Internship at Prehistory Research Project
During the Summer of 2018, I interned at the Prehistory Research Project at Texas State University. The focus of my internship was the analysis of the Native American projectile points known as dart points. These dart points were provided by collector J.D. Zeptner, who obtained them in a pay-to-dig operation at the Gault archaeological site in the late 1980s. I was tasked with washing, labeling, typing, and cataloguing these points, with the objective of learning about these amazing tools and what information they can teach archaeologists.
Studying these dart points consisted of several vital tasks, starting with washing and labeling each individual artifact. While I didn’t learn much about the artifacts themselves from this, removing any dirt and other foreign substances covering the features of the dart points is imperative when studying them. After then labeling each artifact for archival purposes, I catalogued them by documenting their physical features and measurements. Using this information, and the sources around me, I was able to separate these points by known type in the archaeological record. This process will be described in detail below.
Overview of dart point characteristics:
So what is a dart point? Dart points are a type of projectile point used by Native Americans to tip spears for thrusting, and to be hurled using an atlatl (spear-thrower). Despite their name, they were also commonly used as cutting tools, such as knives. These points are often mistakenly called arrowheads by the public, but in reality are much thicker and larger than arrow points, which are a much more recently developed tool that first appeared in Texas during the Late Prehistoric period around 700 AD (Lohse 2011). There are many types of these dart points found in Texas, each of which displays unique characteristics that help archaeologists separate them both geographically and temporally (see figure 1). Temporally, dart points can be separated into two main periods: the Paleo-Indian and Archaic (Turner 2011).
The Paleo-Indian period predates 8800 BP and primarily features long, lanceolate dart points with ground edges on the proximal end (see figure 2). The heavily-studied Clovis point is widely accepted as the first type of dart point technology to appear in North America, followed by Folsom. Features of these dart points, like the shape of the base, coincide with the way they were used; for example; early Paleo-Indian points like Clovis exhibited smoothed stems and bases, and a feature called fluting, where a difficult flaking technique was used to create a long, thin channel from the base, which allowed them to be hafted on a shaft that was split down the center. Eventually, points began being made without fluting, known as Plainview points; they were easier to make and replaced their thinner predecessor Folsom. Near the end of the late Paleo-Indian period, lanceolate points with “weak shoulders and ill-defined stems” were used, marking the transition from one period to another (Turner 2011).
The J.D. Zeptner collection contained only a handful of identifiable Paleo-Indian points when compared to Archaic. While the point in figure 2 shows a good an example of basal smoothing, this Paleo-Indian point seen on the left in figure 3 provides a good example of oblique-parallel flake scars from pressure flaking. The Paleo-Indian point on the right in figure 3 displays very weak, rounded shoulders and a stem, seen on some later Paleo-Indian dart points as the hafting technology shifted. Having a variety of Paleo-Indian points to study helped me understand the changes in technology and manufacture of these points that occurred throughout the Paleo-Indian period.
The Archaic period, spanning from 8800 BP to 1250 BP, can be divided into Early, Middle, and Late Archaic (Lohse 2011). This period shows a shift from lanceolate points to stemmed dart points with triangular and subtriangular bodies. These points usually exhibit either shoulders or barbs that separate the body from the stem and base and rest on top or alongside the haft (see figure 4). These shoulders and barbs are created by notching flakes either vertically from the base, diagonally from the corners of the base, or horizontally from the side of the base. There is no objective explanation for the function of these shoulders or barbs, but it is hypothesized that because they are likely to break off when entering the body, they can enhance bleeding and internal infections during warfare (Speth 2013). These points tend to be smaller than those of the Paleo-Indian period, and towards the end of the Late Archaic, the general size of the types dramatically decrease. A subperiod known as the Transitional Archaic period follows the Archaic period, where dart points continued to become smaller, until the Late Prehistoric period, when dart points and atlatls were replaced by bow and arrow point technology.
This collection mainly consisted of dart points from the Archaic period, as it is the longest. The base of the point seen on the left in figure 5 has been thinned, which is not uncommon in Archaic points, however this one has been thinned by a single broad flute-like flake, similar to the earliest dart points of the Paleo-Indian period. Another dart point from the collection can be seen on the right in figure 5, its large flake scars signify that it was formed mostly by percussion flaking, with minimal pressure flaking on its edges. It’s fascinating to see how techniques used in the Paleo-Indian period were further developed and used on some Archaic points.
Flintknapping is the process of creating a stone tool through percussion flaking and pressure flaking. Making a stone tool that is sharp enough to kill an animal is as easy as using a hammerstone to knock a sharp flake off a chunk of Texas chert (the most locally-accessible material for dart points), yet the process of making an actual dart point is far more complicated. This realization, along with my very novice experience in flintknapping, has given me a new appreciation for the beauty and functionality of these over-engineered tools. A well-made projectile point is a display of skill, more than anything, and the creation of one requires patience, experience, and quality material. While I have barely scratched the surface of this artform, knowing just the basics of how the material reacts to percussion and pressure has been paramount to my understanding of how and why they were made this way.
