Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A different kind of fragment

My wife is out of town so I had some spare time tonight, I decided to get out and try my luck at finding arrowheads. Bright overcast days like today was are the best for poring over the surface of the ground. It's tough this time of year to find anything so I went to a new spot I have never explored before. As happens more often than not, there was nothing to find there, not even a chip or flake, no sign Indians ever lived in this sandy place. With little time left before dark I drove to a farm field where I had found just a few broken arrowheads some years ago. It's a huge place and I have spent a lot of time there, walking for miles over every inch time and time again, and I have very little to show for it. With little chance of finding anything there, it sometimes feels like a waste of time to go there at all- but my hobby is really looking for stuff, not finding stuff. And in this place I can look all I want.

The sun went down, the last rays of light barely illuminated the earth. In such lighting only the quartz really stands out, I kept looking but had lost nearly all hope and was feeling desperate. I spotted a smooth gray object that looked artificial and picked it up. In my hand it had a smooth, waxy feel. I examined it closely and could hardly believe what I had found.
This poor little broken fragment, this humble and unassuming bit of drab stone, certainly is not much to look at. But it is an important find for me, a first. The material is soapstone, also known as steatite. It is a fragment of a bowl or other vessel that was carved and used by Indians thousands of years ago. They valued soapstone because it could be shaped into things like bowls and pipes, and because it retains heat, making it useful for cooking. Soapstone outcrops are rare; the material for this bowl likely originated rather far from where I found this, it is (in my opinion) very likely the material was quarried from an outcrop in Rhode Island. This material is very soft and can be scratched with a fingernail, but the production of bowls from this stone using quartzite tools was difficult and time-consuming. It has some plow scars as you can see.

I really like the clear tool marks on what would have been the inside of the vessel. It gives me goosebumps to think of these marks being made by a tool used by an early man, thousands of years ago. Soapstone bowls are associated with the Terminal Archaic period, 2,500-2,000 BP. It is believed that the discovery of soapstone might have been a major step in the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to a more sedentary way of life.

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