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STONES USED BY THE PIEDMONT INDIANS - PART II

In the first part of the series about the rocks used by the prehistoric natives of the Piedmont, the discussion was about the various minerals used to make flaked stone projectile points, knives and blades.  This part will cover the rocks used to make stone vessels, ornamental objects and axe type tools.

Steatite (Soapstone)

Steatite or soapstone is a naturally found metamorphic mineral rock composed primarily of talc but also contains combinations of chlorite, mica, quartz, tremolite, magnetite and iron compounds.  Talc itself is a hydrous silicate of magnesium which means it is the mineral magnesium along with silica (sand) and water.  Steatite is normally grey to brown to green and feels greasy or soapy to the touch, hence the common name – soapstone.  It is a unique stone since it is soft enough to carve with sharp tools when removed from the mother rock outcropping but is dense and close grained and has a very high transverse strength and high resistance to crushing.  It is chemically inert meaning it is not affected by most acids and alkali.  Many laboratory table tops are made of steatite for this reason.  It is non-absorbent, non-staining and unaffected by extreme heat and cold.  These attributes plus being relatively common lead prehistoric and historic period man to make extensive use of the mineral. 

Steatite, also known as potstone, speckstone and topfstein as well as soapstone, is found worldwide and was formed 300 to 400 million years ago.  In the USA, it is found in weathered outcroppings in the East from Georgia to Maine and is also found along the Pacific coastline.  Steatite formations are found in the Piedmont and mountains of the Carolinas and Virginia that show extensive usage by ancient man.  Some of these outcroppings even were used to carve petroglyphs.

As stated before, steatite carves easily and is resistant to heat.  For these reasons, the Amerinds began using the stone during the Archaic Period to make implements that needed these qualities – namely cooking vessels and smoking pipes.  When extensively heated, steatite hardens and begins to vitrify or change to glass.  That is why so many steatite pipes are very hard and have a glossy glass-like feel and appearance.  But wait!  Most steatite pipes are black and as noted above, the natural mineral is grey, brown or green – never black.  So how did these pipes become black.  There are two answers to this question.  First the pipes changed color because of constant handling with the natural oils in the human hand gradually altering the color to black.  You could carve a steatite implement today and rub it with some oil and it will darken.  With enough rubbing and enough oil, it will become black.  But there is another reason that steatite pipes are usually black and that is because they are not all steatite.  Some of these pipes are instead made of naturally black or very dark grey serpentine or chlorite.  It would take an extremely skilled geologist to determine if a given pipe is steatite or some other pipe material.  Since most collectors are not geologists, we usually lump all black Southeastern pipes into the category of steatite.

During the Archaic to the Woodland Periods, ancient man also used steatite to make cooking vessels and ornamental objects such as beads, pendants, gorgets and bannerstones.   Very few intact steatite bowls have survived a few thousand years since they were utilitarian items that probably did not receive the care of a pipe or decorative object and also since they were large and heavy, they were more easily dropped and broken.  The decorative artifacts, pendants and gorgets and such, are found in the Piedmont and though many are found broken, a large percentage are found intact.  That does not mean these items are plentiful because they are all rare.  They are normally found in the grey or brown or green colors but occasionally a black one is found.  These ceremonial/religious objects are usually well made and polished though a few are simply lumps of steatite with one or more holes in them so they can be suspended around a person’s neck.

So the next time you find a whole or broken steatite artifact, even a simple bowl sherd, remember the Indian hundreds or thousands of years ago, who had the inventiveness to use our very odd mineral that was soft enough to carve with a sharp tool but hardened almost like steel with the application of heat – Steatite or Soapstone.

