Stone Tools From the Northern San Juan Region

17 April 2014

Over the years, with so many visits to archaeological sites and so many walks through the desert, I have seen countless numbers of stone tools. One tool that has been catching my eye recently on many hikes in southern Utah is the large biface- both the handaxe or oval (or ovoid) biface, and choppers. Biface? Handaxe? Chopper? What is the difference?  For many archaeologists, arguments on the technicalities will never cease. Just as there is regional variation in the stone used to make a tool (and plenty of debate over what it should be called), there is regional variation in what to call the tool made from the stone.  But here are a few quick definitions based on those in An Introduction to Flintknapping by Don Crabtree and The Old Stone Age by Francois Bordes. Also see Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools by John Whittaker for a complete and thorough examination of stone tools.

Fine ovel biface from the Northern San Juan region. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A rather large oval biface found on our last Utah trip in the Northern San Juan region. The biface is approximately 18 cm long by 9 cm wide by 7 cm thick. It is made from a yellow quartzite and was found in the center of a large pueblo site. Scale in all photos is in centimeters and all artifacts are surface finds.

Biface– an artifact bearing flake scars (the evidence left behind as flakes have been removed during the creation of the tool) on both sides.
Handaxe– Pear-shaped or ovoid stone tool that is bifacially worked.
Chopper– A heavy core tool presumed to be used for chopping. May be uniface (worked on one side) or biface.
Core– A mass of material often pre-formed by the worker, and from which tools are made; the piece you strike to make the tool.
Debitage– The residual lithic material resulting from tool manufacture; the waste material from the tool making process.

Stone axe head from Northern San Juan region. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A well-used ground stone axe head. Note shape of axe head- smaller and thinner in the center to allow for hafting, in this case a “full groove”, the groove going all the way around the head. Also note the perfectly formed flat face, or “poll end” opposite the bit end. This was an isolated, canyon bottom find from the Northern San Juan region. Approximately 10 cm in length.

For practical purposes I will refer to these tools as “large bifaces” unless otherwise noted. And maybe that is why they are so easy to spot? It is all about their size- large tools are easy to spot as isolated finds and are easy to see in a scatter of lithic debitage. Many of the examples I have found recently, and finally started photographing, show signs of use. Many of the isolated finds also appear to be more expedient, and therefore may have been expendable tools. That is, they may have been made at or near the place where they are found from readily available material, what some refer to as “casual tools” as opposed to “formal tools”. This would make sense- pick up a piece of material, create the tool you need, use it, and discard it. It would be interesting to map out the location of some of these isolated tool finds and locate the nearest popular source for raw material used, thus adding credence to the theory that they were more local, expedient tools.

Chopping tool from Northern San Juan region. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Small chopping tool made from rounded cobble. This piece was bifacially flaked only on one side. From a midden in Northern San Juan Region. This might be considered more of a “casual tool”.

Another consideration for the toolmaker is that curation of lithic material, that is, traveling somewhere to collect the material and returning to your home with it, takes time and energy. Consider carrying a bundle of large cobbles or cores across the desert 800 years ago, without a pickup bed to toss them in. Or trading for them- either way work, and possibly considerable work, is involved on the part of the recipient of the material. Using finer raw materials for larger cutting tools may not have been preferable- the good stuff was likely saved for finer, smaller implements. Larger chopping tools and handaxes were likely made from local materials that were readily available.

Chopper from Glen Canyon area. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A large oval biface we found in the bottom of one of the Irish Canyons in North Wash while canyoneering. This was an isolated find, and the tool had likely been washing down canyon for some time based on the amount of post-depositional wear visible.

But let’s be careful about conjecture; I find an abundance of large tools and see few small ones while walking in the desert. Did the ancient inhabitants of the region prefer large tools over small? Probably not. A more likely explanation could be that modern hikers would rather carry home a small, beautifully made projectile point than a large, cumbersome chopper. The former would be less obtrusive sitting on the desk at home. Twenty or thirty years ago I might have found more projectile points, as there may have been more to find. Again, it is all just conjecture, and there are always alternatives.

With that statement made, please leave stone tools and other artifacts in place! “Collect” them in photographs. Carry a scale or small ruler to help show dimensions. Remember that every artifact removed from its original context is a piece of the archaeological puzzle that is missing forever, making the archaeological record a little less complete.

For more on southwestern archaeology and our desert adventures scroll through our blogs or visit the Desert Explorer website.

