Many, if not indeed most, modern people know exactly the purpose of the small cylindrical tool that is used to bore holes in various materials – the drill.  This word could apply to the steel drill bits as well as the electric, pneumatic or even hand drilling machines for making holes in wood, metal, plastic and a variety of other materials.  The prehistoric American Indians also had the need to fashion holes in a variety of natural materials and through the ingenuity of one or many ancient people, they developed the rare and unusual stone drill.


These stone drills could possibly have been used by the ancient people when they came to America more than twelve thousand years ago and these natives were certainly using drilling devices by about ten thousand years in the past.  We know this because these drilling tools from that time period have been found.  These ancient drills would have been used to perforate bone, wood, shell, and even other stones.  They were made in several basic forms but most were all uniform in one way – they had sharp slender and usually rod-like or pencil-like pointed sections or shafts which did the actual hole boring.  Many of these drilling shafts were basically diamond shaped in cross section but some were in an almond shaped or in a narrow flattened form.  Some were simply the shaft while others had a base that took on the many stem shapes of the projectile points of the various periods and it is now believed that many of these drilling tools were simply reworked and/or expended spear, dart or arrow points.  The simplest forms, which are called pin drills, had no base – only the drilling shaft for its entire length.  Others are now called tee drills because they appear to be an inverted “T” from the English alphabet.  Some have straight stems as well as having side or corner notched bases all of which are typical of ancient projectile points that we call Kirk, Stanly, Morrow Mountain and Savannah River in the Southern Piedmont.  Others have the same type bases but have wide and flattened or sword shaped cutting bits and are called ensiform drills.  It is now believed these were used primarily for drilling the holes in the bowl portions of stone smoking pipes.  All ancient drilling, though, was not accomplished by using stone drills.  The prehistoric artisans also used hollow river cane or small tree stems along with sand and water to laboriously and slowly bore holes in various materials, even the hardest of stones such as quartz and granite.  This is known because the stone cores from the hollow cane drillings have been found. Drilling hard stone with a wooden drill is probably not something any of us would perform today.


Depending on the substance being drilled, these stone or wood/cane or even deer antler drills may have been held in the fingers of the ancient craftsmen while being rotated into the subject material or if the item to be excavated was more resistant, the drill bit may have been mounted in a wooden shaft and spun between the hands or even attached to a miniature bow.  It is difficult for us today to imagine the time required for a person to perforate some of these materials, especially hard stone, by using a sharpened piece of stone or even a piece of cane and sand and water but it did happen.  Time itself is relative to be measured by expectations suitable to the daily routines of the persons measuring said time. Since the ancient American natives did not have wrist watches and probably had no concept of time except on a day-time, night-time and a moon cycle basis, they were probably not greatly concerned as to whether it took them an hour, a week, a month or even a year to bore a hole into some solid resistant material.


In the Carolinas and Virginia, most of the stone drills, that have been found, were made of rhyolite or silicified shale with fewer examples made of quartz, jasper, quartzite, black mountain chert or the white coastal plains chert.  Stone drills are rare tools but have been found in numbers large enough to understand that the ancient people certainly had the need to bore holes in stone and other softer substances. As the stone drill dulled, which was probably often when other minerals were being bored, the prehistoric native would have re-sharpened the cutting blade by flaking or knapping new edges until the drill bit became so small it was deemed useless at which point it would have simply been tossed aside.  Probably most of the stone drills that have been found, in modern times, are broken in the actual drill bit portion because it is a small and narrow portion of the tool and therefore easily broken – very few whole or unbroken drills have ever been found.  In this region, most of the stone being drilled was soapstone or steatite which is a very soft talc material.  This steatite, as well as slate, limestone, granite and other harder minerals,   was used by the natives for bannerstones (believed to have been religious totems as well as spear thrower counterweights), pendants, gorgets, smoking pipes, beads and other decorative items.  Stone drills as well as cane or wood drills were also used to bore holes in marine and freshwater shell and animal bone, ceramics and probably wooden objects that have had relatively short existences because of our acidic soils.  So during your Indian artifact hunting adventures, if you find a long and narrow stone tool (or even a shorter one that was anciently discarded because of being too small to be useful), study the artifact and try to envision the ancient artisan who used this drilling implement to make a hole in some soft or hard substance.  This implement that was probably a necessary part of the ancient native’s life – this infrequently found stone drill.



Anderson, David G. & Kenneth E. Sassman                            1996



Bierer, Bert W                                                                                    1977



Cambron, James W. & David C. Hulse                                   1964


Coe, Joffre L.                                                                           1964

   “The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont”  TRANSACTIONS OF THE AMERICAN



Daniel, I. Randolph, Jr.                                                            1998



Swope, Robert Jr.                                                                    1982