Taking Cues from the Flakes

Flint Knapping Workshop Gives Hands-on Training in an Ancient Art

Anthropology professor Marisol Cortes-Rincon has a sharp eye for authentic stone artifacts. But when it comes to workshop instructor Michael Peterson’s work, even she sometimes has trouble telling his modern products from the real deal.
Flint knapping is the art of hand-making stone tools by chipping away flakes from a rocky core. In addition to his expertise in lithic technology and analysis—the study of chipped stone artifacts—Peterson has been a flint-knapper since 1984. And now he’s sharing his knowledge and passion with students at Cal Poly Humboldt.
“The guy’s an expert,” says Archaeology major Brianna Boyd. She and several other students have gathered in the Behavioral and Social Sciences building for a flint knapping workshop, presented by Peterson. Previously, he taught this workshop as survival skills training with the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. But his work holds special significance for anthropology students, as well.
“As an archaeology major, it’s important to get a feel for the time and effort that goes into making these tools,” Boyd says. “It’ll be interesting.”
For the workshop, students work with large blocks of black and red obsidian, donated to the department by Peterson. It’s a rock so sharp it’s sometimes used for eye surgery. They wear protective gloves and glasses before setting to work, chipping away stone flakes with traditional tools such as stone and antler bone.
For Peterson, hands-on experience like this is vital for any researcher hoping to understand not just the tool, but also the culture in which it was made. “You have to understand the features of flakes to understand the human aspect and what they were manufacturing,” he says.
By experiencing how the tools are made, students learn to identify how and why a stone artifact was made. The details of the artifact can give clues about whether it was made for cutting grass or butchering animals. But students also learn to differentiate between an artifact and just another broken stone.
“Experiential archaeology is good for research because you can better analyze artifacts and better hypothesize the use of field artifacts,” says Erin Chiniewicz, an Anthropology senior. “By participating in workshops like this, you can tell when something’s been worked by hand. You know what the attempt looks like. And, once you’ve gotten really close to completing your piece and then the whole thing shatters in your hand, you can’t forget the work and concentration it takes.”