Sunday, August 17, 2008

Aboriginal Gunflint?

While we were surface collecting the plowed fields in April, I picked up a piece of quartz at the north edge of the North Field. If looked to me exactly like a gunflint...that shaped piece of flint held in the clamp of a flintlock. When the hammer drops the flint hits a piece of steel, thereby emitting a spark that ignites a small quantity of gunpowder in a pan. That gunpowder, acting like a fuse, ignites the powder in the barrel and discharges the shot.

Ventral and dorsal surfaces of a possible gunflint made from locally available quartz. Size: approximately 0.9 inches long and wide, 0.3 inches thick.

Gunflints during the Colonial period typically were made from a grey to black English flint from spalls struck off of large nodules or quarried blocks. Some flints made of Continental flint, usually honey-colored, were imported. These were professionally made from long blade flakes and snapped into roughly one-inch lengths.

Colonists often made gunflints from nodules of English flint that arrived in the holds of ships as ballast. When the ships laded tobacco, grain, and other goods in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, the merchants discarded their stone ballast, often in violation of Colonial laws that prohibited the practice because it impeded navigation. English flint occurs in chalk deposits and is not indigenous to North America. The name 'Chalk Point' is not uncommon in the Chesapeake region and, at least in some cases, may derive from the discovery of ballast loads of chalk and flint.

Indians acquired firearms, shot, and powder from the colonists; again, sometimes in violation of Colonial laws. Stephen Potter, in his book Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs (University of Virginia, 1993, p. 204) notes that gunflints made by Indians have been found on Contact period sites, no doubt replacing English flints that were lost or worn and for which replacements were not readily available.

This one piece from Port Tobacco is a potentially very interesting find, especially given the interest in finding the Indian village of Portobaco that appears on John Smith's map, published in 1612.

John Smith map of 1612. Portobaco is circled in red just above the center of the image.

I will try to prepare scale drawings for a future posting so that readers can decide for themselves whether or not this is a gunflint or a very small aboriginal scraper that was used in preparing hides or shaping wood. I think a few accompanying illustrations of known European gunflints will assuage most doubters.



Scott said...

Are the properties of quartz sufficient to make the necessary spark required for a gun flint?

Jim said...

Quartz can produce an adequate spark, although I speak from theory and not practice (discharging firearms hurts my ears). I think the problem is largely a matter of trying to make a suitably shaped gunflint from relatively intractable quartz.

Scott said...

What about the historical records? You mentioned the aboriginals acquiring firearms and the large amount of imported flint available. Maybe they used what was discarded? It would be nice to prove these artifacts for what they appear to be.

Jim said...

The best way to prove such things is to conduct extensive, meticulous excavations, documenting associations between artifacts and features.

I think that we will find those associations and we will find a Contact period house somewhere in the aboriginal locus that we identified last October and tested in June.