Articles

AN EXTRAODINARY VIRGINIA SLATE KNIFE

 

The Commonwealth of Virginia has produced many types of minerals throughout its large territory.  The western portion of the state has coal mines and within those excavations is occasionally found the mineral slate.  And at least one ancient American Indian used a piece of that fine-grained stone to make this extraordinary Virginia slate knife.

 

Slate is a relatively soft stone being at a hardness range of 3 to 4 on the Mohs mineral harness scale where the diamond rates a hardness of 10.  Slate is a foliated metamorphic rock derived from sedimentary volcanic ash or altered shale.  It is primarily composed of quartz and muscovite and often also includes biotite, hematite, chlorite and clay minerals.  It is found throughout the world in a variety of colors including gray, red, purple, green, brown and black.  Today this layered stone is used mostly for house roof shingles and walkways but during the prehistoric era in the southeast, the natives would not have used the slabs for those purposes.  It was used, instead, for making ceremonial items.  It is now believed that the Amerinds did not use this stone for any purposes until the Middle to Late Archaic Period (4,000 to 3,000 BC) and extending into the Woodland era as late as maybe AD 1500.  By then, the natives were fully exercising the beliefs in their various deities and they made many types of icons to be used in these religious duties.  These Amerinds constructed ceramic vessels in the forms of frogs and fish and birds so as to eulogize the animals that were so freely given as food to the people by their gods.  They also used marine and freshwater mollusk shells for various symbolic jewelry type articles and converted soft stone such as steatite, limestone and slate into smoking pipes since it is now believed that inhaling native tobacco smoke was often a religious exercise.   They additionally used these soft minerals to create pendants and ear ornaments to further extol their reverence to their gods.  And probably during the Woodland Period, a stone artisan did create this rare slate knife form.

 

The ancient Americans, in the southeast, used various types of chert, quartz and rhyolite to fashion or “knapp” the sharp tools they needed for the daily cutting of plants and animals for food as well as making items of leather and wood.  The usage of these stones for making sharp knives and spearpoints possibly began in Asia well before the Amerinds crossed the frozen Bering Sea land bridge more than 12,000 years ago.  These are hard rocks that were flaked into tools and which would have retained their sharp cutting edges for a long period of time – and this hard mineral complex certainly did not include soft stones such as slate.

 

In the western finger of land in the Old Dominion state, people have been finding and collecting ancient Indian artifacts for many years.  One of these collectors, a man by the name of Jim Humphrey lived in Bristol, Virginia and accumulated a collection of ancient tools that numbered in the thousands.  His assemblage included, among other artifacts, this extremely rare spear point or knife type artifact made of slate.  But it could not actually have been used as a spear point or knife since slate is obviously too soft to have been used for any piercing or cutting purposes.  Jim Humphrey has now passed away and did not leave any exact references as to where he found this ceremonial knife/point other than Smyth County, Virginia.  The 3 3/4" inches long blade is made of dark grey slate that probably came from the coal mining region in extreme western Virginia.  It is shaped much like an Archaic Period point named Morrow Mountain that dates to 6,000 to 4,000 BC.   But there is no scientific information available that proves the natives living at that more cient time made any type ceremonial or religious slate knife type artifacts.  Based upon an educated guess, it is believed that this blade was made in the AD 1000-1700 time period and was perhaps was a copy of an earlier Morrow Mountain type spearpoint/knife that had been found by a  native during this later time.  Since the Americans living in that Woodland Period time used the bow and related arrow with the smaller (one to two inches long) arrow points, they would have no need for such a lengthy blade.  And since it is made of the soft mineral slate, they could not have used it as a knife for cutting chores. Today we also believe that the natives living in the area at that time were disciples of various gods, so a good guess is that this knife/blade was made strictly as a ceremonial object to be used in some religious fete. 

 

Slate could not have been knapped to shape this ritualistic knife because, being a foliated mineral it would have simply split into thin layers if a stone worker tried to flake it as would have been done if it were chert or rhyolite.  The process to shape most any artifact of slate is called pecking in which a piece of the soft stone was hammered or pecked with a much harder stone thus removing small pieces each time it was struck.  With enough time and energy, the stone worker would have achieved the final desired shape – be it a pendant, a pipe or this stone knife.  The piece would have then been polished using fine sand and water or animal fat so as to remove the pecking marks.

 

This artifact is definitely an aberration since it appears to be a knife/spearpoint but could not have functioned as such because of the softness of the mineral slate.  So that probably leaves the purpose as something religious or ceremonial. Perhaps it was worn by clan leader as a pendant.  Or possibly it was tucked into a medicine bag carried by a healer or priest.  Or maybe the craftsman kept it to show his friends so they could be awed by his stone working ability.  Of course we modern humans will never know just why or even exactly when this remarkable artifact was created.  But we do know that someone made and left for us to enjoy this extraordinary Virginia slate knife.

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Converse, Robert N.                                              1978

    OHIO SLATE TYPES

Dietrich R. & B. Skinner                                        1979

    ROCKS AND MINERALS

Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman      1957

    SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Griffin, James B., Editor                                        1952

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE EASTERN UNITED STATES

Hothem, Lar                                                                        1994

    NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN ARTIFACTS

Hothem, Lar                                                                        2007

    ORNAMENTAL INDIAN ARTIFACTS

Hudson, Kenneth                                                   1972

    BUILDING MATERIALS

Taylor, Colin F.                                                        2005

    NATIVE AMERICAN WEAPONS