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American Flintknappers

American Flintknappers
Stone Age Art in the Age of Computers

Avid knapper and professional anthropologist John Whittaker offers an insider's view of the knapping community.

May 2004
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375 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 color photos, 70 b&w illus., 10 tables |

Making arrowheads, blades, and other stone tools was once a survival skill and is still a craft practiced by thousands of flintknappers around the world. In the United States, knappers gather at regional "knap-ins" to socialize, exchange ideas and material, buy and sell both equipment and knapped art, and make stone tools in the company of others. In between these gatherings, the knapping community stays connected through newsletters and the Internet.

In this book, avid knapper and professional anthropologist John Whittaker offers an insider's view of the knapping community. He explores why stone tools attract modern people and what making them means to those who pursue this art. He describes how new members are incorporated into the knapping community, how novices learn the techniques of knapping and find their roles within the group, how the community is structured, and how ethics, rules, and beliefs about knapping are developed and transmitted. He also explains how the practice of knapping relates to professional archaeology, the trade in modern replicas of stone tools, and the forgery of artifacts. Whittaker's book thus documents a fascinating subculture of American life and introduces the wider public to an ancient and still rewarding craft.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Coming to the Knap-in
    • The Knap-in Ethos
    • Sources of Information
    • The Knap-in at Fort Osage
  • 2. Making Stone Tools: The World's Oldest Craft
    • The Processes of Flintknapping
    • Tools and the Knappers' Ethos
  • 3. From Fakes and Experiments to Knap-ins: The Roots of Modern Flintknapping
    • Charlie Shewey
    • Early Archaeologists and Fakers
    • Native Knappers
    • Mack Tussinger and the Oklahoma Eccentrics
    • Daniel, Howe, and Others
    • McCormick the Folsom Fluter
    • Bryon Rinehart and Grey Ghosts
    • Richard Warren--Scale Work and Lap Knapping
    • Patterns in the Early Modern Knappers
    • Halvor Skavlem and the Hobby Knapper
    • Archaeology and Replication
    • Knapping Newsletters
    • The First Knap-ins
    • Waldorf and The Art of Flintknapping
    • Transition to the Current Scene
    • The Current Scene
  • 4. The Knap-in: People and Organization
    • Bob Hunt, Organizer at Fort Osage
    • George Eklund, Commercial Knapper
    • Jim Regan, Copper Toolsmith
    • Gene Stapleton, Dealing in Stone
    • Percy Atkinson: Gourds, Axes, and Philosophy
    • D. C. and Val Waldorf, Knap-in Professionals
    • Ingrid Jones, Knapper Spouse
    • Knapper Demography
    • A Continent of Knap-ins
    • Mid-West Flintknappers' Convention, June 1993
    • Pine City Knap-in
    • Evergreen Lake Knap-in, July 1996
    • Genesee Valley Flint Knappers Association Knap-in, August 1996
    • Flint Ridge Knap-in, August 1996
    • Knap-in Generalities
  • 5. Knappers at the Knap-in
    • Culture and Community of Practice
    • Performance
    • Learning to Knap
    • Learning the Ethos
    • Politics, Gender, and Ethnicity
    • Expressions of Identity
    • The Chipping Keeps You Going: Why Knappers Knap
  • 6. Status and Stones
    • The Knap-in as Egalitarian Event
    • Ooga-Booga, a Ritual of Inclusion
    • Status and Competition in Knapping
    • Talking with Stone: Ritual Exchange and Expression of Status
  • 7. Art, Craft, or Reproduction: Knapper Esthetics
    • Stone Tools as Art and Folk Art
    • Two Knappers, Two Attitudes
    • The Ideal Point: Common Esthetic Rules
    • The Rules in Action: Knapping Contests
    • Imitation as Esthetic Goal
    • Point Types and Artistic Choices
    • Replicas and the Art of Knapping
  • 8. Can't Never Have Too Much Flint: The Lore of Stone
    • The Mystique of Stone
    • The Qualities of Stone
    • The Quest for Stone
    • Decreasing Resources
  • 9. Modern Stone Age Economics
    • Frank Stevens, Knap-in Entrepreneur
    • A Trip to Quartzite
    • Market Knapping
    • Art Knapping
    • Dale Cannon and Stone Knives
  • 10. Knappers, Collectors, Archaeologists: Ethics and Conflicts
    • Replicas, Fakes, and Art
    • Fakes, Replicas, and Ethics
    • Murmurings at the Knap-in
    • Woody's Dreams and Knappers' Nightmares
    • Fakes and Archaeology
    • Counting Knappers and Points
    • Markets, Again
    • The World of Collecting
    • Authentication
    • Archaeological Impacts of Modern Knapping: Collections
    • The Creation and Destruction of Sites
    • Epilogue: Sin and Society
  • 11. Silicon and Society
    • Silicon Connections
    • Forming and Breaking
    • The Future
  • Appendix A. Knapper Mail Survey Questionnaire
  • Appendix B. Fall 1996 Fort Osage Knap-in Registration
  • Appendix C. New York Knap-in Contest Rules, 1994
  • Appendix D. New York Knap-in Contest Rules, 1996
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

