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Harvey Hughett's Autobiography

By Harvey Hughett

I've always loved the mystique associated with Native American stone tools, particularly well-made projectile points. I grew up in East Tennessee and each spring our farm plows would turn up arrowheads and atlatl points. I got into trouble more than once for skipping farm chores and looking for arrowheads instead. We'd plow in the fall and winter's rains would wash the dirt off the points, making them easy to spot in the spring. The Battle of Bulls Gap was fought near our place so I'd sometimes find Civil War Minie balls and cannon ball remnants. Each and every point (or fragment) had a story to tell but I could only imagine what that was. Learning to knap points has made me appreciate even more the ingenuity of Native Americans and the craft of making serious weapons from rocks that one can find lying on the ground. Although schooling, work and family obligations have tended to limit time spent on my interest in Native Americana over the years, my mind has never been far from it. And, during this time I have amassed huge pile of obsidian, agates, cherts, flints and opals that I'm anxious to break into. Sometimes searching for new rock is almost as fun as making points.

It's been so long ago that I got involved with Puget Sound Knappers that I don't remember the precise year but it's a great group and what one learns at the PSK knap-ins is exceeded only by the intense camaraderie. I'll always remember being pulled aside years ago by Joe Higgins at the Rainbow dig at Glass Buttes, OR and given an on-the-spot knapping lesson (He could tell that I was in need of some serious tutoring!). He knocked out a great desert side-notch in just a few minutes. I still have the point he made and I clearly remember his admonition of "platforms and ridges!" PSK has been a great group to be associated with and I've learned much more with my associations there than I did from books or videos. Seeing the flaking process first-hand, then having an accomplished knapper look over one's shoulder and critique every step in trying to mimic the technique is priceless to an aspiring knapper.

Later I signed up for Craig Ratzat's knapper's training school at Glass Buttes (www.neolithics.com). He takes both neophytes and veterans through the processes of digging and spalling rock and making preforms to completing finished pieces in one week. A woman in the class by the name of Betty Roberts made more than a few of us guys envious by picking up knapping quicker than we did. She later went on to make and sell arrowhead ear rings and necklaces. She also made more than a few very large and beautifully flaked blades that were in well over a foot in length (Yes, size does matter). At one time she had a hand injury and, rather than stop knapping, she built a device that allowed her to continue without stressing her joints. Making points is a productive hobby but her major love is making and selling custom spinning wheels. She is a master and the wheels that she makes are so good that a web-based club is based around the use of her equipment.

Craig Ratzat learned knapping from some of the knapping pioneers in the US. Interestingly, almost all of the early (historic) rock-chipping "pioneers" learned to knap from classes taken from Don Crabtree, unarguably the Father of Modern Flintknapping. I worked for three decades at the University of Idaho where the Crabtree collection is housed and a former curator of the collection would let me look at (and occasionally fondle) Crabtree's points. The art and breath of his work are amazing. He could replicate very well any type of point or eccentric. Among some of the techniques that he re-discovered was how to reliably flute points. A series of video tapes on Crabtree used to be available from Idaho State University. It's interesting to talk with the best of today's knappers. When you find out who taught and influenced them, and if you investigate further who taught their mentors and where they learned the craft, it almost always will eventually lead back to Don Crabtree.

Since my interest in knapping started, I've rubbed shoulders with many knapper greats, some of whom regularly have their points displayed in the Knapper's Calendar (published by Derek McLean). The calendar is proof positive that knapping can be an art form. Currently, I aspire to obtain fancier rock and to perfect uniformity and flake scar patterns on thin, precisely-proportioned points. While most pre-history Native Americans made utilitarian points (just enough to get the job done was all that was required), it's obvious that a few early American "rock artists" took great pride in crafting beautiful points from extraordinarily beautiful rock. Some particularly nice prehistoric points were apparently ceremonial in function but I'm convinced that this is not the case for all. Ancients or not, the admiration of beauty and good work is pretty well universal throughout the world and has been for thousands of years. Because the northwest has so many beautiful agates, interesting volcanic glass and gemstone quality rock, it makes sense that the more gifted knappers would prefer to use these for special points. Obviously, most points were made with whatever rock was closest and easiest to obtain...even if it was basalt.

PSK members have been great to mentor me and I continue to work on new strategies for crafting various point types. As a personal challenge, during the past few years I've spent much of my knapping time perfecting flake-over grinding pressure flaking of blades up to 20" long. I mean, if a woman set the standard, I gotta try to equal that! I'm now ready to go back to making smaller but more interesting points of a wider variety. By this, I don't mean to discredit other great knappers who can make large blades. I saw Ratzat make a huge blade from a large obsidian boulder in less than 30 minutes....all while talking around a campfire. It was so dark you could hardly see what he was doing. Also, the large blades (and small) made by Cole Hurst and others are unarguably and simply astounding. I'm not that good by any means but I do have a secret weapon that's helping me close the gap a little (a "magnum" Ishi stick the likes of which I've not seen anywhere else).