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Spring Break Trip Report- March 2014

6 April 2014

We have just returned from one if the most memorable Spring break trips in years. The trip included some of our usual endeavors- seeing rock art and ruins, a bit of gold panning, hiking along Comb Ridge, and plenty of exploring of dirt roads around southeastern Utah. It also included new adventures: a visit to Oljeto, on the Navajo reservation, to see the trading post where the Wetherills lived and then a drive down to the now defunct Piute Farms Marina at what was once part of Lake Powell.

Piute Farms waterfall. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Piute Farms waterfall, about two miles below Clay Hills takeout, March 2014. The river below actually looked like a river. There were few signs that the lake had made it this far up the channel in years.

We also stopped in at Hite “Marina” (can you have a marina without water?) to take a look at the lake level on our way towards Hanksville. We drove down the boat ramp only to find that we could keep driving all the way across what used to be the lake right to the edge of the Colorado River. And it did look like a river- cutting down through the accumulated silt of the past 50 years and making its way toward the ocean. Looking down river, there was no lake in sight! Looking up river, the Dirty Devil was a muddy little stream braiding its way through the silt and into the Colorado. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take to clean out all that silt…. But more on that in a future blog.

Colorado River at Hite Marina. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The Colorado River, at Hite Marina. Looking down river, as it makes its way to the ocean.

Silt plain that was once Lake Powell. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

I hope this adds a bit of perspective to what is going on at Hite Marina. This photo was taken at the edge of the river, where I stood when I took the top photo, looking back over the silty, tumbleweed-scattered plain that was once the bottom of Lake Powell. That is our Landcruiser in the middle distance, with the boat ramp far off in the photo.

Back to the archaeology for now. One of our early stops was just outside Blanding to look at a few rock art panels and nearby ruins. We met up with a group of archaeology students, their “tour” leader Daniel Cutrone, the Principle Investigator at the Nancy Patterson site in Montezuma Canyon and professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, and our friend Madalyn from the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.

Nancy Patteson site. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A central view of the Nancy Patterson site, showing excavated walls and many of the mounds that make up the possible 300 rooms of the site.

Daniel, Madalyn, and their crew kindly took us along on their outings to a few unnamed sites, the Nancy Patterson site, Spirit Bird Cave, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Edge of Cedars Museum. We were joined on one of the days by Sally Cole, author of Legacy on Stone, among other titles. What a treat it was to look at rock art and not have to pull out our copy of her book for interpretation- all we had to do was listen! The best part for both Nicolai and I was when we were asked if we wanted to return in the summer to be part of the ongoing excavation of the Nancy Patterson site. I haven’t done any excavation in years, and definitely welcome the return to the dirt. For Nicolai, I think it is a dream come true. For more on the Nancy Patterson site, ongoing excavation, and field work possibilities, see the Shovelbums Website.

We spent a few days in Poison Spring canyon, as we often do, enjoying the sites there and some of the slot canyons accessible from the canyon bottom. Next we drove on to Green River town. In and around Green River we explored the abandoned U.S. Army Pershing missile launch complex. What an adventure that was!

Green River missile launch complex. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The guard shack and associated buildings at one of the main parts of the Green River launch complex.

Abandoned around 1979, the buildings are in a serious state of decay, with doors falling off or missing, fences broken down from power poles falling on them- the power poles having been chopped down by looters stealing the copper wire strung between them! Ceilings had fallen in, windows were mostly broken out, and nearly everything that could be carried away had been. And the few things left on site were well smashed up and thrown into piles in corners. It was perfectly post-apocalyptic in look and feel, including a grey, overcast sky above us. While exploring I kept expecting to round a corner to find a growling pack of ferrell dogs, or maybe zombies, or at least a boy and his father resting as they made their way down The Road. Perhaps that was us?

Tent city concrete pads. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The concrete pads, perfectly aligned and dressed right, at what is referred to as the “tent city” outside Green River.

Bunker near Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nicolai next to the bunker at the weather missile launch pads.

Either way, let it be known that we never crossed a fence, or a building threshold, as it is still government property and clearly marked as of limits… in a couple of places at least (most of those signs appear to have been stolen.) If you go, be sure to view it from afar.  We spoke to a local deputy who warned us that theft and vandalism have ramped up recently and that they are watching the sites. I have only touched on this marvel of modern science, warfare, our military-industrial complex, and our cold war history. Volumes could be written about it- not by me however. But I do plan to write a full blog about the site, and the Pershing and weather monitoring missiles launched from it in the near future.

Missile launch pad near Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

One of the main launch pads, with rolling building still in place. There are two other, identical pads, both without the building or even the rails that it rolls on.

For now, we are planning our summer fieldwork, a family backpacking and exploring trip, and a solo trip for me. The summer promises to be a full one- be sure to get out and enjoy it. And watch out for rattlesnakes, they are already out. For more about snakes, and our desert adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website.