John C. Whittaker is Professor of Anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa.


On the battered toolbox is a worn bumper sticker: "Only the Rocks Live Forever." A pile of rocks lies beside the box, angular lumps of pink and grey chert, a flat nodule with a brown crust like French bread, and a scatter of sharp flakes and fragments of several materials. The tools inside the box are not those envisioned by Craftsman or Sears. A couple of pieces of battered deer antler jut out beside a heavy, dinted copper rod and bits of copper wire set in wooden and plastic handles. This is the modern tool kit of the world's most ancient craft, flintknapping (Figure 1.1). The flintknapper shapes rocks into arrowheads, knives, and other prehistoric tools. Rocks are central to the flintknappers' world, but more interesting than how stones are shaped is the way knapping shapes the people who work them.

Stone tools are treasures to be discovered, masterpieces to be created, mysteries to be explored, keys to the understanding of ancient times. They can carry you back to a heroic past, far from the anonymous mechanized mob life of today, where the hunter pitted his skill and courage against the mammoth, and craftsmen were revered. For stone tools, some men (and most, but not all, knappers are men) will crawl through muck or walk miles in the sun, carry loads that make their knees ache, accumulate backyards piled high with rocks, risk painful injury and the ridicule of their neighbors, pay astounding sums of money, and worry more about knapping problems than their jobs or marriages. People who understand this are unusual and share a special sympathy that cuts through the shell of other social differences. They will use up their vacation time driving overloaded cars across the continent to spend a weekend with others like them, to talk about rocks, swap rocks, break rocks, and, above all, to be a flintknapper among flintknappers.

I am as bad as many, and stone tools have been a continuing theme in my life, if not an obsession, since I was a boy. I began flintknapping, making stone tools, in 1973 when I was a college student studying archaeology, and I have pursued the craft ever since, cunningly making it all respectable by including stone tools as part of my professional academic life. Like quite a few of my archaeological colleagues, I make stone tools for experimental purposes, duplicating prehistoric knapping to learn what the tools are good for, how much effort it takes to make them, what the waste products look like, and patterns of manufacture, damage, repair, destruction, and discard.

As an academically oriented knapper, I was vaguely aware that there were a few people who made stone tools as a hobby, or even sold them as replicas to museums, or as fakes to collectors, but I rarely met them or knew much about them. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, a number of amateurs were crossing the lines, making contacts in the academic world and contributions to the professional literature that I read, and the number of nonacademic knappers was expanding and becoming more organized and visible. I got on a couple of mailing lists, started getting some newsletters, and learned that there were regular meets, called -"knap-ins," being held in several states. The closest knap-in to me was at Fort Osage, near Kansas City, Missouri, so without knowing quite what to expect, I put my tools and some rocks in the back of my car, and drove out to Fort Osage one weekend in September 1990.

As I got out of my car in the parking lot, I knew I had found a home, for the air was filled with the unmistakable sharp crack of stone being flaked. There were, in fact, more knappers than I had ever seen in one place before, fifty or sixty. Some were selling stone, or tools, or points they had made, but mostly they were knapping, working the stone, watching each other, and exchanging ideas (Figure 1.2). As I wandered through for the first time, I was staggered by the number of knappers, the diversity of techniques and tools, and the virtuosity of some of the craftsmanship. I had not realized anything like this existed, and, as it turned out, only three of the other knappers were archaeologists.

