Friday, August 29, 2014

A knife by any other name is a knife

This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology we feature the word “knife” for the letter “K” in our alphabetical series blog. To be certain, one of the most important technological achievements of our ancestors was the invention of cutting tools! Whether of stone, metal or any number of other materials, cutting tools were a major contribution to one’s ability to accomplish things from butchering animals to carefully performing 21st century surgery.

If we were able to return to the ancient stone-age of 2 million years ago we might likely witness crude cutting tools with knife-like edges being made and used by proto-humans to dismember animals at small butchering sites located in the region of Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, Africa. Two million years later, through the efforts of Louis and Mary Leakey, a husband and wife team who studied these stone tools led to the discovery of one of the oldest stone tool chronologies. We also know that Stone Age cutting tools have a wide distribution whereas examples have been found on sites in the fossilized lake beds of Tanzania to the frozen tundra of the sub-Arctic and in many other parts of the world. There is little doubt that the knife, in its various forms, was an important part of the prehistoric “cutting” tool kit as it turns up wherever archaeological contexts containing human activity are discovered.

The teshoa, (Shoshone woman’s knife)  a cutting tool made from stone was a common form used by Native American groups throughout the western hemisphere. Teshoas were simple tools made from large primary flakes that were chipped from a block of stone - typically a quartzite or siltstone cobble. Seventy five to ninety percent of the marginal surface on a teshoa provided a useful cutting edge. Because they were easy to manufacture, teshoas were very much a preferred cutting tool to many cultures and they are among some of the most common tool types found on prehistoric archaeological sites. Using the definition of teshoa as being produced on a primary or secondary flake, they are common on Woodland sites but none earlier than 4000 years ago.

Made of stone and later iron/steel, ulus were similar to teshoas. Ulus were principally used by cultures of the Artic and Sub-Artic regions of the northern hemisphere. Other examples of ulus were also part of the Archaic tool kit of the Laurentian cultures once present in northeastern North America. This form of stone knife has been found as far south as the Upper Susquehanna Valley and demonstrates the far reaching influence of the Archaic Period Laurentian culture.  Ulus are usually ground and heavily polished whereas teshoas are simply chipped with no further modifications.

As an exceptional tool for cutting all kinds of things apart the knife has changed little since its beginning. Recognized for their simple design, stone age blade knives and flake knives, exhibit a keen sharp edge. In fact, some of the debris left over from blade core and flake core reduction was used as cutting tools in an otherwise unmodified state. Metal eventually came into play as a medium for knife production. As early as 6500 B.P. copper was worked into fixed blade knives. Arrival of the Bronze Age around 4,800 B.P. followed by the Iron Age around 3500 B.P.., produced yet more durable material for the knife maker. Steel, the ultimate product of iron with its added carbon, strengthened the metal and rendered knives more durable and hence, more useful as primary cutting tools. As early as 2300 B.P..,Wootz, better known as Damascus steel, was manufactured in India and the Sri Lanka regions of southern Asia. Its overall durability as a cutting medium held a better edge than the earlier metals employed in knife making.

Ironically, Stone Age technology came full circle in the late 20th century by way of specially made obsidian scalpels used for certain surgical procedures. In 1970 expert flint knapper, Don Crabtree made obsidian knives for his own impending surgery. Since then, surgeons have adopted the use of obsidian scalpels for other invasive procedures requiring very sharp instrumentation. In fact, obsidian scalpels have enjoyed great success in cosmetic surgery since they are much sharper than the standard cutting edge present on steel scalpels which result in a less precise incision, more scarring and slower healing.

 To provide the reader with a better understanding of the visual diversity in the age of knife technology we are showcasing the following examples from the archaeological collections repository of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

(Top) Oldowan hand axe and (Bottom) Neolithic Period knife of flint. Egypt. Arthur Smith collection.

The Sheep Rock Shelter biface knife is a magnificent example of prehistoric  technology. Manufactured from a high grade chert and set in a highly sculpted handle of bone, the knife is a classic expression of the flint knapping skill.

Teshoas made from fine grained siltstone found at the Piney Island site in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Simple tools made from flaked river cobbles.

Inuit ulu knife.  Steel, copper and ivory composite. 

Inuit ulu of ground slate. Point Barrow Alaska 

Machete from the Philippine Islands. Steel and wood composite. Masterpool Edged Weapons Collection.

Iron knives arranged in approximate chronological order from earliest (top) to latest (bottom) from Native American sites of the Susquehanna Valley (from Kent 1984; Figure 64.)

Obsidian blade cores and blades from central Mexico sites. Cores on left, blades on right. Note the channel scars remaining from the knapper extricating prismatic shaped blades. 

We hope that you have enjoyed this brief journey into the past and the next time you pick up a knife to slice an apple or trim some twine, you’ll think of the many thousands of years that it took to develop the knife forms we commonly use today. We hope you’ll revisit our blog next time for more on “This Week In Pennsylvania Archaeology”.

A reminder that this weekend, August 29 thru September 1, is the annual Kipona Festival in Harrisburg. We look forward to sharing artifact information from the excavations that took place on City Island from 1993 to 2005. Archaeologists from The State Museum along with a few of our dedicated volunteers will be on hand to answer your questions and provide information about the artifact exhibits. Bring your camera and hop into our replica dugout canoe- a Kodak moment just waiting to happen!

Eyman, Frances
1968       The Teshoa, A Shoshonean Woman’s Knife: A Study of American Indian Chopper Industries. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 34(3-4):9-52.
Kent, Barry C.
1984       Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropological Series No.6. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.               
Ritchie, William A.
1965       The Archaeology of New York State. Natural History Press. Garden City, New York.

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

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