Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Knapping Through Time

-Edgar Bernal Sevilla, Curation/Education Staff

Edgar Bernal Sevilla: participant and researcher 
Today, I had a sudden primal urge to explore my roots. I followed them to the very end: the prehistoric era. So I left my cushy work station, grabbed some things out of the museum’s recently unearthed (summer cleaning, you know how it goes) flintknapping kit, and walked outside. I went looking for Jacumba formation basalt, which is what many stone tools of the indigenous desert dwelling Kumeyaay are made of, grabbed a spherical stone and got to work. *Thwack* *thwack* went the stone. Chunks of my hammerstone had come off. My flawless Jacumba basalt stayed flawless. This was going to be tougher than I thought. Three hammerstones and two ruined pieces of Jacumba basalt later, I was ready to give up. But then I remembered that I could make arrowheads and spear/knife blades from the flakes that had resulted from my failed experiments. So then I failed at that. “I’m doing the same thing the guy on Youtube did!” I angrily whispered to myself. 

One measly arrowhead to show for it
Out of five flakes, I had one measly (and ugly) arrowhead to show for it. “I’ll give the big pieces one more try.” And so, like magic, I started getting the hang of it. I changed my hand position and hammering technique, and then, all of a sudden, the flakes were coming off more or less the way I planned for them to with every hit. The end product was an extremely crude hand axe, the type you’d find in homo erectus sites. At least it was ergonomic. I was victorious. My boss Anne took a bunch of pictures and I was fulfilled. My inspiration for this? My work with the Childers Collection.

Edgar working with the Morlin Childers Collection papers
As some of you might know, I’ve been working on cataloguing and curating the collection of the late Imperial Valley archaeologist Morlin Childers. The collection deals mostly with early man in the Imperial Valley, covering largely Kumeyaay and Cocopah territory. As I often tell my coworkers, I approach the collection not as an archivist or a curator, but as a detective. Instead of just cataloguing, I pore over documents, attempting to learn as much as I can. I wrote a paper on Childers in one of my historiography classes, and I’m currently taking an archaeology class at IVC in order to better understand the material. There are mysteries to be solved, and as the one assigned to the case, Detective Edgar will be the one to solve them! 

Edgar experiments with flint knapping
But there’s more to it than solving mysteries. When I become fascinated with a historical topic, I, like many others, want it to come out of the paper. I want to see the subject matter in front of my eyes. If I’m researching a subject in medieval India, I’ll play classical Indian music and pore through period art while doing so. If I’m researching a figure from the Mexican Revolution, looks like I’m eating tamales and listening to old Mexican war hymns. It’s a way to combat subject fatigue, a very serious problem for researchers who can be studying the same thing for months or even years. The Childers Collection is no different. In order to keep my interest level at where it needs to be, I need to see, touch, and taste what is happening. I’m still waiting for my mesquite trees to sprout their pods, which I will then devour (or spit out, but hey, at least I’ll know what they’ll taste like), but for now I have stone tools, of which there are many in the Childers Collection. Now I get to put myself in the position of the people that discarded the artifacts Childers picked up hundreds or thousands of years later. Perhaps next time I do it, I’ll be chewing on some mesquite seeds. Either way, crossing the line between participant and researcher, even if it’s something as superficial as turning on some music or eating some imitation food, is something that I consider extremely valuable to my work, and is something that could help many others in theirs. 

Edgar's first attempt at flint knapping

And, although I am apparently dumber than a Neanderthal, I value this h. Erectus lousy handaxe, since the cuts and abrasions on my hands (I didn’t put gloves on till the second half of my time knapping) likely mirror what a 5 year old ancestor would’ve felt trying his/her hand at toolmaking.
Edgar with his first attempt at flint knapping

 I travelled through time, returned, and now it’s time for the 3 C’s: curation, cataloguing, and coffee. Some things are a little better in this era.

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