As I became familiar with the Fort Osage knappers, I realized that their craft was as important to many of them as it is to me, and maybe more so, and that the knap-in was a major social event. The knappers were developing a small-scale society, with its own events, symbols, rules, and ethics. There were complicated economic transactions, competition and expression of status, exchange of information, and the development of social networks; in short, all sorts of things that anthropologists find interesting. I was also intrigued that an obsolete and difficult craft which I had assumed was of mostly academic interest could attract so many devoted followers. As a practicing knapper, who makes stone tools both for fun and as part of my professional archaeological interests, I already had a skill which gave me common ground with and an entrée to this society of craftsmen. Having watched the development of knapping in academic circles in my lifetime, I realized that knapping was experiencing a boom among nonacademic craftsmen, and I decided that I had an unusual chance to watch and participate in the formation of a small informal community, a process of considerable anthropological interest. I don't intend to burden readers with loads of anthropological theory, but as certain issues come up, it is useful to explain why anthropologists, archaeologists, folklorists, sociologists, and other scholars should find the modern knappers interesting, and why I look at them the way I do.

The Knap-in Ethos

I started seriously studying the knap-in with several general concerns (beyond a convenient academic excuse to have some weekend fun). My first interest was in why people knapped, what it meant to them. I also wanted to know how an informal group like this developed, and what determined the directions of development. All groups of people have rules which guide the behavior of members, determine who is recruited and allowed to belong, and prescribe how new members are incorporated. In anthropological terms the knappers form a sodality, a voluntary association with a specific purpose.

However, knappers can also be considered as a subculture, a smaller unit within American culture as a whole, which in some ways recognizes itself as different and adheres to a set of shared beliefs and rules (Spradley 1970). Subcultural groups like this have always interested anthropologists, and there are many recent anthropological and journalistic discussions of subcultural groups within the United States. Often subcultures are defined by ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic traits, and may find themselves in conflict with other groups, especially the dominant majority around them. Examples include tribal groups (Foley 1995), religious minorities (Bloom 2000), and street people (Spradley 1970; Fleisher 1995). Conflicts involving disadvantaged, suppressed, or militant subcultures create troubling issues in current American society, but are less relevant to the knapping world. In part this is because membership in the knapping world is voluntary and carries no stigma, and knappers have few agendas to promote.

Voluntary groups that take on subcultural status include some people united by an unusual lifestyle, like senior citizens living in RVs (Counts and Counts 1996). Occupational subcultures form among groups engaged in common pursuits, such as police (Barker 1999), firefighters (McCarl 1985) surgeons (Katz 1999), baseball professionals (Gmelch and Weiner 1998), and criminals (Fleisher 1998; Sikes 1997). Later I will discuss such groups as "communities of practice." Artisans and hobbyists are similar, for example, falconers (Bodio 1984), Civil War reenactors (Horwitz 1998), or wood-carvers (Cooper 1980). Such groups are so common that any reader will surely be a member of one or several and will recognize that they are held together not only by common interests, but by developing social bonds, rules for behavior, and ways of looking at the world. Membership becomes an important part of the identity of members that they announce and manipulate in various ways.

How individuals and groups create an identity for themselves and express it to others has also been of interest to anthropologists for many years (Goffman 1959, 1971; Rubinstein 1995; Brown and Mussell 1984). Our individual identities are partly defined by our memberships in different groups, and our obedience to the rules of these groups. When we interact with others, their understanding of the possible memberships affects how they see us, and we attempt to manage the opinions of others by showing or concealing information about our affiliations. In a nation of almost 300 million people, where many feel ignored, anonymous, and suffocated, open expression of membership in small, comprehensible groups becomes increasingly important.

The knappers I was seeing at Fort Osage form a community in themselves, but are connected to knappers holding similar events elsewhere in the country, and part of a larger national and even somewhat international network of knappers. Knap-ins are a fairly new phenomenon and are still in the process of growing, changing, and defining themselves. I wanted to see how new members were incorporated, how novices learned not just to knap, but to be knappers, and how ethics, rules, and beliefs about knapping were developed and transmitted. Anthropologists talk about the body of shared ideas, values, beliefs, perceptions, symbols, and rules for behavior as "culture," and a shared culture is what unites the people of a society. At the knap-ins, I could watch the development of a society of knappers, with a subculture that was part of mainstream America, but also distinct from other groups within our country.