I was able to gain a basic understanding of, and eventually easily identify, the more abstruse features of these dart points through the process of cataloguing them. This is a crucial step in lithic analysis where the variations both between, and from within the different dart point types become clear. I gathered data by taking precise measurements of the points, such as blade width, thickness and base width, as well as documenting observations regarding the morphological features of each dart point. These observations include the basics like the shapes of the base, the shoulders/barbs, signs of re-sharpening or reworking, serrations, beveling, manufacturing failures, impact burinations (a fracture caused by impact [with things like bone] during use), snap fractures, and base smoothing. This process also helps identify aberrant specimens of certain types; for example, one of the Travis points had unusually abrupt shoulders, as they are generally rounded or weak. Learning how to determine whether a point was re-sharpened or not was rather difficult, because there are different ways to touch up an edge, one of which results in the blade being beveled, and either having a “twisted” or trapezoidal form in cross-section. Assessing whether damage done to a point was a burination or merely a snap fracture was also difficult, because they can sometimes look very similar. However, features like this can give away important information about a point. Points that exhibit this kind of beveled re-sharpening were likely used as cutting knives, because this method retouches the edges without having to remove the point from its haft. And points with impact burinations were likely used as projectiles, because they are damaged by sheer impact directed into the proximal and/or distal ends during use.
55% of the 349 typeable dart points in this collection had at least one of these two features. Based on these two features alone, I was able to reasonably hypothesize that 25% of them were likely used as projectile points, and about 23% were likely used as knives, with 7% exhibiting both features. I was surprised to find how some of these point types were used; for example, none of the Castroville dart points of the collection exhibited beveling, and about half of them had burinations; for a point with such a large body, I thought most of them would have been used for cutting. Things like microwear research by using a microscope to look at things like striations and polishing on the blades can further verify just how these points were used, as even the smallest features can teach us about these tools.
Challenges to typing:
While the features of dart points may help archaeologists determine useful information about that point and its type, each dart point type has differing levels of variation that complicates the process of identifying them correctly, and properly differentiating them from another similar type. Similarities between dart point types, such as Frio and Martindale, can even lead to two different opinions between archaeologists, which I’ve seen firsthand. Since typing these dart points is ultimately subjective, it is important to use a systematic approach in order to explain your reasoning for typing each specimen and make the process as objective as possible. For this I used Archaeologist Elton R. Prewitt’s methods for describing projectile points (Prewitt 2014). This process expands upon the observations made when cataloguing in greater detail. It also includes other notable observations about workmanship, material, reworking, etc.
When typing partial, broken, or unfinished points, the presence of an intact stem and base is usually essential, since the working of the bases is very distinct, whereas a blade with no base could belong to any number of types. Damage like snap fractures, impact burinations and even thermal damage from fire leaves many dart points missing varying portions of the blade, stem and shoulders/barbs. Unfortunately, damaged points sometimes leave you with too little to work with and can’t be justifiably typed. These untypable points are not uncommon, and sometimes even some rather pristine points with aberrant workmanship can leave an archaeologist scratching their head. An archaeologist’s ability to type these artifacts is directly affected by how much hands-on experience they’ve had with them. It is possible to find a point from a previous period that had been found and reworked into a different point or tool entirely. This can lead to complications when typing, because there may be no way to tell what the point was originally. The process becomes further complicated when the features of two somewhat distinct types get blended into a hybrid as a result of both points being made and used around the same period, such as a cross between a Pedernales and Marshall point both belonging to the Middle Archaic period; this would belong to neither type, and could be called “Pedermarshall.”
After typing 349 dart points successfully and having a considerable pile of “untypables” and other bifaces, I placed them in chronological order, beginning with a modified Clovis Point, and ending with three Perdiz arrow points. These points can now be entered into databases, and provide useful information in future studies, as they will eventually be returned to their owner. As an aspiring archaeologist, I cannot truly explain the feeling of being able to work with and learn from over 10,000 years of American history in the form of these artifacts. Not only did I learn a lot about dart points themselves, the typology, and how they were made and used, I learned just how much these small tools can tell you about the amazing people who created and used them throughout their lives. Over the span of 10 weeks, I have gained more knowledge and experience in the field of archaeology than any class could teach, and never have I been more interested and involved in it thanks to the opportunity and support provided by all the amazing archaeologists at the Prehistory Research Project, and to J.D. Zeptner who graciously provided his collection.
Lohse, Jon C, ed. 2011 Prehistoric Life, Labor, and Residence in Southeast Central Texas: Results of Data Recovery at 41HY163, the Zatopec Site, San Marcos, Texas. Center for Archaeological Studies. Accessed August 2018.
Prewitt, Elton R. and Prewitt, Kerza 2014 Notes on Describing Projectile Points. Manuscript on file with Prehistory Research Project at Texas State University. Accessed July 2018.
Speth, John D., Khori Newlander, Andrew A. White, Ashley K. Lemke, and Lars E. Anderson 2013 Early Paleoindian Big-Game Hunting in North America: Provisioning or Politics? Quaternary International 285: 111–139. Accessed July 31, 2018.
Turner, Ellen Sue and Hester, Tomas R. 2011 Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Taylor Trade Publishing. 3rd ed. Taylor Trade Publishing. Accessed July 2018.