THE ART OF FLINT KNAPPING

An Ancient Custom Revived in Coshocton, Ohio
Creating a New Generation of Rock Stars

Flint knapping to make arrowheads was critical to the survival of Native Americans and their ancestors. Today, it’s an art form shared and taught at the world-renowned Coshocton Flint Festival and Knap-In.

“When I began digging for flint in the same quarries the ancients dug, I sensed the feeling and presence of the people who dug flint there before me,” said expert flint knapper Roy Miller.

This genetic or ancestral memory is a common thread shared by many of the flint knappers who pilgrimage to the semi-annual festival from around the country and globe, including Texas, Australia, and Germany. In psychology, genetic memory is a theory that general memories (not specific) can be embodied into the genome over a millennium and triggered in anyone at any time. Flint knapping isn’t just an ancient Native American practice; throughout human history across the globe, humans have been carving stones into tools and weapons.

Whatever the root interest, when a rock breaks open, a lifelong love and pursuit awaken in these artists lined at outdoor displays with their tents tucked just behind. Hot plates of road food fill the air along with glorious campfire tales from these modern-ancient artists, who gather in Coshocton every Memorial and Labor Day weekend for three days of sharing and learning with the curious public.

Everyone’s journey down this road is different. Roy was born into an Amish family. In his early years, he found his first arrowhead in a field plowed with horses.

“I hunted arrowheads from then on,” Roy said. “But there were so many broken ones, I decided I’d like to see how they are made.”

He was hooked as soon as he ventured to the nearby Flint Ridge State Memorial, home to legendary ancient quarries.

“I’d go to Flint Ridge, hang with the rock people and rock clubs, and start flint knapping with a couple of the guys. There were only a couple who knew how to do it, just like the Native Americans,” Roy said.

Becoming well-known in this field is not something Roy tried to do.

“It takes high concentration for hours on end just to make one arrowhead,” Roy said. “One mistake and you have to start from scratch. It’s why you make a lot of dust piles starting out instead of arrowheads.”

Roy enjoyed flint knapping so much that he naturally made a name for himself. So much so that flint knappers from as far away as Israel learned about his work and now come to see him and what he has at the semi-annual Coshocton Flint Festival and Knap-In.

Part of Roy’s rise in these circles has to do with his supply of the well-sought-after Flint Ridge Flint.

“I bought several properties around Flint Ridge and didn’t know it at the time, but the one had the most beautiful flint in America or perhaps the world as far as I’m concerned,” Roy said. “Everybody wants that flint!”

Flint-knappers love the beauty of Coshocton and Flint Ridge Flint so much that they reach out to Roy from Mexico, Canada, and all over the United States. But Roy isn’t the only one they seek. There are groups of collectors that follow the knap-ins just to buy from certain people.

“My friend, Amel, from Israel, likes flint just like I do,” Roy said.

“He brought Israel Flint to me, which is special to me. And he’s a special person. They probably have more flints there than we do here. Of course, there, they made sling rocks, spearheads, and arrowheads for archers. Another person who has flint that I like comes from Mexico. He brings Mexican obsidian to the Coshocton knap-ins.”

Two of the most sought-after raw flint rocks at the Knap-In are Coshocton Flint and Flint Ridge Flint.

Coshocton Flint has an attractive coloring desired by flint-knappers. It’s medium gray with bands of various shades of blue, and it is common to see cream and orange streaks in it. Flint Ridge Flint is one of the most coveted flint and chert types in the world. The quarries in Ohio were considered sacred by the indigenous people.

It features rarer coloring combinations that may feature bright yellow, red, blue, green, and purple swirled or streaked together like a rainbow due to chemical impurities. Modern-day flint-knappers gather in Coshocton to obtain poplar flint to make tools and arrowheads, similar to the Native Americans who gathered here and at Flint Ridge ages ago.

“The difference is we call it Modern Lithic Art. They used it for survival,” Roy said.

