so the usually rounded butt fits in your hand with the blade tip (distal end) pointing out ready for action. The Sayles Adobe artifact seems to lean to the right in this photo because it is resting on its rather flat butt.  This artifact appears to be made on ledge chert, thus the flat, thin cortex rind you can glimpse.  High quality ledge chert is rare in the Lower Pecos, but often occurs in  in the Kerrville area.

Intrigued?  So here is my challenge.  I think it would be a most worthy project to (1) design a rigorous experimental program to convincingly replicate the telling use wear pattern(s) of a call-it-what-you-will; and (2) successfully follow through with such a program.  Here are some considerations and suggestions.

Before picking up the gauntlet, you will want to do your homework and do your best to read everything ever written about the subject.  These butted things have been admired by many, often speculated and reasoned about in print, studied under the microscope, and studied experimentally (if inconclusively). Doubtlessly more so than I can recall.

This will not be easy.  If the use wear could have been easily and convincingly replicated it would have already been done. And it is entirely possible these artifacts were sometimes used on more than one material and/or in more than one motion. I venture to say that such a project will almost certainly take many months of concerted replicative effort and likely several years to see through to peer-reviewed publication, which should be the end goal.

With that in mind, I recommend that the ASWT crew and the Club talk amongst yourselves and consider forming a leadership team of three to guide the effort.  You will need competent, motivated decision makers and with three, you would always have a tie-breaker (as Dan Potter, Kevin Jolly and I learned on the Higgins Experiment in 1993).  And you will need diverse skills and continuity.  I recommend that the three project leaders include TxState students or former students of varying levels of experience including several who aren’t graduating anytime soon.

But it will likely take far more than three of you to get it done.  You will likely want to try more than one contact material (sotol/lechuguilla, meat, and grass all come to mind).  You will likely need many hundreds of strokes in said materials to create patterned wear.  You will want to properly document each step, photographically, metrically, and so on.  I’d think it would make a fine experimental project.

You would be wise to consult others.  I would put Professor Hester at the top of your list.  I’ll bet he has seen more than one student paper on the subject, he has sure as heck seen many more of things than me, he has published on them, and I know he shares my abiding curiosity.  Elton is always a go-to source for informed typological opinion regarding lithics.   Professor Britt Bousman teaches the graduate seminar in lithic technology at TxState, and he might even let you look at and document butted things (perhaps before and after replication?) using TxState’s fancy use wear microscope. Dr. Mike Collins of TxState is unsurpassed in his knowledge of lithic technology and he once dug a site near Kerrville.  Dr. Marilyn Shoberg (of Austin) might well have looked at some of these things under a scope. Dr. Todd Alhman might have archaeological examples at CAS (ask about the Tom Miller Collection).  Chris Ringstaff or Glenn Goode might be willing to make several freshly chipped stone replicas to be used in experiments.  Ken Lawrence would certainly approve of experimental work of this sort being done out at Professor Grady Early’s place in the phosphate-sampled area.  I’m certain inquiry will lead you to others who would be worth consulting and might lend a hand.

But do not make the common mistake of uncritically accepting dogma.  Challenge assumption, question authority, and think for yourselves.  I, for one, could well be wrong about some of my claims in this piece as well as those I make in classes and in print. (Say it ain’t so, Shoeless Blackie, say it ain’t so.)

Should a group of you rise to the occasion and accept the challenge, don’t do so lightly.  I won’t hold it against you if you don’t pick up the gauntlet.  But I might if you accept the challenge and fail to follow through.  If I’ve piqued your interest, start with doing your homework and decide whether to go forward.  Then craft a proper research design.  If I approve your plan I will endeavor to support your effort in multiple ways. I think this could be fun learning exercise and make a useful contribution to Texas archaeology.

Yours in the experimental cause, SLB

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One thought on “Experimental Gauntlet: Replicate This!

  1. Most interesting! My guess is invasive high polish w/ striations of somewhat varied angle suggests chopping motion, rather than cutting or sawing. latter activity would load wear and edge-parallel striations relatively close to edge. low-power mag should be enough to discern. very cool tool form…

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