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Michener's Centennial

Many of my opportunities over the years have been unplanned and unexpected.  In these I have been fortunate.  Frequently people/media ask me questions like "How was it that as an Arizona-based archaeologist you did your PhD at Cambridge?"  Reconstructing the events and decisions that went into answering these questions usually involves a long series of 'coincidences and serendipity'. This was the case with my involvement with James Michener.  I use this as just one of nearly countless examples of the historical web that makes up everybody's life experience;  or as Anthony Wallace calls it- a Mazeway.

This particular story can be traced back to at least 1968 when Art Jelenik, archaeology professor at the University of Arizona, received a grant for a visiting professor for the academic year of 1969/1970.  He sponsored Prof. François Bordes,  Prehistorian at the University of Bordeaux, to spend the academic year (perhaps just the spring semester) in Tucson lecturing etc. (see Knapping page for more on this). I spent a lot of time with François resulting in his invitation to join his excavations in France the summer of 1970.  This I did.

I also met Don Crabtree and Jacques Tixier.  After France I spent 3 weeks with Tixier in Lebanon.  Eventually, I was back in Arizona 'making a living' with have trowel will travel as an archaeology laborer.  This was great but I wanted to expand my knapping opportunities so I came up with the idea of offering to do workshops at universities and sent out letters to seek invitations.  I had severalpositive responses and 'went on tour'. One of these was to the University of minnesota where Dr.marie Wormington, noted archaeologist at the Denver Museum of natural History, was a visiting professor.  We hit it off she invited me to visit her in Denver.  Over the years I was her house guests numerous times.  During one of these visits she introduced me to James Michener, who was at the time researching his novel Centennial.  He had written a draft of a chapter that included a description of an early knapper making a Clovis point.  He asked me to read the draft and make suggestions.  This I did and I suggested he start over because it was clear he had no idea about knapping.  He was very gracious and fully accepted the critique. We agreed that the best way for him to proceed was for me to make a Clovis point for him.  I was clear that we didn't really know the details of how it was done and I would simply show him my way.  As it happened, I was scheduled to give a knapping demonstration the next week in Casper, Wyoming.  I would be in Laramie with George Frison and James was welcome tocome to Casper where I would attempt to make a Clovis point.  

This came to pass,even though we all had to drive to Casper in one of those incredible Wyoming spring ground blizzards-a total white out at ground level but clear blue sky from the top of a highway overpass.  I was impressed that James made it from Denver.  The demonstration went well, he took copious notes and I gave him the resulting Clovis point replica.  Several weeks later I received a new draft for review and sent back some comments.  His description of the technical aspects was basically what I did with one exception- the fluting technique.  However,since we really didn't know how it was done and the technique he described was one we had discussed as a possibility, was pleased with the result. Unfortunately,I have no photographic record of this process, but it is documented in his acknowledgements in Centennial.  I inquired with an academic editor about whether or not I could include his description here and believe it is ok for non-commercial purposes.  The reference is: Michener, James 1974, Centennial, Random House,Inc. Pages 112-115.  I am omitting some physiological descriptions to shorten the text.

     "In the year 9268 B.C. at the chalk cliffs west of Rattlesnake Buttes a human being twenty-seven years old, and therefore ancient and about to die, studied a chunk of rock which a younger man had quarried from the mountains.  He was a flintknapper, and his practiced eye assured him that this was a the kind he needed, a hard, flinty gray-brown rock with one facet fairly smooth. It was about the size of a man's head, and most of the memorable rocks he had worked with in the past, those he remembered with affection because of the superb points he had struck from them, had looked like this.  He breathed deeply and felt there was a good chance this might prove productive too.

     But he was also apprehensive, for the hunters of his clan had gone almost two months without having made a major kill, and food supplies were low. Scouts had spotted a small group of mammoths,those formidable beasts that stood twice as tall as a man and weighed a hundred times more, but to kill such an adversary required the stoutest spears,tipped with the sharpest points, and it was the flintknapper's task to provide the latter, for upon his skill depended the security of his clan".

     "He did not take himself too seriously; he was not lugubrious even when talking to the gods. Often he burst into laughter when his children did something ridiculous.  From time to time, in making the projectile points on which his clan depended for their existence, he felt pride in being an artisan, a man trained to accomplish, and such a feeling came over him now.

     'If I get a good start' he told his apprentice, who must soon be making the points himself, 'I can strike....' and here he held his ten fingers aloft twice."   

     Coughing twice, rubbing his fingertips on his chest, he lifted the heavy rock and studied it for the last time.  It met his specifications, fir it was vitreous, totally homogeneous, without any tendency to fracture along a predetermined plane, and of the same construction along all axes, which would permit it to fracture equally well in all directions.

     Making a finished point required four quite different steps, each performed with a different tool.  First he must transform the amorphous rock into a truncated cone.  Now, obviously the knapper could not possibly have known the mathematical properties of a cone, nor the physical properties governing it, but he had learned from experience that if his rock did not assume a conical shape, it would not yield the flakes he sought, but if it did approximate a cone segment, the flakes would fly off in a dazzling sequence.

     His first tool was a smallish, rounded rock with curious characteristics.  It was ovoid and of a grainy texture, with a certain amount of yield.  It was the possession he prized most in life, for a responsive hammerstone was almost irreplaceable.  One morning he had advised his assistant, who was seeking such a stone for himself, 'You must find one that talks back.'

       With the hammerstone he knocked away unwanted portions of the flint and coaxed it into a conical form.  When it was prepared, he worked carefully wit his hammer, building the right kind of edge around the top surface.  Then, after careful study, he struck one particular spot, and the force of his hammer radiated downward but with a slight lateral effect, and a beautiful flake as long as his hand leaped from the surface of the core.  Dropping his hammer, he held this flake to the light and satisfied himself that it contained no telltale lines of fracture.  It was fearfully sharp along the edges and as it then stood could have been used for a knife, but he intended working on it later to form a projectile point.