Today’s flint-knappers sign their arrowheads with initials or a symbol so they won’t be mistaken for authentic arrowheads made by Native Americans one or two thousand years ago. These signatures are often done with a diamond scribe or archival ink pen. Signed works are more collectible, much like a celebrated artist may sign a painting. The first flint festivals and knap-ins were formed by the Flint Ridge Lithic Society.

It’s no wonder that flint is Ohio’s official gemstone. And it’s no mystery why trade routes in ancient America had a crossroads in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills stretching from Newark to Chillicothe, Coshocton, and elsewhere. Much like today, the flint’s beauty and seemingly infinite supply will lure people from near or far, so they may use it to create tools, weapons, jewelry, or ceremonial objects like nothing else.

The concentration required to turn a rock into Lithic Art can be overwhelming. Flint knapping requires precision in striking the raw rock with a hammerstone. It removes small flakes, creating sharp edges. This is followed by careful shaping through additional techniques such as percussion. Because flint, a type of chert, is both brittle and hard, it can keep and hold a sharp edge. Ohio’s flint deposits are often found in limestone formations that may date well over 300 million years, as in marine sediment from when Ohio was once a sea floor.

Flint knapping involves the techniques of flaking, notching, fluting, and heat treating. Percussion Flaking entails chipping off flakes with another object, such as an antler or stone. Pressure Flaking implies just that; applying pressure with a rock or bone to remove small flakes. Notching tools are used to create deep and narrow concavities. The fluting technique removes an elongated flake, leaving a groove or depression at the base of an arrowhead or spearpoint. Finally, heat treating the finished piece will improve coloring and lend a glasslike characteristic.

“I used to think it’s all the same; there’s only one way to make arrowheads. But there are many different techniques and ways they are made. You’ll see that from one person to another. Some people only use pressure flaking. Others may grind or run one flake across the top, and it’s done. Still, other knappers might use indirect percussion. Like the Indians, we explore these and more as we learn. Now we have all these different kinds of knapping going on at the festival and knap-in,” Roy said.

“Flint knapping is absolutely an artistry!” said Bill Weaver. He and his wife Pat managed Flint Ridge for 14 years. “Roy took up the skill of Native American people to the hilt! He is one of the most recognized flint-knappers in the world!”

Bill’s career as an educator crossed paths with Flint Ridge.

“When the person who taught history and science at my school took me for a walk at the preserve for the first time, I was blown away by the history.”

Because of his interest in Ohio history, Bill began working with people at the Newark Earthworks. These are known as the largest geometrical earthworks in the world and are now part of a World Heritage Site—the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Ohio’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It comprises eight of Ohio’s ancient American Indian monuments. UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Its class of sites features places like Machu Picchu and Pyramids of Giza.

Ohio’s Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are only the 25th World Heritage Site in the United States. Only three other UNESCO World Heritage Sites are multi-part sites like the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. These sites encompass several locations, such as the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

The Ohio Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks sites listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site are Chillicothe’s Mound City, Hopewell Mound Group, Hopeton Earthworks, High Bank Works, and nearby Seip Earthworks in addition to Newark’s Great Circle Earthworks and Octagonal Earthworks, plus the Fort Ancient Earthworks closer to Cincinnati.

These ancient Native American earthworks in Central and Southwest Ohio were constructed nearly 2,000 years ago to measure the cycles of the sun, moon, and more. They are manmade architectural marvels astounding in their precise alignment to the stars above, used to understand time and employ a masterful understanding of geometry and science. It is a mystery how simple, small tribes of hunter-gatherers forged mind-blowing earthen structures that were grand in size and style.

“When you think about it, these earthworks were made possible because of the skill sets of these Native Americans who knap arrowheads and spearheads, giving them the ability to hunt and eat,” Bill said. “Roy and those guys talk about education. They taught me more about ancient education as brought up through the native peoples because of their interest in it.”

