This is my inset point. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

A beauty indeed. Photo: Nick Waber

Anyone who has talked shop with me has probably learned of my affinity for microblades. Microblades are tiny stone bladelets that made up the sharp parts of brilliant multi-component tools. This technology was prevalent on much of the Northwest Coast throughout the early Holocene (~10,000 BP-ish-4000 BP-ish), and is the focus of my thesis. Part of my thesis involves experimentation with microblade tools, and today’s post is devoted to one of these.

Biface envy? I think not. Photo: Nick Waber

The basic premise of inset microblade technology is that by lining up a series of microblades one may produce a cutting edge far longer than a single blade (my point is 27cm long, with 43cm of cutting edge), and potentially much sharper than a bifacially flaked projectile point. Furthermore, the slotted point made of bone or antler is somewhat elastic, and as such is more resilient and durable than its stone counterpart. As you can imagine, attacking a bear with a spear only to break the pointy bit off on the first thrust would make for a suboptimal situation to say the least. Additionally, once your bear has been dispatched and you have a little down-time, any missing or damaged microblades may be quickly and easily replaced, without reducing the overall size of the point (unlike a biface).

Behold the continuous cutting edge! Photo: Nick Waber

Sinuous microblade arrangement. Photo: Nick Waber

This hafting and replacement strategy is especially brilliant when compared with biface hafting and maintenance techniques. Bifaces are usually (as far as I have read) hafted by binding them to the end of a shaft or foreshaft, generally using sinew. Sinew is terrific because it is strong and flexible, and if you soak it in warm hide glue before binding, it will actually shrink and harden on the point/haft, cementing the point in very effectively. The down side is that to remove the point, one must re-boil the glue/sinew to loosen it. Consider the logistics of boiling water without a handy stovetop and metal pot. Not a convenient solution! Presumably, hunters would carry a collection of pre-hafted replacement points on foreshafts, but that does not seem practical for a thrusting spear or killing lance, where one may expect to make multiple strikes in quick succession with the same weapon.

The slotted antler point can be bound more or less permanently to the spear, and only have the cutting edges refreshed as necessary. To do this, no binding is required. Instead, microblades are temporarily ‘glued’ in. Researchers studying ice patch archaeology in the Yukon have recently recovered a slotted antler point with mastic residue in the slots(!). They managed to identify it as spruce resin. Fortunately for me, there are some spruce trees next to a local playground (this is doubly fortunate, since the kids climbing all over these trees have bruised the bark and limbs enough that there is no shortage of sap to harvest). I got the sap/resin home and started playing around with it. Some was relatively fresh and could be molded into the slots quite easily (this is the filthy looking stuff in the photos). This was relatively easy, though it was extremely sticky and made handling the tiny microblades quite awkward and frustrating. The better solution seems to be the less fresh stuff that has turned quite hard and crumbly. If figured I could soften it up by boiling, but I would rather see if there was a method that did not require fire or boiling water (neither convenient for ancient NWC hunters on the move). Chewing! Masticating the mastic! By chewing the resin until it is malleable I can not only shape it to fit the slots, but also circumvent the stickiness of the fresher sap.

Insetting a microblade into chewed spruce mastic. Photo: Nick Waber

The chewed spruce mastic re-hardens very quickly, so I found that the most effective method of hafting microblades was to chew a wad of spruce gum, pinch off a little bit (enough for about 2 or 3 cm of slot), press in the microblades, and repeat. The mastic actually has a texture comparable to commercial chewing gum, and a nice flavour, reminiscent of the forest. One important tip is that you must chew very slowly at first. Chomping on the hard resin will only shatter it and give you a mouthful of very strong tasting resin powder. Bring your teeth together slowly and steadily five or six times before you get to chewing normally. And enjoy your pine spruce-fresh breath.



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4 responses to “This is my inset point. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

  1. Surprisingly jagged edge – I can see how these would produce those highly lethal wounds which might be slow to clot. The sinuous edge also looks lethal, but is it strong enough for repeated thrusts? I would very much like to know if these do work for “plunging” a wounded animal in killing-lance fashion, or if they are a one-and-done technology – while the repair may be relatively quick, a wounded bear or sea lion is probably quicker!

    Those kids at the playground would be convenient targets, but I advise against that particular temptation!

    • nwaber

      I imagine they could be used in a one-and-done type of application (like the tip of an atlatl-launched dart), but recent trials on ballistics gel prey indicate that repeated plunging is no trouble at all. Repeated impacts against bone in (simulated) flesh is no trouble either. And the wound channel… holy moly! Forget bifaces if you want to generate massive tissue damage. Slotted inset points are the hollow-point rounds of the early Holocene!

      The experiments get a post of their own. Very soon.

      As for the use of inset points as atlatl dart tips, on the one hand I could see it being terrific for situations where a miss is likely to result in a broken point (like hunting along a rocky shoreline at a sea lion rookery, or in a dense-ish forest). On the other hand, the time investment involved in cutting, shaping and slotting the antler or bone would make me reluctant to throw it at an animal that might only be wounded and run off with the point and foreshaft. On the other other hand, the massive wound channel from the inset slotted point could mean that instead of tracking a moderately wounded animal for a longer distance, you’re tracking a grievously wounded animal for a very short distance, as it bleeds out and collapses very quickly.

  2. Pingback: The best thing since stabbed bread. | PaleoNick

  3. rustyring

    Very impressive, Nick! And a technology not often practised today; most flintknappers I’ve encountered (already a rare bunch) only do Folsom/Clovis. Yet microblades offer such a wealth of possibilities; it’s a “modular” concept.

    You probably know this, but I thought I’d mention that spruce gum was chewed by past generations, just like Wrigley’s. I’ve chewed it myself. Some spruces (blue) are so strong as to be extremely unpleasant; others (sitka) are tolerable and better once the taste is acquired, and black spruce gum is downright pleasant. I make old-fashioned spruce beer, vinegar, and tea, and much appreciate all of it.

    Anyway, good on ya for the wicked build.


    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit

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