In a corner of the bookstore ringed with shelves containing hooded sweatshirts and other university merchandise, archaeologist and professor John Shea set down his supplies and immediately began to work. Small flecks of dacite rock rained down onto the tarp beneath his feet as he laboriously shaped the slab into arrowheads, knives and other primitive tools. The sounds of camera shutters interspersed with the percussive taps of Shea’s hammer, which was fashioned out of a moose’s antler.
Interested students peered through the glass as they walked by, and in time, the three rows of chairs that were lain out were filled. They had all come to watch Shea demonstrate knapping, the shaping of rock through reduction and fracturing to create tools. Since the advent of metalworking technology, knapping had fallen into obscurity, though archaeologists, such as Shea, often learn the craft to gain insight into how ancient tools were made and used.
“A lot of my colleagues tell me this is difficult,” Shea said, as he hammered away at a hunk of rock. “It’s literally so easy a caveman could do it.”
Slowly but surely, the dacite slab began to fracture and give way, shaping itself into flat and glossy faces. Teardrop shaped shards of rock, which Shea advised students against picking up, littered the ground. For more delicate work, he used a smaller antler, saying that using the large moose antler was “like using a chisel for surgery.” The chunk of stone was painstakingly crafted into an arrowhead, and Shea wasted no time in demonstrating how sharp his creation was.
“This is sharp enough to shave with,” he said while gliding the arrowhead along the surface of his arm. “After some demonstrations, I have at least one shaved arm.”
Shea said that he often uses rocks such as dacite, quartzite and sandstone, which are found in abundance in Stony Brook. However, he imports them from Oregon because according to him, “the quality of the rocks is better.”
Shea also wants to avoid having his replicas mixed up with the local archaeology record, which includes arrowheads found near the athletic fields and the bamboo forest.
“When I throw these into the dumpster near the archaeology department, I don’t want someone finding them and thinking that there’s a lost Stone Age civilization in Stony Brook,” Shea said.
Many of Shea’s knapping techniques, some of which are thought to be more than 200,000 years-old, come from his extensive research in the Horn of Africa. For his finale, he created a replica of a short, leaf-shaped blade called a Kibish knife, named for an archaeological site in Ethiopia where some of the oldest human remains were found. When he was finished, he held out a Swiss Army knife alongside his replica Kibish knife for comparison.
Freshman meteorology major Eli Tyler, who is also an anthropology minor, said that he learned that knapping was not all about just banging away at stone. As Shea warned, a needless strike could completely shatter the rock.
“The techniques are very precise,” Tyler said. “It’s all about applying force in the right places.”
Shea said that the main legacy of these tools, and of the Stone Age itself, was the versatility and ingenuity of humanity’s ancestors.
“Stone Age people were smart and always had more than one solution to everything,” he said.