Coshocton’s Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum (JHM) is an excellent resource for learning the history of ancient Native American activity in the area. It attracts the attention of professional archaeologists because it has one of the best collections of artifacts in the state related to the earliest Native American peoples – The Rothenstein Cache.

The collection features ancient Indian tools that are 13,000 years old, including spear points that could have been used to hunt mastodons and wooly mammoths. More of those kinds of spear points are documented in Coshocton County than any other county in Ohio and more than many states in the United States. That’s one of the things that makes Coshocton County unique in how it can contribute to the story of the very first Americans.

The Upper Mercer Flint Quarries in the Coshocton area were important to archaeologists and their understanding of that first chapter in America’s human history. Evidence of these early inhabitants is displayed at the museum such as the Rothenstein Cache, named after the person who found and donated it to the museum. This collection of 330 spearpoints was discovered in 1952 while a basement was dug in Coshocton. When large quantities of such blades are found buried together, they are called caches. The Rothenstein Cache is one of the largest to be discovered.

“The points are actually preforms or roughly knapped points,” said JHM director Jennifer Bush.

“A preform is a rough shape of the tool it will become, but it is unfinished.”

Flint rocks come in chunks. The chunks may have been too large to transport feasibly, so ancient Indians may have knapped out rough forms to move and finish later more easily. However, it seems that the Rothenstein Cache was never retrieved. The unfinished points are composed of Coshocton black flint and are as large as 8.5 inches. They are archaic in age, dating back around 5,000 years or so.

Coshocton County and the surrounding region also had a high presence of the Hopewell Culture, which dates to around 2,000 years ago, from CE 1 – 400. The Hopewell Culture was named after the farm owner, where artifacts were discovered in the 19th century because no other name for this ancient Indian culture was known.

It was typical of the Hopewell Culture in central and southern Ohio to be broken into small clusters of people living together in a community. These people were hunters, gatherers, and fishermen, but they also cultivated some plants. Because of this lifestyle, the creation of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Central Ohio is mind-boggling. It required great coordination from these clusters of people spread throughout the region.

“Hopewell is a type of arrowhead I like,” Roy said. “I have collected Hopewell artifacts over the years just because they liked the pretty flint, just like we do.”

Pretty flint, gemstones, and interesting rocks of all kinds are scattered throughout the Coshocton Flint Festival and Knap-In. The event attracts skilled flint knappers, artisans, jewelry makers, and even wilderness survival enthusiasts from all over the Americas and overseas. Interests among archaeologists, historians, primitive living enthusiasts, and artisans intersect here. Ideas and information are passed. It’s a great learning opportunity but also a fun time. Most of the tents have exhibitors at work during all hours of the event, honing their craft. They chat with the curious public and those within their field of work alike. It’s a communal affair.

Craftspeople from every level of experience partake in the semi-annual educational and entertaining three-day weekend. They demonstrate their flint knapping techniques to create arrowheads, spears, cordage, arrows, and pieces of art and jewelry. Visitors often bring their artifacts and gemstones to ask the various experts about them. Activities at the event include demonstrations like how to sling an atlatl.

An atlatl was used to launch six-foot ancient spears. It’s a long, thick stick with a hook at the end. This lengthens the throwing arm, which hurls a spear more accurately, with more force, over a greater distance. Ancient Native Americans used it to hunt as long ago as 10,000 years ago. It preceded bows and arrows.

“It’s definitely a family-friendly event. There are lots of hands-on activities for kids,” Bill said.

Indeed, the festival demonstration allows the public to sling a few darts themselves. The festival also presents speed knapping competitions, knapping learning centers, artifact identification, an auction, food trucks, camping space, and more.

The opportunity to participate in the Coshocton Flint Festival and Knap-In and these ancient traditions in modern times is offered every Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day Weekend, from Friday to Sunday, at the Coshocton County, Ohio Fairgrounds.

Who knows, you may be the next Rock Star like Roy!

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, your Tour Guide to Fun! 

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Visit Coshocton

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