As I became a knap-in regular, I learned the peculiar ethos of the knap-in, the culturally defined and shared beliefs about how things ought to be, that lies behind many of the rules of proper behavior. As I eventually discovered, modern knap-ins across the country share a common ethos, and the knappers who go to them, and even most knappers who do not, are bound together by shared ideas. Although there are disagreements, conflicts, and violations, an overall knapping ethos can be stated as a series of fundamental beliefs:

  1. Knapping is an art, meaning both a special skill and an esthetic product.
  2. Knapping is fun and interesting, part of the heritage of all people.
  3. Knappers should teach others in order to perpetuate the tradition and share the art and pleasure of knapping.
  4. There are many ways of knapping and many different kinds of knowledge; diversity is good.
  5. Knapping should be enjoyed as a source of fellowship and social interaction; thus competition, hierarchy, and even too much organization are to be avoided.
  6. Knapped art should be promoted honestly; selling modern work as antiquities is bad.

Because much of what follows reflects on the knap-in ethos, it is worth expanding a bit here. Any art or craft involves the application of skill and knowledge. Chapter 2 explains briefly the mechanics of the art of knapping, how it is done today, and what different techniques mean to those who use them.

Part of any culture is its history and traditions. The historical development of the modern knapping world is discussed in Chapter 3, with an emphasis on knappers outside of archaeology.

Knappers perform their art for the sake of its beauty and for the fun of a challenging craft. Chapters 4 and 5 are about the people of the knap-ins, why the craft of knapping attracts them, and who becomes a knapper. Because knapping is primarily done for pleasure, although as we will see there can be economic motives too, it should be shared with the public and with other knappers. Knappers mostly agree that it is the duty of all knappers, and part of the purpose of knap-ins, to promote knapping as an art and hobby, to teach anyone who is interested, and to share techniques with other knappers.

The knap-in is a public arena where knappers perform their craft and interact with other knappers. One of the pleasures of knapping is the fellowship of like-minded friends. Knap-ins are very explicitly expected to be fun, even if you conduct some business there, too. As a result, overt competition, hierarchical leadership, and even anything that smacks of formal organization are discouraged in a number of ways. Of course, some organization is necessary, and some knappers are more central to the knap-in than others. The organization of knap-ins will be a focus of Chapter 4. Similarly, knap-ins attempt to be inclusive, valuing the contributions of individuals at all levels of skill and knowledge. In a craft where learning new tricks is important, and there are many different ways of knapping, diversity is valued, and the fellowship of knap-ins also forbids that knappers of lesser skill be discouraged or discriminated against. Naturally, there are differences in the status of individual knappers, often based on their skill. Knappers do engage in competition for reputation, markets, and status within the group. Chapter 6 considers the importance of status and the ways knappers express it, and also how the knap-in society curbs competition and divisive elements and encourages inclusion.

Modern knappers know full well that their craft has little practical application in today's world; it is a craft performed for its own sake. Knappers find beauty and inspiration in stone, in prehistoric artifacts, and in the knapped art they make. Knappers refer constantly to knapping as art, and non-knappers also recognize the esthetic qualities of stonework. The esthetics of knapping will be discussed at length in Chapter 7.

Knapping and archaeology relate in ways that are partly friendly and beneficial, and partly hostile and inimical. The public perception of prehistoric and modern artifacts as art objects has created a sizable market for both. Many knappers fund their hobby by selling their work, and a few earn their living through knapping and related activities. Because knappers perceive themselves as artists, the consensus is that points should be sold as art. Selling modern work as ancient is dishonest and cheats the knapper of his credit as an artist. There are, of course, some knappers who do not feel this way, and many of the points made by knappers are eventually bought and sold as fake antiquities, even when the knapper who made them disapproves. The history behind this situation, the market for flaked stone artifacts, and the arguments about ethics in the knapping world are discussed in Chapter 9. The impact of modern knapping on archaeology is also considered in Chapter 10.

