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”.
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.
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…