Mill Creek chert hoe re-sharpening flake

by Michelle M Rathgaber
Artifact of the Month – January 2021

This month’s Artifact of the Month is a Mill Creek chert hoe flake excavated in 2015 at Richard’s Bridge (3CT11/22), a village site in Crittenden County in northeastern Arkansas that dates to around AD 1350–1650. This one small flake gives archeologists a ton of information about the people who lived at the Richard’s Bridge site, what they were doing, and who they may have been in contact with.
We know that Mississippian people were expansive farmers who were growing large crops of corn, beans, and squash as well as other crops from the Eastern Agricultural Complex that they and their ancestors had domesticated (Mueller, et al. 2017). Archeologists find direct evidence of these crops through analysis of botanical remains found at archeological sites. We know that hundreds of people could have lived in each individual town around the region and there is evidence of many towns of various sizes throughout the area during the Mississippi period. To do the level of farming and crop production needed to feed that many people, the Mississippians made tools to help with the agricultural labor. One farming/gardening tool that we find evidence of in Arkansas is a hoe.
Mississippian people in northeast Arkansas typically made hoes by knapping (flaking or chipping) an imported stone called Mill Creek chert. Mill Creek chert outcrops in southern Illinois in Union and Alexander counties. It is found as “large and small lenticular nodules or slabs” (Ray 2007:246), which make it the right size and shape to form a hoe blade. It is quite strong and unlikely to shatter (as long as it is not heat treated) while still being reasonably easy to knap (Ray 2007). After shaping it can be attached to a handle and a hoe is made.
The re-sharpening flake may have come from a Mill Creek Chert hoe like this one. Click or tap for a larger image.
The re-sharpening flake may have come from a Mill Creek Chert hoe like this one. Click or tap for a larger image.
Through time and use of the Mill Creek chert hoe, the sharp knapped edge of the blade dulls through a build-up of “sickle polish” or “sickle sheen” on the used edge. This buildup starts microscopically and is possibly composed of a mixture of phytoliths (microscopic silica nodules) from plant stalks mixed with dissolved silica from the stone or dissolved silicate in the plant material itself (Anderson 1980; Dubois 2015; Kaminska-Szymczak 2002; Kay and Mainfort 2014; Witthoft 1967). This layer slowly dulls the sharp edges of the knapping scars and causes the blade to become shiny and difficult to use. Luckily though, if a person was able to knap, he or she could quickly resharpen the blade by striking off a few flakes along the dulled edge. One of those flakes is what we found at Richard’s Bridge.
This means that the Native American people living at the Richard’s Bridge site had trading connections into southern Illinois. Maybe a person or group traveled from Richard’s Bridge with trade goods, or a person from southern Illinois traveled to Richard’s Bridge with Mill Creek chert to trade. Or maybe the chert was traded from village to village making its way south until it stopped at Richard’s Bridge where someone hafted it onto a handle and began to work their agricultural fields. Eventually it needed sharpening, and we now have the flake that can tell that story in our lab at the Parkin research station, even without the entire stone tool being recovered in our excavations.

References Cited
Anderson, Patricia C. 1980. “A Testimony of Prehistoric Tasks: Diagnostic Residues on Stone Tool Working Edges.” World Archaeology 12(2):181–194.
Dubois, Justin. 2015. Differential Development of Sickle Polish Due to Moisture Content of Herbaceous Plant Material. Thesis, University of Arkansas.
Kaminska-Szymcxak, Jolanta. 2002. “Cutting Graminae Tools and ‘Sickle Gloss’ Formation.” Lithic Technology 27(2):111–151.
Kay, Marvin, and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr. 2014. “Functional Analysis of Prismatic Blades and Bladelets from Pinson Mounds, Tennessee.” Journal of Archaeological Science 50:63–83.
Mueller, Natalie G., Gayle J. Fritz, Paul Patton, Stephen Carmody, and Elizabeth Horton. 2017. “Growing Lost Crops: New Directions in the Study of Eastern North America’s Original Agricultural System” Nature: Plants 3:1–5.
Ray, Jack H. 2007. Ozarks Chipped-Stone Resources: A Guide to the Identification, Distribution, and Prehistoric Use of Cherts and Other Siliceous Raw Materials. Missouri Archaeological Society Special Publications No. 8. Springfield, MO.
Witthoft, John. 1967. “Glazed Polish on Flint Tools.” American Antiquity 32(3):383–388.

Artifact of the Month Series

A first principle of archeology is that the significance of artifacts depends upon documented information about the context of their discovery. At what site was the artifact found? Can we figure out the age of the artifact? Where was it found in relation to site features (houses, trash deposits, activity areas, etc.) and the distribution of other artifacts? Only with knowledge of those facts can we assess further information about the manufacture and use of artifacts, and their role in other spheres of activity such as social organization, trade and exchange, and religious practice.
In this series, we feature select artifacts that are extraordinary both for the context of their discovery and for their unique qualities that contribute exceptionally important information about Arkansas culture and history. New artifacts will be added monthly. Find the list of artifacts here.