The knap-in ethos has created a subculture of modern craftsmen pursuing an ancient craft. It ties them together with bonds of shared ideals and with beliefs about the meaning of knapping. However, the knapping world is constantly changing. The patterns of variation and disagreement among knappers, wider social trends, and the way societies form and dissolve mean that knapping twenty years hence may be as different as the knapping world was twenty years ago. Chapter 11 discusses some recent trends, the forces that hold knappers together and pull them apart, and what the knap-in means in the wider American society.

Sources of Information

This particular fieldwork posed some unusual challenges for me as an anthropologist. First, the group I was studying only assembled for short times at weekend knap-ins, so I could only witness knap-in interactions a few times, separated by long intervals. As it turned out, I have attended the Fort Osage Knap-in twice yearly from September 1990 to the present, with only a couple missed sessions. I tried to get some idea of how the Fort Osage Knap-in compared to other knap-ins, at least in the Midwest, by attending a few others: the Mid-West Flintknappers' Convention in Illinois (June 1993), the Minnesota Knappers Guild Knap-in (June 1996, 1999, and 2001), the Evergreen Lake Knap-in (July 1996), the Genesee Valley Knap-in in New York (August 1996), and the Flint Ridge Knap-in in Ohio (August 1996). Many knappers I knew from Fort Osage turned up at these other knapins as well, strengthening my opinion that the knap-in culture is shared across the country. I also talked to knappers in other contexts: atlatl competitions, rock shops, artifact shows, via phone and email, and in visits to friends. For many knappers, the knapping world continues as a major social force and personal focus much beyond the knap-in itself, and in the last few years, the Internet has provided an important new medium for maintaining ties within the knap-in community. However, for me, the knapping ethnography was only one project in the midst of teaching and all the other things I was doing, so my ideas grew by fits and starts, and I often came back to thinking about the knap-ins wishing that I had paid more attention to something the time before.

All anthropologists must be concerned with their relationships with the people they study. In my case, I felt that there were several diplomatic and ethical considerations. The knappers as a group are interested in thinking about knapping, and about themselves as knappers. They produce their own literature and read some archaeological publications, and obviously would read anything I wrote about them. The first rule of anthropological ethics is to avoid harming your informants, even unintentionally. In a literate and self-aware group like the knappers, the usual anthropological problem of ensuring that the informant is protected and necessary confidentiality maintained became complicated. On the one hand, I was recording individuals, and their individuality and human personalities are important. Most of my friends are proud of their status as knappers and craftsmen, and some publicize themselves for commercial purposes. I felt it would be silly and even offensive to attempt to conceal the names of my informants or disconnect most of the information from the individuals, as anthropological convention often expects. Furthermore, I regard this study as documentation of a historic phenomenon that I hope will be of interest some years into the future. The identities of some of the individuals involved are a crucial part of the record.

Those knappers whom I formally interviewed and taped gave their permission for the material to be quoted and used. As in most ethnographies, the bulk of my information comes from public conversations, never intended to be secret, in which I was one participant. On the other hand, as in all groups, there are tensions and hostilities, and people say things about others that they do not want passed around, or reveal to the interviewer information that they would probably not shout out in public. Some knappers were sensitive about economic information, others about personal relationships or ethical stances. For this reason, while this study is about individuals and their work as well as the group, in some sections I have felt it was better to keep the information vague or anonymous, while in others I explicitly use the knappers' names, with deep appreciation for the help and friendship that make this possible. This results in a slight imbalance; my view of the knap-in may be a bit rose-tinted at times, or at least less specific about some of the incidents of conflict and disagreement, and I had to restrain my natural temptation to tell certain juicy and revealing stories. This sometimes means that I must report one knapper's story as I heard it and slight the knowledge that someone else disagreed vehemently. I was unable to independently verify some contradictory stories.

My view is also biased in that it represents a collection of both systematic and unsystematic data--stories, conversations, observations, guesses, and rumors, as well as formal interviews and questionnaires. There are certain blind spots. Some people are reluctant to talk to me, a professional archaeologist, about activities they know I consider unethical. Some knappers, especially those most heavily involved in faking artifacts, tend to be rather paranoid, and my information about the shadier side of knapping is thus more often secondhand and imprecise.

Even after several years there are knappers whom I have seen many times, and may even know by name, but with whom I have never had much interaction. Usually there is no particular reason. No ethnographer can talk to everyone about everything, and some people simply fail to catch your eye for one reason or another, or no reason at all, or they may be too busy to talk when you are available. As far as I can tell, this is how we all experience life, so my view of the knap-in is no more biased than anyone else's, but it is one individual's view, and surely differs from that of any other knapper.