Knappers whose personal tutoring or "training by example" who made a difference for me by setting the bar way high include many...but a few who come to mind offhand include Matt Trout (I've never met him personally but he spent a lot of time sending me partially finished pieces and careful diagrams for the next steps); Joe Higgins (patience of Job as a trainer and a treasure trove of pre-Columbian information), Craig Ratzat (rocks "talk" to him), Don Crabtree and Cole Hurst (mentioned above); Jim Miller (you gotta see him work!), Jim Redfearn (his serrated points are beyond belief), Ken Kurfust and others. Additional people contributed so much to the field of flintknapping that they, too, have had a meaningful impact on me. These include Bruce Bradley, J. B. Solberger, Woody Blackwell, Steve Allely, D. C. and Val Waldorf and, of course, through his beautiful knapping calendars, Derek McLean. Perhaps not as well known nationally would be people like the following greats here in the northwest: D. Pehling, J. Smith, M. Hill (he carefully plans each strike and hits hard), J. Greenwell, E. Thomas (I bought a LOT of rock from him), R. Urata (thanks for the great rock hunting tips you selfless guy!), E. Coons (best "hawk" percussion knapper known to mankind), B. Baughman (only thing bigger than his precise knapping hands is his kind heart), H. Dolph (his knowledge of Columbia River prehistoric stone artifacts is unparalleled), G. Sulham (proved to me that basalt points can be made), C. and Nine Fingers Calvert, J. Hopper, L. Gines (preform marvel), J. Keffer (father of the PSK web site), Mud Dancer Swiney (Missouri boy but he's not stubborn like you might expect), D. Rauschenberg (goes way beyond stone), S. Murdock (perhaps the best Native American knapper alive?), J. Riggs (helped put Glass Buttes on the map), A. Brown (strong knapping arms can drive 4" long and 1/2" wide pressure flakes) and W. Hammond (I witnessed him selling multi-thousand dollar obsidian knives at a Safari Club International meeting in Reno). Of course, I have to mention the inspiring work of Ishi and Kennewick Man's single-point collection! Also, I'm going crazy trying to find honey-colored chert as beautiful as that used by the pre-Columbian knappers of the Wenatchee points. But, most of all, I'm indebted to the nameless knappers who lost points on our farm in Tennessee many hundreds of years ago. I apologize for the absence of at least a dozen other great knappers that have influenced or befriended me at PSK knap-ins but my mind is blank right now and I'm going crazy trying to pull up their names on my mind's screen. It stinks to have a 4K memory in a multi-gigabit world.

I have many fond memories of PSK knappers and knap-ins. I've been shown how to find rock sources for various kinds of agates, jaspers, and opal. I've learned where to find obsidian in the types of rainbow, electric blue, electric green, pink lady, tiger stripe, pumpkin, black lace, spider web, fire and ice, green, blue-green, black translucent, black opaque, gold sheen, silver sheen, black with orange spots, red with black spots, mahogany, brown, black butter, and even seal hair! However, blood red, robin egg blue, and obsidian that looks really similar to black fire opal still elude my shovel.

Representative museums here in the northwest that deserve to be visited by knappers include the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, OR (it's beyond incredible); the fascinating county museum in Cashmere, WA; and the Herrett Museum in Twin Falls, Idaho. If you want to be totally humbled by early knapping achievements, you should go see the "Tennessee Swords" in the collection at the Frank H. McClung museum at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Today, there are some knappers who can replicate about anything in stone...but I don't think the largest Tennessee Swords have been equaled, even with modern rock saws and grinders.

Not long after I caught the knapping fever, I bought a 20" rock saw, diamond grinding wheels, and a kiln. Whether it's "cheating" by flake-over knapping of ground slabs or percussion by whacking boulders with a walnut-handled copper billet or simply using deer antler and beaver teeth, I like it all. BTW, I shot a moose and, to the dismay of my friends, made boppers made from the antler. Moose antler boppers are the best.

Currently I'm building two self-bows (Osage and yew), have a couple dozen period arrows in the making, some rattlesnake skins for camo bow backing, and hope to shoot an elk and bear with stone points I've made. Knappers have no excuse for getting bored.

What do I do with most of the points I make? I give them to my kids and grandkids. Four of them are learning to knap. So the cycle goes on.

Keep the chips flying and save some band-aids for me!