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Stone Tool Experts Revive Ancient Arts

Caught knapping - Jim Fisher of Grand Island and Dan Long of Chippawa, Ont., chip away with their knapping tools to make forms in flint.

Want to get in touch with your hunting and survival-skills roots?

Take up knapping (chipping into shape) a flint stone, or try throwing a dart (spear-sized arrow) with an atlatl (pronounced "at LAT al") with force and accuracy.

These were just two of the many activities visitors could see and have a hands-on experience with during the Stone Tool Craftsman Show held each year in late August at Letchworth State Park.

This year's show included the 14th Annual Genesee Valley Knappers gathering.

Modern knappers have developed their skills to such a degree - at both shaping stone forms and recreating ancient stonework - that many apparently "old" arrowheads and spearheads often require the expertise of a lithic analyst or rock expert.

Jim Fisher, a Grand Island educator, has spent more than a quarter of a century at typology, or the authentication of artifacts. "Most authentic "arrowheads' people find in Western New York are actually spear points that were used on an atlatl dart," Fisher said. The oldest clovis points found in this area can be as much as 12,000 years old, but most heads average 3,000 to 7,000 years.

"True arrowheads," Fisher noted, "are finds of less than 2,000 years old." Much smaller than heads used as atlatl spear-points, arrowheads used on a bow can be a gem to find, but also they can become an authentication puzzle.

"Proving that an item is really an original, not a modern reproduction, is as much a science as you can make it," he said. When documenting an item, he looks at its geochemical properties, kind of weathering, attributes of flaking in its manufacturing process and other aspects to authenticate that artifact.

Fisher has been collecting authentic lithic artifacts since age 11. He majored in anthropology and archaeology while a student at the University at Buffalo. His authentication service is the only one in this area. But his involvement in knapping, actually taking up a stone and shaping another, seriously began about six years ago when he attended a Dan Long flint knapping class presented at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Long, with more than 13 years at knapping stone found in southern Ontario, became Fisher's mentor, which resulted in making contact with other knappers in this state and around the Northeast.

Long lives in Chippawa, Ont., along a chert, a lane of bedded deposits, which is a major seam running across New York State along Route 5 and across Ontario on the north shore of Lake Erie. Onondaga cherts, embedded in limestone, dominate this area, he said.

With all this raw material at hand in the area, Fisher estimates less than a half dozen serious knappers are active in Western New York and about two dozen statewide.

"Actually, the Genesee Valley Knappers is more a statewide rather than regional group," he said, noting that most get involved with the help of a teacher-partner such as his friend Dan Long.

Fisher and Long mainly knap accurate reproductions of atlatl dart points, and arrow points. Reproductions of knives and axe and adz heads usually are made with more modern tools. To find out more about knapping and authenticating artifacts, go to Fisher's web site:

Making these tools can take time, patience and more time before enjoying the satisfaction of creating a workable tool. But tossing a spear-dart with an atlatl can become an instant rush.

Patient instructors helped atlatl shooters at Letchworth that warm, sunny August day, as kids, grandparents and anyone interested in trying cast their three arrow-darts at various targets.

An Eastern Seaboard Atlatl Competition and an International Standard Accuracy Contest drew spectators, but the major draw was the pure fun of trying this ancient tool that fed and furthered the survival of people around the world many thousands of years ago. Today it's still an effective hunting tool.

Ben Brauchler of Fredonia, helping his son line up on a target, said he recently took a fallow deer on a hunting preserve in Candor. "New York State doesn't allow hunting with spears, so hunters have to go to preserves when hunting," he said.

Bob Burg, from Candor, supplied the equipment for this atlatl toss open to all. He noted that this device used at least 20,000 years ago can still be seen in use in some parts of the world today. He cited the "woomera," which Australian aboriginals make and use regularly.

Whether seriously hunting, practicing for a competition or just making a few tosses in the back yard, this device can add a measure of relaxation as well as exercise each time out.

Burg supplies all kinds of atlatl equipment through his company, Thunderbird Atlatl. For more information, check with him at (800) 836-4520 or go to his Web site:


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