Precontact Stone Tools

Have you ever walked in the woods or in a plowed field and found a triangular shaped stone? Did you wonder what it was and how it got like that? Maybe it was an arrowhead. Arrowheads, or projectile points, are the most easily recognized American Indian tool. They are found in every region and state in our country. However, projectile points were not always used as tips for arrows. Larger points were used to tip spears and darts. Others were set into wooden or bone handles to be used as knives.

Native Americans did not just make projectile points. They used stone to make a wide assortment of tools. Imagine all of the tools in your kitchen or garage. Native Americans made the equivalent of many of these tools from stone including knives, axes, pounders, awls, drills, hammerstones, scrapers, wedges, bowls, cooking griddles, grinders, pipes, gorgets, beads, gaming stones, and many other simple flake tools.

Here in the Sandhills, where there are few sources of rocks, American Indians collected rocks from gravel bars or small outcrops in the larger rivers and streams and visited quarries in the Uhwarrie Mountains on the Piedmont. They used quartz, quartzite, rhyolite, metavolcanic stone, petrified wood, and steatite/soapstone to make tools that could cut, chop, grind, scrape, incise, perforate, polish, stab, hold, store, and even decorate.

Recently, Fort Bragg archaeologists in conjunction with researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and the University of Missouri undertook an extensive study of known quarries in the Carolina Slate Belt, the geologic formations that underlie the Uwharrie Mountains and portions of the eastern Piedmont. This study examined the chemical and mineral make-up of rocks from Native American quarries and from stone tools collected from sites at Fort Bragg. They studied Savannah River projectile points to see if they could determine where Late Archaic people acquired the stone they used to make their tools.

They compared the chemistry and composition of rock samples from the Indian quarries with the projectile points from Fort Bragg archaeological sites. They discovered that Late Archaic people used stones from all of the sampled quarries and even a few locales they had not identified or sampled. Archaeologists now understand that Late Archaic people who visited or lived at Fort Bragg collected or traded for stone from quarries throughout the Carolina Slate Belt.

How are Stone Tools Made?

American Indians used two different techniques for fashioning tools:

  • the chipped stone method or flint knapping, and
  • the ground stone method.

To make tools by flint knapping, Indians used a small rock called a hammerstone to remove chips of stone from a cobble. Archaeologists call these small pieces of stone flakes. Flakes were very sharp and made good tools without any other modification. To fashion a more elaborate tool such as an arrowhead, the craftsman shaped the large flake by removing small flakes with the hammerstone or with a bone, antler, or wooded hammer called a billet. The edge was sharpened by removing tiny thinning flakes with an antler or wooden punch. Projectile points, scrapers, knives, drills, spoke shaves, wedges, abraders, awls, axes and many other expedient tools were made using this method.

“For arrowheads they used points of wood, of bones of land and sea animals, and of flint … the arrows with flint tips had different kinds of heads; some were in the form of a harpoon, others of small chisels, others were rounded like a punch, and others had two edges like the tip of a dagger.”
Garcilaso 1723

To make tools using the ground stone method American Indians shaped a rock or cobble by pecking, grinding, or polishing one stone with another. This was a labor-intensive process of repeated pecking and grinding followed by polishing with sand and water. The craftsman drilled holes by spinning a pointed stone, hardened stick, or bone between the hands against the stone, using sand as an abrasive. Ground stone tools were usually made from rhyolite, granite, or other rocks with a coarse structure. Softer stones such as limestone and steatite were fashioned into more elaborate objects. The ground stone method was used to produce axes, adzes, smoking pipes, bannerstones (atlatl weights), figurines, chunky stones (an American Indian game), beads, bowls, cooking pots, and storage containers.