Friday, May 27, 2011

K is for Knife

Knife- a small tool with a big role

Reach in your pocket or look in your tool bag, more than likely you will find a knife. Knives have been an essential tool for humans for thousands of years; its shape and size has evolved and changed multiple times, but its role and function has remained the same.

A knife can be defined as a cutting instrument with one or more sharp-edged blades often pointed and set in a handle. Implements for cutting and slicing soft materials have been used by humans for hundreds of thousands of years. The early versions were made out of bone, antler, ivory and stone. In Pennsylvania, knives date to the Paleoindian period and were found at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter dating to 16,250 years ago. The jasper piece above was found in the Allentown area and its age is unknown. It is similar to Paleoindian artifacts that have been described as a meat processing tools. Stone knives such as these would have been placed in handles. The extra leverage provided by the handle vastly improved the cutting efficiency of these tools. Unfortunately the bone and wooden handles are rarely preserved in the archaeological record.

The artifact below was recovered from the Sheep Rock Shelter. It is a carved deer rib handle. The stone blade was found in an adjacent five foot square and fits perfectly in the slot hollowed out of the wide end. The handle is highly polished and engraved on both sides. The engraving was done with stone tools and the polishing resulted from use. The engraved images were probably very important to the owner but we do not know their meaning. It is interesting that these are a combination of dots and lines and not the traditional zoomorphic or anthropomorphic images associated with Native Americans. There is a hole drilled at one end and a leather strap was probably used to carry the tool. Unfortunately, the age of this piece is unknown.

The Sheep Rock Shelter knife essentially functioned as a pocket knife with a bone handle, which is a form similar to the one you likely possess. A 2008 market survey by the American Knife and Tool Institute (AKTI) reported that over 35 million households in the United States have pocket knives. Not unexpectedly, men possess sixty-eight percent of these knives. The traditional role of “man the hunter” has made this the essential tool for many men, long before they were old enough to assume the role as provider. A quick poll of staff found that most men had received their first pocket knife by the time they were seven and all fondly recall the experience. While men possess the greater percentage of knives, women have utilized knives for equally as long for food preparation and household chores.

We have often discussed the role of archaeology in examining past human behavior to understand patterns of change over time. The changes that we see in knife forms reflect changes in society as well. The standard clasp knife has evolved into the “Swiss army knife” or the “pocket multi-tool” a tool with a bottle opener, screw driver, vise grips, cork screw, and the list goes on. For archaeologists knives can function as a tool for dating the occupation of a site and the activities which occurred there. In our Native American knife examples the Paleoindian knife is a tool distinct to that period, where as the knife from Sheep Rock Shelter is a form that was used throughout multiple culture time periods. Their shape changed as their function evolved, in the same manner as blades and handles changed during the historic period.

These clasp knives recovered from Conoy Town, a village site of the Conoy Indians in Lancaster County which dates from 1718 to 1743, are examples of pistol grip handles. This shape was replaced in the 1800’s losing the curve pistol shaped handle for a straighter handle. The development of spring blade knives in the 18th century was a significant advancement in the industry and provided the creation of the multi-tool knife.

This little tool that you rely on for multiple tasks has served us well for thousands of years and will continue to evolve and change as our lifestyles change.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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