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Folsom Techniques

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  • Folsom Techniques

    By Bob Patten

    Folsom points draw inordinant attention by their unique design, but their means of construction has largely remained mysterious. The following essay shares insights gained from nearly fifty years of experimentation, guided by comparison to the archaeological record. The artifacts shown were salvaged from a site being exposed by gully erosion in the mountains of southern Colorado. Replicas (labeled) were made by the author.

    Figure 1.

    The two biface fragments in Fig. 1 are typical of Folsom technology, with flake scars that run far across the faces. Before a projectile point was pressed into service, the archaeological record suggests that roughly 150 flakes were extracted from as many as three cores, to be used as camp tools. By delaying the removal of each tool flake until it was ready to be used, Folsom craftsmen achieved the greatest mobility, allowing every scrap of stone carried from the quarry to be used effectively. Flutes were just two more specialized flakes among nearly 200 others.

    Broken bases of preforms (Fig. 2) frequently demonstrate that the first face was refined and fluted before attempting the second flute.

    Figure 2.

    The first flute was removed successfully from the next specimen (Fig. 3). Retouch on the second face is almost always more closely spaced because the preform is narrower. When this preform split in two during the final fluting attempt, it left a clear record of the sequence of events.

    Figure 3.

    Some replicas (Fig. 4) show the relationship between the preform and detached flute.

    Figure 4.

    Figure 5.

    Many techniques have been advanced to explain how Folsom points were fluted. Since they all work to some degree, it is difficult to say with complete assurance which particular method is "right." However, based on the physics of fracture, and archaeological evidence, I favor direct percussion against an anvil base (Fig. 6). This approach requires no special equipment or change in flake removal practices beyond what would have been needed to provide camp tools.

    Figure 6.

    Seldom can Folsom points be found in the pristine condition represented by the next replica (Fig. 7). Evaluation of archaeological evidence leads me to believe that as few as a dozen points per person would have been needed each year. Retrieval and re-use would have been essential for minimizing trips to the quarry.

    Figure 7.

    Original makers of Folsom points may have been most proud of the point that survived the most uses - sometimes called a slug (Fig. 8). Experiments suggest that each point averaged about five hits, causing them to lose about sixty percent of the starting length.

    Why, after achieving what many consider a pinnacle of flintknapping, was the practice of fluting abandoned? I believe that it had to do with a change of climate. During the peak of Folsom practice, a wet climate allowed bison to flourish but also made their location unpredictable. Drier times helped hunters anticipate good hunting locales near fewer remaining water sources. I believe fluting arose as a way to travel farther away from quarries. When less travel was required and stone did not have to be conserved so rigorously, fluting disappeared.

    More information about fluted points can be found in Bob Patten's book Peoples Of The Flute: A Study in Anthropolithic Forensics, available through Stone Dagger Publications.

    In 2004, the Society for American Archaeology honored Bob with the Crabtree Award in recognition of his fifty years of reconstructing knapping processes. He has authored two books: Old Tools - New Eyes: A Primal Primer of Flintknapping and Peoples of the Flute: A Study in Anthropolithic Forensics. Now retired from the USGS, he demonstrates flintknapping annually at the Loveland, Colorado Stone Age Fair. You may have seen Bob make a Clovis point in the NOVA video "The Search for the First Americans", first aired in 1990. Each of his replicas is initialed and dated with a diamond scribe.

    Published in the G.I.R.S. Journal: Prehistoric American, Vol.41, No.4 and used by permission.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2
    By Jeb A. Taylor

    Folsom points are surrounded by a mystique that is absent from most other types of projectile points. This is partly because in their early stages of use cycling, they are among the most beautiful points ever made and partly because even after many thousands of hours of replication studies, no one has yet been able to demonstrate convincingly how they were made. A number of modern knappers have managed to produce reasonable facsimiles of Folsom points, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to do so consistently with aboriginal technology, matching the morphologies of the different stages of aboriginal preforms (which exhibit a remarkable degree of consistency), or producing similar debitage in the process (which is also very consistent aboriginally). In any event, Folsom points are (and probably always were) very difficult to make.

    Figure 1: Ten primary and/or early stage Folsom points from the High Plains. They are (top row): North Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, North Dakota, (bottom row): Colorado, Wyoming, Colorado, Colorado, and North Dakota. Remarkably, one individual was fortunate enough to find two of these points (the center points in the upper and lower rows). (private collection)

    Folsom points, because of their amazingly thin axial cross sections, are also very fragile, so very few primary stage examples have survived. Consequently, most collectors believe that they are generally rather small. It is true that many Folsom points were not much over 2" long when they were made, but many were also 3" to 4" long, and a few recovered broken points and preforms suggest the possibility that some were closer to 5" long! Remarkably, even the largest of these points/preforms seldom exhibit thicknesses between their flute channels that exceed 3.4 mm (the thickness of 2 quarters).

    The Folsom points in Figure 1 are of primary or close to primary stage examples. The KRF example (lower right) was actually damaged and reworked distally and along the right margin all the way to the base - and it is still about 76 mm (3") long.

    Figure 2: A failed Folsom point preform, an early stage projectile point, and a "slug" - all KRF and all from North Dakota (private collections).

    Figure 2 shows a broken and glued KRF Folsom preform that failed on the B side flute attempt, an early stage Folsom point, and a late stage Folsom point known as a "slug." For reference, the preform is 102.82 mm (4") and would probably not have lost much or any of its length as a finished point if the preform had not failed. Remarkably, both portions of this preform were found on a beach by the same individual four years apart. Examples such as these help provide diagnostic information regarding Folsom point production. It is also worth noting here that the distal portion of this preform could easily have been salvaged and made into a finished point that would have been more than 60 mm (2.4") long, but its maker decided instead to abandon it.

    Figure 3: A very late stage Folsom point preform that failed during the final margin pressure flaking (a very unusual occurrence). An attempt was made to re-tip the proximal section of this preform, but it was abandoned before completion, possibly upon realization that the finished point would be too short for its intended purpose (author's collection).

    Published in the G.I.R.S. Journal: Prehistoric American, Vol.41, No.4 and used by permission.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.