Articles

THE PIEDMONT INDIAN CELTS

 

In the land that would eventually become the United States, the ancient natives made extensive use of the natural resources that were available to them.  There were millions of trees which were used for firewood, housing, hunting/fighting weapons and boats to name only a few types of wood products.  And these people needed a way to cut and shape these trees into usable forms – thus they invented the stone axe.   Initially these cutting tools were flaked from local cherts and flint-type materials which were later supplanted by pecked and ground axes with grooves to accommodate the hafting of the tool handle.   Then somewhere along the ancient time line, the people decided to change the shape of the axe head and eliminated the groove which made for a more efficient and easier to make tool.  This lead to the development of the Piedmont Indian Celts.

Today we do not exactly when the tool we call the celt was actually invented but it was in use by the Middle Archaic Period (4000 to 8000 BC) and possibly well before then.  The word we use for this tool comes for the ancient Celtic people of England though we have changed the pronunciation from the English Celt (or Kelt) to the American Celt (or Selt).  These un-grooved cutting tools were developed and used throughout the world by many people who possibly had or did not have contact with one another – thus the Western Hemisphere celt may not be an invention of the ancient Americans but simply a tool brought into this land, from other parts of the world, in very ancient times.

There are differences between the grooved axe and the celt beyond the obvious presence or lack of a groove.  The grooved axe is normally larger and heavier at the poll end while that extremity of the celt is the smallest and lightest part of the implement.  Even though very large celts have been found, these tools are usually smaller, lighter and more streamlined than the average grooved axe.  There are primarily two basic shapes for the celts found in the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Virginia.  One is a long isosceles triangle with the base or widest part of the geometric figure being the cutting edge or bit.  The other shape is a rectangle or trapezoid with the sides being parallel or somewhat so and a squared off poll end.  Some triangular shaped celts, though, have been found with very battered polls from being repeatedly hit with another tool thus giving them a more rectangular shape which was not the way they were initially made.   Archaeological research has, more or less, established that the triangular celts are probably from the Early Archaic into the Early Woodland Periods or circa 8000 BC to AD 500 while the more rectangular/trapezoidal shaped tools came along during the Middle Woodland into the Early Historic Periods or circa AD 500 to 1650. 

Careful examination of celts will often show that the shape or form often followed the natural shape of the original rock.  This means that if the maker wanted a finished long and narrow tool, he started with a long and narrow rock.  This is simple time saving efficiency which is a characteristic we humans possess.  The actual manufacturing process would have been to pound or peck the original selected stone to the desired finished shape by using a hard hammer stone after which the bit end would have been sharpened with a more abrasive rock.  This would have been followed by the entire tool or maybe only the bit end being polished using abrasive sand along with water or animal fat.  Some celts were flaked or knapped to shape and size and this chipping would have produced a sharp bit end that would probably require no more work.  The later time period celts seem to have more of an overall polish than the earlier ones but this may simply be because the acid soils in the Piedmont had a tendency to eat away at the surface polish the longer the tool was buried.  A tool that was originally well burnished could be found with little or no polish remaining after being in our soil for many hundreds or even thousands of years.  Since there was no groove to fit in a handle slot, the celt maker needed a way to haft this axe tool.  This was accomplished by cutting a hole into a suitably shaped wooden handle and forcing the narrow end of the triangular shaped device into this hole.  With this method of hafting, the more a tool was used, the tighter it was driven into the handle aperture.  This would not work, of course, with the rectangular shaped celts so the tool maker apparently tightened the appliance head into the haft by using small wooden wedges driven firmly between the stone tool and the handle opening.

The tools we call celts have been found throughout much of the United States as well as Canada and Mexico.  In the eastern half of our country, they have been found in many sizes from diminutive two inches in length to very large sizes of almost twenty inches long, though both these extremes are quite rare.  The Piedmont celts are normally discovered in the ranges of maybe three inches to about eight inches in overall size with the majority probably being in the four to six inch long range.  Celts, in this region, were made of many types of stone including granite, greenstone, diorite, gneiss, schist, basalt and other hard minerals.  Occasionally one will be found that is made of a relatively soft stone such as slate but these were most likely made for ceremonial/religious uses – not for chopping wood.  The preponderance of these regional celts were seemingly made of granite, greenstone or of indeterminate hard stones as well as the chipped axes being fabricated from rhyolite or silicified shale.  Strangely enough, almost completely absent from the celt artisan’s stone inventory are quartz and quartzite even though these are reasonably common minerals in the Piedmont.  One of the drawbacks to the celt as a woodworking tool is that being of smaller overall size and weight, it perhaps was not the best tool for cutting large trees because of lesser striking energy.  Modern archaeological experiments have been conducted with typical celts and the results showing that when chopping trees larger than about three inches in diameter, the average sized celt did not cut well and often merely bounced off the wood.  This leads to the theory that the heavier grooved axes were used in instances where more physical force was required.

The celt was a utilitarian cutting tool that was used for chopping wood and other hard substances though, undoubtedly, it was also used for warfare.  I was in use by the ancient Americans for maybe 8,000 years until it was replaced by the iron trade axes during the period beginning after AD 1500.  For some odd reasons, collectors seem to prefer the grooved axes over the non-grooved celts and maybe this is because of the more extreme sizes and weights of the grooved type tools.  But in terms of simplistic grace, few American Indian artifacts can compare with the style and elegant beauty of the Piedmont Indian Celts.

 

REFERENCES:

Coe, Joffre L., PhD                                                      1964

    “Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont”, TRANSACTIONS OF THE AMREICAN

   PHILISOPHICAL SOCIETY     

Dietrich, R. & B. Skinner                                             1979

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Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                 1957

    SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Hothem, Lar                                                                1989

    INDIAN AXES AND RELATED STONE ARTIFACTS

Hranicky, Wm. Jack                                                    1995

    PREHISTORIC AXES, CELTS, BANNERSTONES AND OTHER LARGE TOOLS IN VIRGINIA AND

    VARIOUS STATES

Hranicky, Wm. Jack                                                    2007

    EXPERIMENTAL ARCHAEOLOGY: A SCIENCE FOR STUDYING NATIVE AMERICAN PREHISTORIC

    TECHNOLOGY

Maus, James E.                                                           2007

    “The Celt”, THE PIEDMONT, Vol. 31, No.3

Rights, Douglas L.                                                       1947

    THE AMERICAN INDIAN IN NORTH CAROLINA     

Wetmore, Ruth Y.                                                       1975

    FIRST ON THE LAND: THE NORTH CAOLINA INDIANS