Hahn Highlights: Repaired Elk Antler Hoe
Posted On: 06/27/2018 - 3:06pm, Posted By: Tyler Swinney, NAGPRA Coordinator and Tribal Liaison
Welcome to the eleventh installment of Archaeology Collections’ long-term blog series: Hahn Highlights!
Today we have another interesting artifact recovered during Cincinnati Museum Center’s Archaeology Field School at the Hahn Site: a repaired elk antler hoe discovered in Feature 385B, a densely stratified Late Fort Ancient (AD 1400-1650) refuse-filled pit on the northeastern periphery of the site.
Bone is among the most ubiquitous artifact classes recovered from Late Prehistoric archaeological sites in the Cincinnati area. Usually encountered as discarded food refuse, concentrations of burned and unburned animal bone can be studied to better understand past human behavior and what prehistoric environments may have been like. That is, not only can examination of ancient animal bone inform knowledge of prehistoric diets and what elements were used to manufacture everyday tools, but can also provide important information about prehistoric environments, such as: biodiversity, climatic fluctuation, and even extinction. Although concentrations of animal bone are common, albeit often understudied, complete bone tools are somewhat rare at Late Prehistoric sites in the Cincinnati area.
In the American Midwest, most prehistoric bone tools were made from antler or the bones of terrestrial animals. Bone was not only readily available and easy to work (for those experienced in the art), but is also elastic and malleable. These characteristics indicate that bone tools are unique in that they are naturally durable, yet fairly resistant to impact and mechanical damage. However, it is important to note that, in general, bone tools are restricted by the original shape of the unmodified bone from which the tool was made and that some bones, such as vertebrae, are not particularly useful. Another important caveat relates to antler, which has similar characteristics to bone, but is an annual growth that, in the Cincinnati area, is (or was) produced only by male deer and elk. Furthermore, the size of the antlers produced by elk and deer is also related to the animal’s age, genetics, and food consumption. Hence, suitable antlers, although available, would likely have been more difficult to acquire than most other bones.
The elk antler hoe pictured above was made from the subtriangular section of a very large elk and measures roughly 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length. Shaped by scraping and abrasion, it has a maximum width of approximately 11 centimeters (4 inches) and a thickness that varies between 6 and 10 millimeters (0.2 and 0.4 inches). To aid in hafting, the proximal end (the constricting side) is not only notched, but is also heavily abraded to remove rough surfaces. There is also a large drill hole, measuring 15 millimeters (0.6 inches) in width, near the center of the artifact. Interestingly, at some point this elk antler hoe was broken and repaired. To mitigate a large crack, two holes were drilled, one on each side of the crack, and the two halves were lashed together. Significant wear and polish is observed in the crack and around the diameter of the two drilled repair holes, suggesting that this elk antler hoe experienced a substantial amount of use after being repaired.
The exact steps taken to make an elk antler hoe are not well known. However, ethnohistoric and experimental evidence help fill in some of the gaps of the manufacturing process. For instance, archaeologists know that after acquiring a suitable elk antler, the first step would require softening the antler to make it more pliable. Softening would have been accomplished though soaking the antler in boiling water or by steaming. Because antler becomes brittle when dry, softening would likely have occurred several times during manufacture. Archaeologists are also aware that removal of excess material was necessary and would have likely been accomplished through scoring and snapping. Scoring involves using a flint blade to cut around the diameter of the antler to a depth of perhaps as much as ¼ inch. Once scored, the antler could be reduced to more manageable pieces by applying pressure and/or percussion along the scored, or weakened, portions of the elk antler. Finally, the techniques used to finish an elk antler hoe involved abrading the antler into its final dimensions. By using coarse sedimentary stone, such as sandstone, the elk antler could be reduced to its desired thickness and the bit (digging side) could be formed and beveled. Once the final dimensions had been achieved, hafting aides, such as the large drill hole near the center and the notches on the proximal end, could be added.
What is unknown about the manufacturing process of elk antler hoes is how much the antler could be modified though boiling or steaming. That is, the size of the elk antler hoe pictured above is extremely large and may have been expanded and flattened through some unknown technique. This would have involved “unwrapping” the cylindrical antler and flattening it to increase surface area. What do you think? Could this unusually large elk antler hoe, and others in CMC archaeology collections, have been flattened or altered by Fort Ancient people using some form of steaming or boiling technology?