Ötzi flakers: the sharpest pencil in the drawer

Ötzi the Iceman surfaces occasionally in my archaeological consciousness. My primary interests lie in the archaeology here on the Northwest Coast (of North America), so Chalcolithic ice mummies from the Austro-Italian Alps generally rate only slightly higher than the various bog bodies that pop up occasionally elsewhere in Europe, which in turn rate higher than Egyptian mummies (yawn), but well below the likes of Kwäday Dän Ts’ínchi. Why do individuals from the Chalcolithic get that marginally higher rating than the others? Because while metal tools were growing in popularity during that period, flaked stone tools were still the order of the day during that period (duh!). And Ötzi, or rather the contents of his pack, provides a remarkable example of a vital tool related to lithic manufacture processes: the “retoucher”.

My Ötzi Flaker. Cedar handle (Ötzi's was Lime wood) with an elk antler bit.

Among Ötzi’s belongings was a well preserved composite pressure flaker– a tool used to carefully remove small flakes from a stone tool. Tim Rast, over at Elfshot, put up a very interesting post a while back documenting his production of a replica of Ötzi’s pressure flaker. The tool is basically a lime wood handle with an antler spike in the end. Tim’s analogy of a fat pencil with antler instead of graphite fits well, and it was that analogy that got me thinking about the advantages of an Ötzi-style flaker over the basic antler tine pressure flakers that I generally use. I figured that I would be best off whipping up an Ötzi Flaker and trying it out myself.

First, the size of the wooden handle helps my knapping a great deal. I’ve got pretty big mitts and I lose a lot of power struggling with small-diameter antler tines. The little tines are handy for precise flaking, but I always go back to my big, hefty moose antler tine when I want nice, long, regular flakes. With the amount of microblade flaking I do, and some of the horribly tough stone I use, the big flaker sees a lot of action. The Ötzi Flaker gives a suitably thick handle but also a consistently slim point. My moose tine becomes quite blunted relatively quickly, so the Ötzi design maintains a better point without compromising power.

Second, like a pencil (that analogy triggers the “aha” moment), the Ötzi Flaker can be quickly and easily sharpened. By “sharpened”, I mean that as the antler tip gets worn down, the surrounding wood can be cut back using a stone flake, revealing more antler. The antler maintains its slimness (as I mentioned above), and the maintenance is a breeze.

Sharpened Ötzi Flaker. Note the tip. 30 seconds with a chert flake makes it like new.

Third, the Otzi flaker eliminates “handedness” from the tool. I often find that slightly curved tines really only lend themselves to use at one particular angle. Rotating the flaker at all results in a tool that is uncomfortable for use by a right-hander. The Otzi Flaker is a straight cylinder, which can be rotated a bit now and then in order to change up the wear pattern on the tip, and essentially self-sharpen the antler bit.

Finally, raw material economization can be achieved to some extent. Rather than being restricted to using tines, almost any part of an antler may be stuck into an Otzi Flaker. Tim noted that a bit made from the palmate section of a moose antler was too soft to use effectively, but I had no such issues with a segment from the beam of an elk antler (and I would assume that the beam of a moose antler- rather than the palmate portion- would be similarly sound). Also, like a collection of golf clubs or drawing pencils, a knapper may have a collection of flakers of varying hardness or softness. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little extra bite with a softer flaker when doing delicate edgework on a small obsidian point. And then you can switch to a hard one for some power flaking or harder stone.

In all, it’s a very nifty design and features prominently in my quiver of pressure flakers. Now if only I had a decent Ishi stick…

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Ötzi flakers: the sharpest pencil in the drawer

  1. Oleg

    Hi! I don’t know if you still read comments on this blog but I will be very grateful if you find the time to answer.

    I’m not in any way familiar with microblade tools (more with theoretical physics=)) I’ve read about large (53 and 56cm total length) microblade daggers from eneolithic Samara culture (with references to Vasiliev, 1981 and 1985, don’t know if there are english translations) and even 68cm microblade dagger from Sakhalin (Tiunov, 1984)

    My question is whether these daggers were durable enough for cutting, I mean like hunting sword?

