Articles

DOVER SPADES

Dover chert or flint (there seems to be some geological confusion as to exactly to which mineral family to which it belongs) is found in and around modern Stewart County, Tennessee near the town of Dover, from which it gets its name.  The source quarries have apparently been utilized by ancient Americans for hundreds and thousands of years to acquire material to make projectile points, knives, ceremonial items, and the unique tools that were used to prepare the soil for planting corn and other crops– the Dover spades.

Corn, also known as maize, is thought to have been brought into the current USA from Mexico around AD 800.  It was possibly first planted in modern Texas and then moved eastward along the Mississippi River valley and then further east and north into the current states of Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee.  Corn, along with squash and beans which had been previously brought into this country, totally changed the cultural life styles of the American natives.  For the first time, since their ancestors migrated to this country, these Indian people could settle into permanent villages and grow crops that could sustain them for a year or more.  But they needed to develop tools to enable them to actually plant, care for and harvest these horticultural crops.  The ancient ones, who lived near the quarries of this brown Tennessee chert/flint, had a very good source of easily flaked stone with which to make tools.  All they needed to do was invent implements that could be used to cultivate the soil for the purpose of growing the “three sisters” – squash, beans and corn.   And invent they did with the large flaked tools we today call spades.  Of course they probably were not used by the Amerinds as we use spades or shovels today.  These digging blades were most likely attached at a right angle to long handles in the manner that is very similar to the tools that today we call garden hoes.  This is speculation since no ancient spades or hoes with attached wooden handles have been found.  But based on accounts of early European travelers and modern archaeological investigations, there is most likely considerable truth to this conjectural shape of the handles and tool heads.

Dover chert or flint is a dense cryptocrystalline variety of quartz.  It is usually opaque and dense and when an artifact made of Dover is viewed, it will seem to be waxy and light to dark brown with black or very dark brown streaks.  These very dark coloring stripes are caused by organic compounds and/or metal sulfides.  Dover chert or flint is usually found in marly or chalky limestone as is present in the quarries along the Cumberland River near Dover, TN.  Often this mineral will show an abundance of bryozoan fossil skeletons (also known as “moss-animals) that may date the stone substrate to the Cambrian period or 450 million years ago.

The early Europeans and Americans, who traveled through northern Tennessee, made notes about the natives and their vast corn fields.  They saw that in the villages, there was always simmering a large pot of soup comprised of corn and most anything else that happened to be thrown in. This liquid food, that the Indians called sofkes, was there for anyone, villager or visitor, to eat his or her fill.  They also noted that during the planting season, both men and women prepared the fields and rows and initially planted the corn and later the beans and squash seeds.  The bean vines used the grown corn stalks for vertical support and also fixed nitrogen into the soil which was needed by the heavy feeding corn. The squash plants (summer squash, winter squash and pumpkins) covered the soil which kept it cool and more weed free and their prickly vines gave some protection against harmful insects.  Even though it is generally accepted, today, that the work in the fields was accomplished only by women, that belief is probably not true. Again going back to notes from the early Europeans, both men and women cultivated the fields while elderly natives and children watched over the crops in order to scare away harmful birds and animals.   In some scientifically excavated burials of adult men, these large Dover chert/flint spades have been found which suggests that they were cherished tools of the male farmers.  These horticultural digging blades, which have been found up to eighteen inches in length, are usually two to four times longer than wide and are thick enough to withstand being driven into the ground many times in order to loosen the soil and chop away weeds.  They are mostly percussion flaked with only minor pressure flaking.  One of the narrow ends or bits was normally determined to be the soil digging point and often that end, on recovered examples, carries considerable polish from being used for soil cultivation for several growing seasons or perhaps even for a great  many years.  Of course some of these utensils were probably turned 180 degrees in their handles and both ends were utilized to chop and cut and are today called double bitted spades.  As the cutting edges dulled, they would have been re-chipped with a new sharp bit so as to more easily dig the hard soil and to extend the life of the tool.  These are not commonly found implements in spite of the stories about corn fields covering entire alluvial plains for hundreds and even thousands of acres.  This rarity is probably because they would have been re-sharpened until the tools were too small to be useful as hoes/spades and then probably altered into entirely new items such as projectile points or knives or hide scrapers.  The inventive Indians could not afford to be wasteful with their cherished farming spades or any other tools.  Their livelihood depended on these daily used digging utensils that we call artifacts - these tools that we hold and revere as works of ancient art - these tools that were knapped hundreds of years ago by natives using the brown chert found along the river that would later be named the Cumberland - these tools that we call Dover spades.

 

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