I relied on several major sources of information. First and foremost was participating in the knap-ins. The hallmark of anthropology as a discipline, what makes us different from related fields like sociology, is that we consider "participant observation" a primary method of doing research. Being there, participating in events, becoming as much as possible a member of the group you are studying, is a technique that anthropologists have always used and view with pride. When successful, participant observation gives you unique "feel" and insight into a culture. If you are accepted as a member of the group, you may have access to people, events, and meanings that are denied to the outsider. However, participant observation creates its own peculiar biases. First, you may have to let go of some of your own ways of doing and seeing, and blend in, accepting the rules and following the behavior patterns of the host culture. This process of internalization can bias you, too; most anthropologists develop a strong emotional attachment to the culture they work with. I truly love the knap-ins, and I cannot count the number of friends I have made through my knapping activities. I consider myself, and am accepted by others, as a true member of the knap-in community. On the other hand, no matter how well you blend in, it is impossible in most situations for the anthropologist to completely lose his or her outsider identity. The anthropological enterprise inherently involves doing things that no one else is doing: observing, recording, analyzing, questioning.

As a participant observer at knap-ins, I had far fewer difficulties than anthropologists working with the Yanomamo, the Trobrianders, or even French villagers. I did not have to learn difficult languages, eat strange and repulsive foods, live in the jungle, risk exotic diseases, or entrust my life to Third World airlines. I considered this good research design. More seriously, the knappers were part of a culture I already understood. We spoke the same language, obeyed the same laws, followed similar customs, shared some beliefs, and considered ourselves members of the political unit and culture of America. On a superficial level, I was acceptable from the beginning and shared some of my general identity with all the other knappers. However, small groups form their own subcultures, and individuals define part of their identity as membership in these smaller units. We all have multiple overlapping identities, including, in my case, American, Iowan, archaeologist, father and husband in my nuclear family, member of the larger Whittaker family, alumnus of various educational institutions, professor at another, sports team member, and so on. Some of these identities only manifest themselves at certain times; I am only an Iowan in important ways for events like voting, state fairs, and taxation, and when someone in Arizona asks me where I live.

As I will show, "knapper" is another identity that is extremely important to the subculture of the knap-in and the individuals who form it. That identity usually includes a particular set of skills, and if I had not already known them, or wanted to learn, it would have been difficult for me to understand what was going on at knap-ins or to be accepted as a member. This was especially so because one of my other identities, "archaeologist," clashed with my identity as knap-in participant, at least in the eyes of some others. Not only was I an academic, and therefore expected to be a bit snooty, I was an archaeologist, and expected to disapprove of nonprofessional excavation of sites, the commercial market in artifacts, and faking antiquities. I do, in fact, disapprove of all these things, and it took a while for some people to realize that while I might not approve of some of the things they did, I was willing to treat them as humans, refraining from attacking them while sharing our common interests. I also did not try to hide the fact that I was recording things and intending to write about the knappers and knap-ins. Quite a few other knappers take photos and videos, and even write about knapping, so I did not appear too strange in this. As a known academic, I was regarded with suspicion by a few knappers and had to endure occasional semi-joking comments about spying for the IRS. A few of the more paranoid knappers never did talk freely to me, but the fact that I spent much of my time at the knap-ins sitting with other knappers, making an acceptable standard of arrowhead, discussing the same issues, and offering and accepting advice on technique, went a long way to establishing that I was a genuine knapper, a decent sort, and relatively harmless. Everyone goes through a process of establishing an identity as an acceptable member that is much like mine; each has more, or fewer, individual complications.

