Chert Hoes as Digging Tools

By Milner, George R.; Hammerstedt, Scott W. et al. | Antiquity, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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Chert Hoes as Digging Tools

Milner, George R., Hammerstedt, Scott W., French, Kirk D., Antiquity


Estimates of the effectiveness of tools used in the distant past are essential for calculating the time and labour needed to perform everyday tasks and to construct various forms of domestic and public architecture, referred to as 'architectural energetics' or 'earthwork energetics' (Abrams & Bolland 1999: 264; Bernardini 2004: 338). Here we present the experience of several people with chipped stone hoes, resembling those used in the late prehistoric American Midwest, especially the eleventh- to fifteenth-century AD Mississippian period. This work complements earlier studies with digging sticks, antlers, and large scapulae (Fox 1876; Curwen 1926; Jewell 1963; Erasmus 1965; Evans & Limbrey 1974; Hard et al. 1999). Experience with such tools is a critical part of estimating the rime and effort needed to construct earthworks (Atkinson 1961; Jewell 1963; Ashbee 1966; Wainwright & Longworth 1971; Startin 1982; Andersen 1997; Muller 1997; Milner 1998; Abrams & Bolland 1999; Hard et al. 1999; Morgan 1999; Bernardini 2004; Hammerstedt 2005; Abrams & Le Rouge 2008). These include mounds, which feature prominently in the archaeological record in many parts of the world, but also other forms of earthen architecture ranging up to recent times (Morgan 2008). Most chert hoes from Midwestern sites are polished on the working edge from use in soil, so the amount of rime it took such a sheen to develop is also of interest (Cobb 2000). Experience with these tools shows that they become badly chipped in rocky soils, even when stones are sparse, which restricts the terrain where they can be used effectively.


Midwestern chert hoes

Mississippian flaked stone hoes typically conform to one of three types: oval, flared and notched (Rau 1876; Milner et al. 1984; Brown et al. 1990; Cobb 2000) (Figure 1). Examples of the first two varieties are invariably larger than notched hoes, with the oval ones generally being the biggest. All three, however, were used to excavate earth or cultivate gardens, as shown by polish that extended several centimetres onto the blade from the working edge, which was often rounded off through heavy use. Figure 2, which shows the right hand of a figurine from the Mississippian period BBB Motor site in Illinois, illustrates how hoes were hafted and used (Emerson & Jackson 1984: Plates 5, 7). Occasionally the blades show some wear from where handles were attached much like the figurine's hoe. The majority of the tools were roughly the size of the flared specimen shown in Figure 1, also from Illinois (Milner 1984), and few were as large as the oval one. Notched hoes were often made from chert that did not naturally occur in large nodules (e.g. Kaolin chert), or were fashioned from previously broken tools.

Most hoes were made from Mill Creek chert that outcrops in south-western Illinois (Winters 1981; Milner 1984; Brown et al. 1990; Cobb 2000). It occurs naturally as large tabular nodules, many of which were dug from shallow pits that heavily pock the surface of quarry areas (Phillips 1899, 1900; Holmes 1919; Cobb 2000). Mill Creek chert was likely fashioned into hoes by households close to the stone's source (Muller 1997; Cobb 2000). Finished blades were exchanged throughout much of the Midwest, with a few reaching the south-east (Holmes 1919; Winters 1981; Brown et al. 1990; Muller 1997). Many ended up near Cahokia, the largest mound centre in the United States, located 160km from the quarries. In the Cahokia area, caches of hoe blades, either singly or in groups, have occasionally been found at both mound centres and outlying single-family farmsteads (Rau 1869; Throop 1928; Fecht 1951; Milner 1983, 1984). People hid the highly valued stone blades, both new and old ones, along house walls and in abandoned storage pits.


Replicas and excavation procedures

In the experiments reported here, two Mill Creek hoes were fashioned by a skilled flint knapper, Larry Kinsella (Figure 3).

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