Granite

Granite is a crystalline igneous rock primarily composed of quartz, feldspar and mica but may also contain hornblende, muscovite and other minerals.  It was crystallized many millions of years ago from volcanic magma that slowly cooled beneath the surface of the earth.  Along with other crystalline rocks, granite forms the foundation of the earth’s continental masses and is the most common intrusive mineral exposed at the surface.  It is a coarse grained rock with individual crystals as large as 3/16 inch in diameter that are easily seen by the naked eye.  Prehistoric man in the Piedmont had access to this mineral and used it for a multitude of material items.  Beginning at least as the Early Archaic Period, man made axes from granite and continued to use it for that purpose until into the Historic Period around AD 1600 to 1700.  A piece of the stone was procured and the tool was pecked to shape using a hard hammerstone.  The tool would have then been polished and sharpened so it could have been used to cut wood and/or in warfare.  The granite grooved and un-grooved axes found in this region are usually grey-white to dark grey with a speckled appearance but they can be red, red-brown or tan depending on the mineral makeup and the soil where found.  Probably sixty to seventy percent of the axes found in the Piedmont are made of granite.

Granite was also used by the natives, particularly during the Archaic and Early Woodland Periods, to make bannerstones which were spear thrower counterweights and also probably were used as ornamental objects.  These artifacts take many shapes from round rocks to long and narrow and thin objects and all had a hole in the center through which a spear thrower shaft or some type of staff was placed.  They are certainly problematic meaning we may never exactly know the usage of these artifacts by the ancient natives of the area.  Granite was also used to make stone pendants and gorgets but rarely.  These small and flat objects had a hole (pendant) or two holes (gorget) so they could be suspended around a person’s neck.  Bannerstones, pendants and gorgets are very rare in granite with the reason probably being that the mineral is very hard and most likely difficult to make into these items and because steatite was plentiful and much easier to facilitate into the item

Greenstone

Greenstone is a bit of a catch-all term is that it covers several types of hard stones.  The common denominator of these minerals is that they are chlorite rich and were formed from more than 500 millions years ago on the top of pre-existing base of granite and gneissic rocks.  A piece of greenstone, when freshly broken, will clearly show a greenish color, hence the name, but an axe or celt made of greenstone will have patinated to colors that vary from tan to grey to brown depending to amount of chlorite and the minerals in the soil.  The texture of greenstone axes/celts is usually medium grained and may look like the stone has been sandblasted.  Some axe/celts made of this mineral were well polished initially and may retain some of the polish today but a great many will appear dull and slightly granular.  There will be no crystal phenocrysts to be seen on the rock surface.  Probably less than twenty-five percent of axes/celts found in the Piedmont were made of greenstone.  The stone was used by all cultures from Archaic into the Historic Period but seems to have been used mostly for Archaic grooved axes.

Gneiss

Gneiss (pronounced NICE) is a high grade metamorphic mineral that was formed billions of years ago from sedimentary rock such as sandstone or schist or from metamorphism of such igneous rocks as granite or diorite.  Gneiss is composed of the same minerals as granite but because it was formed from extreme heat and pressure over a longer period of time, the minerals have been layered into distinct bands.  The word gneiss comes from an old German word meaning sparkling or bright.  It is usually a two tone grey of alternating light colors (feldspar and quartz) and dark colored minerals (hornblende and biotite mica) and will have a bright and almost sparkling appearance.  It was used by all cultures in the Piedmont for axes and celts and their texture will be coarse-grained and usually dark grey but with the multi-colored layers clearly visible.  Gneiss artifacts are quite often difficult to identify and many are simply called granite.  It was only rarely used by the ancients in this region with, most likely, only one or two percent of axes found being the stone with the funny name – gneiss.

Diorite

Diorite is an igneous rock similar to granite but with more hornblende and feldspar and less quartz.  The granular make-up of diorite is fine to medium-coarse and the colors can be dark grey to black and it may seem to be speckled if it contains enough quartz and if the individual phenocrysts are large.  It was normally used only for axes and celts in the Piedmont and these tools will usually be patinated to black and often are well polished.  It was used in all time periods from the Archaic to the Historic but seems to have been favored mostly for Archaic three-quarter grooved axes and Woodland celts with probably no more than a few percent of these tools being made by this beautiful mineral – diorite. 

There were a few other minerals used by the ancient people in the Piedmont for vessels, axe type tools and ornaments. These will include such stones as quartzite, quartz, basalt, limestone and schist but the five rocks listed above will cover at least ninety-nine percent of the minerals used in this region by the American Indians.