     What happened next astonished even his helper.  Working rapidly, and revolving the core so that always a new face was exposed, he struck with his hammerstone almost as fast as a woodpecker pecks a dead limb, knocking off one perfect flake after another.  Then he paused and worked slowly, building up the edge so that it would catch the hammer blows properly, and when this was done he resumed his woodpecker taps.  Nineteen long flakes flew from the core, each sharp enough to butcher a mammoth.  In his left hand lay the remnant, too small to be struck for further flakes,and he tossed it aside.

     He dropped his hammerstone, threw back his head and winked at his helper:' Good, eh?'  They gathered the flakes and the knapper inspected each one.  Three he discarded as offering doubtful promise for future work.  They would never make projectile points, but the remaining sixteen had obvious possibilities.  Properly finished, they could become masterpieces.  Arranging them in line, he summoned the clan to witness the good luck he had had that day.

     The hunters surveyed the potential points and assessed them approvingly. One man, a notable tracker, whose spears had started the deaths of several mammoths, grabbed on blade and cried, 'This one for me!'  The knapper took it, studied it from various angles and said 'I'll try.'

     When the celebration of the flints was over, the artisan and his helper proceeded to the next step, the critical job of converting these sharp-edged flakes into workable projectiles.  Taking a hand-sized piece of mammoth hide, he placed it in his left palm; this precaution was necessary, for otherwise the sharp flint slivers would slice his hand.

     He laid aside his hammerstone and reached for his second tool, a clever device made from an antler.  It was shaped like a small boomerang, except at the angle where the two arms met, a knob protruded, about the size and shape of an egg.  It was the hammer with which he would shape the flake.

     Now, this knob must have contained about one thousand minute faces, indistinguishable one from the other to an untrained eye, but the task at hand was so intricate that the knapper had to swing his hammer with some force, over a fair distance, yet see to it that the precise point on the hammer struck the precise point on the edge of the flint.  When it did, a curved piece of flint, reaching all the way around one face of the stone, would fly off.  It was an act of incredible skill,of incredible engineering beauty.

     He was now ready for the third process.  The former flake was fairly close to the shape he wanted, but before it could be called a finished projectile, more precision work was required.Putting aside the hammer, he took an awl made from a single tine of an elk horn, rounded on the end, like the tip of a little finger.

     Holding the nearly finished point against the hide in his left palm, he applied the tine to minute projections along the edge, and by pressing, with great but controlled force, he caused fragments of flint to crack free, and in this way, moving always from one calculated spot to the next, he put a scimitar-sharp edge around the entire point.

     When he had worked for about fifteen minutes, pressing but never striking, he stopped and broke into a wide grin of satisfaction and handed the point to the waiting hunter who showed it to his accomplices.  It was superb, perfectly shaped like a long slim leaf, balanced,precisely flaked in all areas and with a keen cutting edge. Any huntsman tracking game in Africa or Asia during the preceding two million years would have cherished it.

     But the knapper was not satisfied. Grabbing it roughly from the hunter, he prepared for the final process.

Cradling the point in the hide, he used his awl to form a tiny platform at the base, where it would ultimately be lashed by thongs to a haft.  When this was leveled to his satisfaction, he took his fourth tool, a chest-punch, formed from the spreading antlers of an elk, with a curve that corresponded to his chest, but with one projecting tine in the middle.  Holding the tool against his breast, he brought it to bear on the tiny platform, and with great pressure caused the flint to flake halfway down its length.

     Without speaking, for this was a delicate and crucial operation, he used the awl to build another tiny platform on the opposite face, and once more, with the aid of his chest-punch, he forced off a flake running half the length of the point.

     When he saw that this intricate move had succeeded, he leaped in the air, holding the finished point aloft in his left hand.  Shouting words of triumph, he passed it to the hunter, who, better than most of the watchers, appreciated the tension the knapper had been under during the last moments.

   The entire operation had required less than twenty minutes, and only one refinement remained.  Recovering the point, the knapper lifted his hammer and with a fine insolence which would have terrified anyone who had begun to value it as a work of art --- which it was--- knocked a large indentation in the base, so that it would more easily be fastened into its haft by means of mammoth sinews ans adhesives.  Then with a rough stone he carefully ground away the sharp edges around the base so that the thongs would not be cut when it was lashed to a spear.

     At three separate intervals the knapper could have considered his point completely finished, for it was a serviceable projectile that could kill, but each time he had gone beyond to knock away portions of his moist meticulous work in order to improve upon some small detail which to another might have seemed trivial.  In the midst of any process he could have leapfrogged to the next, but he refused, because he enjoyed his work and knew it to be good.  Now that it was finished, he gave it to the hunter almost carelessly, as if to say, 'I can do as well at any time.'  The he laughed raucously, scratched his armpits, and sorted through the flakes to find another likely prospect.


     That projectile, later to be named a Clovis point, with its functional design, its exquisite workmanship and pronounced fluting, would be the finest work of art ever produced in the Centennial region.  Men of a later day would have lathes at their disposal and electric drills and computers to assist them in determining slope, but they would produce nothing which in beauty, utility and perfect workmanship would match this Clovis point.  Viewed flat, it was a subtle lanceolate, improving upon one of the most satisfying designs of nature.  Viewed head-on, it was streamlined with uncanny anticipation of later discoveries.  Held side-ways, the base seemed like a wafer, so thin did the fluting make it, but when lashed to a haft, the point could penetrate like a bullet".

My favorite Clovis point replica I made of Spanish Point agate in 2006