Being a knapper, and eventually a Fort Osage regular, thus gave me access to the bulk of my information. I took photos and notes as I strolled through the knap-in, and sat up late at night typing a detailed journal of observations. I snooped shamelessly, eavesdropped when I politely could, and asked pointed questions as I knapped. As I became a recognized regular, made friends, and got to be known as a reasonably friendly archaeologist who wanted to write about the knap-in, many people actively helped me, calling events to my attention, introducing me to friends, bringing artifacts to show me, or telling me the latest gossip. Between 1992 and 1994, I did a series of formal taped interviews with about fifteen knappers. I had a set series of questions about how they started knapping, what they made, and what knapping meant to them, that I later expanded into a broader mail survey. I interviewed Fort Osage regulars at several levels of skill; inevitably, I interviewed those I felt comfortable with at the time, so not nearly all of the knappers I consider important were interviewed. Another source of documentation that I used for the knap-ins themselves has been videotapes made by other knappers. Some of these the makers advertised for sale to the knapping community, others were given to me by friends.

A second major data set was the mail questionnaire I designed with the help of my wife Kathy and the computer expertise of my student Matt Hedman (Whittaker and Hedman 1996, 1997). In four pages, it asked for a lot of detail about such things as how knappers got started, what interested them, who taught them and who did they teach, what they made, whether they sold things, what they did at knap-ins, what other crafts they participated in, and why they liked knapping (Appendix A). I sent this questionnaire to all of the 364 knappers who had signed in at Fort Osage up to Spring 1994 or were on Bob Hunt's list to get Fort Osage mailings, and to 183 (a randomly selected 13.8 percent) of the 1,327 names collected up to early 1992 by Jeff Behrnes when he was editing The Flint Knapper's Exchange newsletter. The response rate was about 34 percent for the Fort Osage list, which is adequate, although as it turned out, not all of those who responded actually went to Fort Osage Knap-ins. Only about 19 percent of the names from Behrnes's list responded, which is a rather poor return rate, although not unusual for mail surveys. The low response rate is partly explained by the list's being less up-to-date and including fewer people who knew me. In the end I had a sample of 90 Fort Osage knappers and 70 others. The idea was to give me a wider and more systematic cross-section of knappers than I was able to get just talking to people at knap-ins, and to see if there were any geographical patterns. Was the Fort Osage Knap-in typical of knappers everywhere? There are some useful patterns, although surveys of this sort are not really random samples. I randomly selected the people to get mailings, but only some of them were interested enough to respond, so there is an inherent bias in the results. Nevertheless, I feel that the most interesting patterns are borne out by my less systematic observations, and I will refer to the survey data from time to time. Respondents were promised confidentiality, and although most of them signed their names, I do not attribute any information from the survey to individual knappers.

A final source of information on the knapping world is the writings of the knappers themselves. These include several newsletters and, in the last few years, computer communications over the Internet. The Web page and mail servers such as "The Tarp" carry much the same kind of conversations and exchanges as one can hear at knap-ins. Instructional videos have also become quite common and often contain not just information on techniques, but a look at how the video maker feels about knapping in general. I will discuss all of these in their place.

I reference a lot of these sources because they are publicly available documents that others interested in the modern knapping scene can perhaps find and use. The newsletter Chips, published by Val and D. C. Waldorf, is particularly relevant to the Fort Osage Knap-in because the Waldorfs and a number of others who regularly write articles for them are knappers I met at Fort Osage.

The Knap-in at Fort Osage

My visits to Fort Osage, like those of many other knappers, have developed a familiar pattern. I know what to expect, who I want to see, what I intend to do. How a person becomes a knapper, and how a knapper becomes a part of a knap-in, are topics I will discuss at length. First, however, it helps to have a mental picture of the knap-in itself.

The first time I headed for Fort Osage, I had a hard time finding it. Struggling through the traffic of the Missouri side of Kansas City, you eventually reach surrounding suburbs and countryside, and the small town of Buckner on State Highway 24. From there, assuming you find all the oddly angled and not always well-marked intersections, you can get to Sibley. Over the years, the old houses, apparently permanent garage sales, and rattling bridge over the rail line supplying coal to a power plant have become familiar, in a hamlet small enough to see a fox run across the road at night. Crossing the bridge you pass a cemetery and find yourself at the museum and entrance to the state park. Fort Osage is the site of the first fort built in the new Louisiana Purchase. The fort was constructed by William Clark in 1808 and in use as a military strongpoint and trading post until 1827 (Roberts 1988). Today there is a partial reconstruction of the fort on the original foundations, looking out over the Missouri River. A few hundred yards away from the fort, at the entrance to the park, is a small visitor center and museum, with a parking lot and a large garage in back. Between 1991 and 1995 the knap-in was held behind the museum, on the parking lot and under the shelter of the garage and awnings. Since then it has been returned to its original site, which is the large parking lot used for overflow visitors, in the area between the museum and the fort, and off to one side. The park and fort offer a picturesque setting and provide basic facilities such as toilets, picnic tables, parking, and large areas of lawn where the knap-in can set up and knappers can camp overnight.

