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The Flint Knapper

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Tim Murphy of Hannibal was getting ready to move when I met him. No one likes to move, but for Murphy the 8,000-pound mound of flint in his back yard made the job a real challenge. His back was still aching from digging the stone out of a road cut in northeast Missouri six months earlier.

Murphy is a flint knapper who makes his living shaping stone into arrow points and knives. "I sell rocks," Murphy says, and that's true. But his finished replicas of Stone Age artifacts are art drawn from raw stone. Before moving all that rock, he was off on a trip to Italy to demonstrate flint knapping techniques, sharing his knowledge with university students and an archery club. He does demonstrations at Missouri schools, too.

And unlike most flint hobbyists, Murphy actually archery hunts with the broadheads he makes. In a recent season he killed a 9-point buck with an obsidian arrowhead and field-dressed the deer with a stone knife he also made.

He figures he is the third person in modern Missouri to kill a deer with a stone point, but the first to use a point he crafted himself. He shot the deer in the rib cage and says it ran only about 50 yards before collapsing. He still has the arrow that dropped the big buck, though its black, glasslike broadhead hangs from the sinew that held it to the point of the shaft. It pulled loose when Murphy removed it from the deer. The shot was no fluke; he earlier had taken five deer in five consecutive seasons with a recurve bow and steel broadheads.

Murphy likes to use Missouri and Texas chert and obsidian from Mexico for the points he actually hunts with. Obsidian makes the thinnest edge on an arrow point and is the sharpest, but it is more brittle than chert and more likely to break. He says the edge on the stone knife he used to dress the deer is durable, and that it easily sawed through the deer's ribs.

"You could have lined up three more deer for me to dress with no problem," Murphy says. "I'd put it up against any steel blade. Until you use one you cannot realize how good they are. Sharpening would only involve some pressure flaking, and I would have a razor-sharp edge again." European collectors prize Murphy's beautiful stone knives, some of them made from a Brazilian agate that glows when backlit.

Northeastern Missouri and western Illinois are something of a hotbed of flint knapping. When Murphy became interested he traveled to Campsville, Illinois, for an archaeology conclave that draws students from all over the world. He spent a weekend watching a renowned flint knapper make points, then went home and "got some rocks and commenced beating up my knuckles."

Murphy eventually contacted his instructor for more help. He still goes back a couple of times a year to visit and learn.

Flint is traditionally worked into points using an antler from a white-tailed deer, but Murphy soon began using a moose antler. Heavier and denser, it moves stone chips more rapidly than a deer antler. It's now Murphy's prime tool, and he is always on the lookout for legally-acquired moose antlers.

There are shortcuts in the process of flaking stone to make points and knives, but Murphy believes people should learn historical techniques first. "I wouldn't use any of the sawed slabs of stone or preformed pieces or any of the commercial tools until I knew I could take anything and chip it. You want to learn to use antlers to chip with first," he says.

Murphy, ever the traditionalist, says using preformed or sawed stone means there will be an unnatural smoothness to the stone, with no interruption or previous flaking scars to hinder the flow of energy when the knapper pressure flakes it. "Points made this way may appear perfect, with 16 flakes taken off each side," Murphy says. "If you ever see pieces that are absolutely perfect you can probably figure they were ground pieces, so the person who made them is not a flint knapper, but a flint grinder."

Flint knapping can be a frustrating craft to learn; in their struggles, people sometimes take a shortcut, using preformed stone or copper rods or billets. Murphy says the right way to learn the trade is using native chert that is tough and not easily worked.

"It forces you to set up platforms, to get accuracy down, to get velocity down. Then, when you go to a piece of heated stone, it's like carving soap. But I would never use heated stone until I could make points out of raw stone." He says making knife blades is similar to making arrowheads, but that the bigger pieces of stone are easier to handle. Primitive people learned that it was easier to shape stone tools when the material had been heated. Murphy used to heat stone by burying it in the ground in an outdoor fire. Rainy weather curbed his activities a couple of winters and, in a bow to technology, he bought a kiln. He heats the stone to about 500 degrees, then allows it to cool.

"Heating lets the stone loosen up a little bit. It gets color, and it glosses up a bit," Murphy says. Heated chert shows an array of subtle colors. "In the Woodland Hopewell time period, basically all the flint was heated before it was worked, but you get back to the Archaic Paleo time period and little stone was heated."

There are two ways flint knappers strike chips from stone to form artifacts. Percussion flaking involves striking or hitting the edge of the stone with a tool. Pressure flaking uses pressure; the artisan pushes in and down on the stone at the same time with a piece of antler. In indirect percussion, the tool doing the flaking is struck with something else, such as a heavy piece of moose antler.

With tons of rock in his possession, Murphy is something of a poet when talking about chert and obsidian. "The stone has energy in it . . . it is energy, and there is a certain part of myself in it," he says. "I'm not saying I am a New Age, New World worshiper of rock, but there is a vibration in it. Quartz crystal . . . they grind it up and fuse it and make space shuttle glass out of it. It has to withstand the heat. It's neat stuff."

He also likes the spirit and meaning behind primitive archery. He has two bows made of Osage orange wood, the American Indians' favorite bow wood. Both were shaped by friends. Murphy made stone tools, like an adz, to help harvest and form the wood for bow making. Friends make and fletch arrow shafts for him; he attaches his own points to them. Murphy skinned a deer using a stone scraper, and another archer has taken a deer with one of his stone broadheads.

The arrow points he hunts with weigh about the same as a steel point, and he says they shoot wonderfully and fly true to the mark. He uses a grain scale and makes his points range between 110 and 130 grains, saying they shoot without much variance at 20 yards. The steel points he used to shoot weigh about 125 grains, and his stone points are similar; he adds that the lighter ones may shoot a little high. He also makes arrowheads for practice shooting as well as hunting broadheads. When he hunts, he carries only stone points-there is no steel to fall back on.

He likes obsidian points because they are so sharp; he buys the obsidian in chunks or in sawed pieces.

"Many people here don't value flint knapping," Murphy says. "If a child wants one of my arrowheads, a parent may say, 'Oh, your dad has some of those in a shoe box at home.' But now and then you get someone who comes along and sees it in a different light, sees and understands the art of it. It's an artisan thing." He thinks the old ways of living are disappearing as the world becomes more caught up in technology. Murphy smiles when he says, "I think I'm becoming an antique."

Murphy displays his work at shows in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. His pieces also are sold at shops in South Dakota and Italy. He says flint knapping is strictly a commercial business for him, and that he does not misrepresent his work. He doesn't want people to mistake it for archaeological artifacts, and he often uses exotic stones that anyone with a little knowledge of flint knapping would immediately recognize as modern and not primitive. "You can heat treat a knife blade, but no one would think it was authentic because primitive knife blades were never heated," he says.

"If I wanted to cheat, I could be getting $450 for a piece rather than $45. I avoid people I suspect of that; they don't get invited to Italy to demonstrate their art." Murphy says he is suspicious of customers looking for authentic pieces made of raw stone. He says most people buy his work just to display it at home. Knife collectors often want to have at least one stone knife among their collection of steel blades. Murphy urges people to use his pieces to hunt with as well as for show.

Tim Murphy is keeping alive an art form that helped humans thrive in a time when the only meat available for dinner was the meat you killed and dressed yourself. He hopes one day to help teach American Indians a craft that many have never encountered in their modern lives. With the gumption to move 8,000 pounds of rock with him on his journey through life, Murphy should have no problem with that task.

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