  2. nwaber

    Hi Oleg,
    Sorry for the long wait for a reply. I’m hoping to start blogging again as time allows.
    The microblade daggers sound interesting! I am curious about the hafting element that marks them out as daggers. Also, are they unilaterally inset or bilaterally inset?
    Based on construction similar to a slotted point, I think that the durability of the dagger component would certainly not be an issue, either for slashing or for stabbing. The Aztec (and Maya, I believe) used massive inset blade swords for warfare (check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqtxDz5tW6k&feature=g-user-u&context=G2e618e7UCGXQYbcTJ33YQPeeXznix7etNMcUdIwDhY8_OdpmE7LU), and I assume that they found the durability adequate (or else they would have presumably used something else). The difference may be that slashing with a microblade-inset weapon may dislodge more blades- they are a LOT smaller than the Mesoamerican ones. But slashing may not be prudent hunting technique, as it would probably ruin the hide.
    Also, I’m not sure of the utility of a sword or dagger beyond dispatching/skinning/dressing wounded or trapped animals in a hunting context. I think that a spear, dart or arrow would be more practical for the actual hunting activity with the dagger coming into action after the initial strike. In any case, even if the hunting strategy involved getting up close and personal, I can attest to these inset antler/microblade tools being extremely durable.

    • Oleg

      Hello again!
      It’s great to hear that you are going to continue blogging! Thank you for your answer, I thought about these daggers again yesterday morning and did it just the right time 🙂
      Here is some additional information about those large daggers I mentioned. Firstly they are bilaterally inset.
      Vasiliev’s finds of the Samara culture are mentioned in Gimbutas book “The Civilization of the Goddess”. They are depicted in fig. 10-2 (i found scan here http://www.swordforum.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=46696 ) and the description says that they “were found at the arm or skull of adult males” at the cemetry of S’ezzhee (Съезжее in russian). She interprets the existence of such long daggers of course 🙂 in favour of her thesis that this was agressive war-like culture in contrast with peaceful matriarchial old-european agriculturalists.
      Regretfully I couldn’t find in web neither original article nor any detailed description and information about a haft. If the drawing depicts that finds correctly only 4 or 5 cm remains behind the blade of large one to hold it, not very handy and certainly not safe. In book published in 2000 Vasiliev mentions these large daggers and also bone-flint spear points separately. I can only guess that perhaps he had some good reasons to distinct them.
      Here is the site http://mizhilin.narod.ru/ with articles of M.Zhilin on earlier mesolithic microblade tools of Volga region including knives and daggers (with single edge and with two edges) of more humble size 🙂 i.e. of the order of 10-15 cm. Some of them are in english yet russian articles are more informative. You can at least look at the illustrations here http://mizhilin.narod.ru/Bone_Industry_2001/Chapter_5_2-7.htm (section 5. Кинжалы – Daggers) Some of the finds classified as daggers shows clear traces of leather winding around handle part or have form and fastening to a shaft uncharacteristic of a spear point.
      The second example I gave were two daggers made of walrus tusk from Sakhalin. You can see one of them here
      http://sakhgu.ru/file/784/grishenko.pdf
      on the pdf page 87 (page 173). The description (in russian) on pdf page 31 (page 61) says that this find (the other one was destroyed by fire) was reinterpreted by Vasilevsky as some kind of bear-spear point (the cave was called “Cave of bear tragedies”, there is a huge pile of their bones)
      So both examples of large daggers I gave in my first post are quite dubious. However Zhilin wrote that spear points could possibly be disconnected from a shaft and used as knives and vice versa (like tribes of north siberia did till modern times, their “palma” spears had removable blades/knives) It seems to me the find from Sakhalin could easily be that case thanks to extra 20 cm behind the blade.
      I’m sorry that I gave many links in russian but my search (with extremely limited knowledge of terminology and the field in whole) of english links was not very fruitful and gave me impression that in contrast to spears and arrows wide use of slotted bone knives and daggers was mostly confined to Eurasian steppes and Scandinavia (but continued right up to chalcolithic)

  3. nwaber

    Hi Oleg,
    Those are fascinating slotted daggers/points. The Samara ones (fig.10.2) look a lot like points rather than daggers to me- I think that once lateral pressure is exerted in the use motion one requires a longer tang/hafting element, while a stabbing implement can potentially get away with a shorter one in a socket or side-socket haft. That said, a lot of the Zhilin illustrations look more dagger/knife-like. They seem to be pretty thick, and the ones with perforated hafting elements (and especially fig.36 with the flattened tang, and fig. 37 with the hole near the base) remind me of my bush knife and a lot of sea knives where there is a lanyard hole. You can pause mid-task, let the knife loose, use both hands for something, and with a flick of the wrist return the knife to hand without having to take time to put it down/pick it up.

    A lot of the illustrations show the points/daggers as being curved. Is there any indication whether the author(s) interpret this as post-depositional, or was the material naturally curved? There’s a slotted point from an ice patch in the Yukon (link: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/publications/The_Frozen_Past_-_the_Yukon_Ice_Patches.pdf) with post-depositional curvature.

    Also, copy-pasting the caption into google translate has not worked for me- what does the description say for fig.58 in Grishenko?

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