On arriving, I generally park close to the knap-in, but not as close as many of the knappers, who have trailers full of rock to sell, or cars stuffed with knapping equipment, or points, tools, and other items to display or market. Bob Hunt and other organizers, with the help of knappers who arrive early, set up a large, open tent, with tarps on the ground to keep chips out of the grass. Knappers bring tables and folding chairs to supplement picnic benches from the park. As knappers arrive, the knap-in develops into clusters of people under the main tent, and under private shelters or on tables set up around it. Others park their vehicles and open the back to spread their wares or set up their chairs on tarps to catch the debris.

The first few times I came, I put up a tent out in the field and camped on site, as many knappers do. As taking notes became more important and I began to rely on my laptop computer, an electrical outlet became necessary. For a while I tried typing my notes in the evening, sitting on a log that I dragged into the men's restroom, with my computer plugged into the shaving outlet. Moths found the glow of my computer screen attractive, and slapping at Missouri's aggressive mosquitoes disrupted my thoughts and produced incomprehensible typographic errors in my notes. After a couple of knap-ins I began to imitate many of the other knappers, especially those who bring wives, driving twenty minutes into town to stay in a motel. The Scottish Inn in Grain Valley was closest and cheapest, and I picked up a lot of good stories around the pool in the evenings and over dinner. In the morning the room doors would open one by one, each disclosing a sleepy knapper headed for his vehicle, and I even found a broken arrowhead on the asphalt of the parking lot one day. Having a shower instead of a cold wash under the park faucets probably improved my presence as an interviewer, too.

Once I find a parking place at the knap-in, I usually wander through, greeting friends, seeing who is there, doing an initial scout before unloading my knapping gear. I travel light compared to many knappers. I don't bring large amounts of stone, and my kit fills just one small toolbox, but I also have my recording equipment to manage. The tape recorder can be left in the car until I am actually interviewing someone, but I usually have a camera at hand and carry my clipboard everywhere. Set-up is much more elaborate for some knappers, especially those who have commercial interests. Others just like to have the proper amenities, like a tipi instead of a tent, or a long table with cases for display, or an awning so they can set up shade away from the main crowd.

I generally park my tool kit under the main tent and knap with knap-in organizer Bob Hunt and several others who usually join that group. Most knappers have habitual positions, and little groups of friends will assemble in their own areas at each knap-in, but there is a lot of flow as well. A few knappers sit and knap most of the time, but the majority wander around, visiting friends, watching others, purchasing supplies, and gossiping between bouts of knapping. There is a continual buzz of conversation mingling with the din of knapping: the crack, crack, crack, clatter of fracturing stone and falling flakes. Among the seated knappers, visitors wend their way, cautiously handling a finished point on one table, peering over another knapper's shoulder to ask questions, or hastily dragging a small child off a pile of sharp flakes.

A knap-in is an occasion to knap, but more importantly, an occasion to be a knapper among other knappers. Stone tools are made, but so too are contacts, lessons, status, and meaning. Over the years, the knap-in at Fort Osage has grown from a small group of friends to a major event, with all the trappings of a small temporary culture, a short tribal gathering. As such, it has its own rules and organization. Although there is little obvious formal structure to the knap-in, there are, in fact, regular patterns of behavior and expectations, and certain key individuals shape the flow of events and the experiences of other knappers like myself.

Before I discuss the social life of knap-ins and the meanings of the craft, it will be useful to explain a little bit of the history and techniques of flintknapping.



“Whittaker's American Flintknappers will be an important resource for students of modern replication studies. This publication not only presents information on modern non-academic flintknappers, it also addresses issues of interest to anyone studying folk technologies in general.”
The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“This is a superb book, authored by one of the only people with both the anthropological background and the connections in the world of contemporary flintknapping to write it. It really is unlike any work I’m aware of in lithics studies.Michael”
Stafford Director, Cranbrook Institute of Science


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