Articles

THE WATAUGA CEREMONIAL PICK

According to the dictionary, a pick is a tool consisting of a slightly curved metal bar with one or two sharp ends set on a wooden handle and is used to loosen soil.  Prehistoric American Indians made similar appearing implements that today are called Picks because they basically resemble the dirt digging tool.  However they were made of stone, not metal.  And they were usually straight not curved.   And most were probably not used for working soil. 

The American Indian Ceremonial Pick is normally an eight to twelve inches long stone tool that looks something like a giant bi-pointed toothpick.  The cross section shape varies from round to ob-round to square and they taper from the mid line toward each end and may terminate somewhat bluntly or into a chisel like ends.  The lithic materials used by the ancients for these tools include several minerals such as slate, granite, diorite and greenstone.  The manufacturing process would have been to find a suitable size rock and strike it continually with a hammer stone until the required shape had been achieved and then the Pick would have been polished using fine sand with a carrier such as water or animal fat.  The time period during which these artifacts were made and used is somewhat questionable.  They were certainly being made during the Woodland Period, possibly as early as AD 500, and continued to be made into the Mississippian Period that ended around AD 1550.  They have been found, though rarely, from present day Georgia north through the Carolinas into Virginia, westward into Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana and south through Tennessee into Alabama.  Since most of these implements are in private collections, there is no way to accurately determine just how many have been found but a reasonable estimate would be fewer than one hundred.  An even more difficult question to answer is the use the prehistoric Americans made of the Pick.  Very few known examples show any damage or usage wear except some few found in Ohio, so they were probably not primarily earth digging tools.  The exact use of the prehistoric Pick will most likely never be known but an educated guess would be some ancient ceremonial/religious purpose. 

Picks were probably made in different parts of our country at different times.  More Picks  have been found in Midwest than any other region, where they were made and used by the Intrusive Mound Culture, circa AD 600-1000.  These are usually oval to semi-circular in shape, are sometimes slightly curved and are normally eight to twelve inches in length.  They often taper on each end into a flattened chisel shape and the most frequently used material was diorite.  Since the Intrusive Mound people often buried their dead in the sides of the earthen mounds left by the more ancient Hopewell Culture, it would seen obvious that their Picks would have been used for the purpose of digging burial holes but only a few of these tools from that culture show any wear from digging.  In the southerly regions, the Picks are more straight in length, round in cross section, have more blunted ends and greenstone appears to be the preferred material.  These probably date later than the more northern examples and most would fall into the Mississippian Period which varies, depending on the locale, from as early as around AD 1000 to as late as AD 1550.

The Watauga Pick was found in Watauga County, North Carolina and is made of dark brown greenstone.  It is eight and three-eighths inches long and the diameter at the rounded mid line is seven-eighths of an inch.  It is well polished and worn probably from being revered and touched and held by many hands over many years which would solidify the supposition that Picks were somehow ceremonial in use.  It is one of only three known Picks found in the Tar Heel state, though it is certainly possible that there are others in private collections.  The other two recognized NC Picks are of a similar size and shape, both are also greenstone and both are also from mountain counties, Madison and Henderson.  The Watuaga Pick, as well as the other two found in NC, most likely date to the South Appalachian Mississippian Period or AD 1400-1550.  We will probably never know the exact purpose to the ancients of this excellent and unusual implement but the purpose for us today is pure artistic enjoyment of the rare Watauga Ceremonial Pick.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Berner, John F.                                               1998

            “In Pursuit of Artifact Documentation”, PREHISTORIC AMERICAN, Vol.XXII,

            No. 1

Converse, Robert N.                                       1978

            THE OHIO SLATE TYPES

Cooper, Steven R.                                           2008

            “The Mysterious Intrusive Mound Pick”,  CENTRAL STATES

            ARCHAEOLOGICAL JOURNAL, Vol. 55, No. 3

Hothem, Lar                                                    1989

            INDIAN AXES & RELATED STONE ARTIFACTS