Friday, March 28, 2014

Of Stone Tools and Sustenance: Mystery Artifact Revealed

As I'd suspected, a number of archaeologist-friends were quick to spot and identify this artifact, a gunflint used on a flintlock mechanism for triggering the firing of a black-powder gun:

Many friends also mentioned that gunflints are some of their favorite artifacts to find on archaeological sites!  I would have to agree, as the color of the flint from which the tool was made can give clues as to its origins, which in turn hints at who might have lived on or used that site.  As you can see in the photo below, gunflints made of European flint can be honey- or amber-colored or a dark grey, almost black color (flint was the name originally applied to high-quality cherts found in Europe, but there is really very little difference between European flints and cherts from around the world).

It is commonly held that high-quality honey-colored flint, as was used in the first two gunflints pictured, usually originated in France, while the darker piece came from chalky soils in England.  The shape of the worked flint can also give clues to the piece's origin:  the first piece is called a spall type as it came from a large flake or spall knocked/knapped off the flint core, the second piece is called a blade type (and more blade-type flints could be made from a core, leading to a more efficient use of flint), and the last piece made from English flint I have seen called both blade- and prism-type flints.  All three types are found throughout Illinois on French Colonial, Early British American, and 19th-century American sites.

Our gunflint pictured above came from the Ohio/Nine Gal Tavern site, as did several musket balls (as we are still working on processing the collection, it is possible that several more gunflints, pieces of shot, or even portions of firing mechanisms might turn up in the collection, as well)!  It appears to be made of high-quality English flint, and it would have been placed in the hammer or cock of the flintlock mechanism (from which we have the verb cocking a gun).  You can see the hammer of a flintlock mechanism on this close-up of a blunderbuss from our collection - the gunflint would have been held tightly between the vise-like jaws near the center of the frame.

The hammer would then spring forward as the trigger was pulled, striking sparks as the flint met a steel plate called a frizzen and igniting the black powder, which would in turn fire the gun.  This excellent blog entry from my colleagues and friends at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Maryland describes the mechanism in great detail, and it also features a very cool photograph of a hammer recovered archaeologically in which the gunflint had been held in place for almost 300 years!

As they note, the flintlock technology was used for around 200 years, originating in the early 1600s and going out of fashion with the advent of percussion cap weapons in the early 1800s.  This leads to a very interesting question:  why were the early settlers on the Ohio/Nine Gal property, the Bryans, using such outdated technology in the mid-1830s?  Of course, it's possible the early inhabitants of the site were using an older weapon much as we might use a CD player or radio from several years ago (or--heaven forbid--a smart phone that is more than two years old)!

However, an interesting alternative answer to that question might prove to be:  perhaps the gun was not used on the site by the Bryans, but by earlier Native American hunters making camp near the Sangamon Ford.  Documentary evidence states that as early as 1673, indigenous populations in Illinois were trading with French explorers and fur traders to obtain flintlock weapons.  Oral histories and local legends passed down by early Euro-American settlers also recount the heavy use of what would become Champaign County by indigenous hunting parties and family groups passing through the region, although no permanent Native American settlements have been found in the area (likely because the ground was too swampy and sloughs too frequent to allow for good farming until after the land had been tile drained).

What do you think?  Share your hypothesis in the comments below, and stop in to see the gunflint and a few musket balls from the Ohio/Nine Gal site on display.  You can also get a sneak peek at next week's Mystery Artifact this weekend.  We hope to see you soon!

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