By GWENDOLYN WEILER
Moapa Valley Progress
Justin DeMaio, an archaeologist currently working for the Bureau of Land Management in the Las Vegas Field Office, carefully lays out his collection of tools and stones used for flintknapping—an ancient process for making stone tools—for the curious participants attending his workshop held Saturday, May 12, at the Lost Museum in Overton. His two-hour flintknapping demonstration is part of the Southern Nevada Archaeology Speaker Series being hosted throughout 2018 and sponsored by the Southern Nevada Agency Partnership Cultural Resources Team.
As stated in the series’ press release, the SNAP CRT “is an interagency group of archaeologists working together to share information, support local ongoing research, and ensure the preservation, conservation, and public education of heritage resources in Southern Nevada.”
As Saturday’s crowd gathers, DeMaio picks up a large black rock and runs his finger along the fractured surface. “This is obsidian,” he says. “This is ideal for creating stone tools because once it’s broken, it’s the sharpest substance in the world.” However, he says, obsidian is hard to find in big chunks such as this one here in southern Nevada. The most common stone used by local natives was chert. Any stone or substance that breaks like glass—which is referred to as conchoidal fracturing—can be used.
“When I first started flintknapping 10 years ago, I would practice on the bottom of beer bottles,” says DeMaio.
Before the demonstration begins, museum curator Mary Beth Timm hands out safety goggles to protect participants from tiny, flying shards of rock. DeMaio begins by dramatically smashing two large rocks together—breaking off a large, flat piece of obsidian—then adeptly fashions a sharp stone tool while explaining the history and necessary precision of the process.
Class participant Marlene Jara, a tourist from Westmont, IL, says, “I didn’t realize this process was a lot more detailed than striking a rock. These natives were learning physics by trial and error.”
DeMaio, who says he practices flintknapping at least once a week, says his interest in stone tools, the most ancient human technology, led him to the practice after a fellow archaeologist showed him how to do it. “Once I started to do it myself, I could analyze these tools so much better. Now, just by looking at the scattered flakes left behind, I can tell what the creator was generally trying to make.” He says it’s not uncommon for archaeologists to recreate the practices they’re studying. For instance, archaeologists who study ceramics often learn to work with clay in order to get a feel for the people and the practices they’re analyzing.
Towards the end of the presentation, DeMaio uses a small piece of antler to create small notches on the shard of obsidian he is shaping. “This is the part I don’t really like—the detail work—because it’s not as dramatic. So, I have a knack for not finishing these tools once I get them started.”
Class participant Bobby Miller, a tourist from Houston, TX, comically responds, “It helps if your dinner doesn’t depend on it.”
The Speaker Series will host one speaker each month from now until November 2018, with the locations being shared every other month between the Lost Museum in Overton and the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas.
The next workshop being hosted at the Lost Museum is the Artifact Identification Workshop on Saturday, July 7, featuring speaker Samantha Rubinson, the manager of the Southern Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. You can view dates and details for all upcoming lectures at nvculture.org/lostcitymuseum/event-directory/. All events in the series are free for members and $5 for guests; children under 18 are free.