Points, pottery, and hafting

Submitted by Scott Jones (info@mediaprehistoria.com)

Major technological and cultural innovations have the potential to influence technology and culture beyond the immediate realm of the innovation itself. While the widespread adoption of fired clay ceramics in the terminal Archaic/Early Woodland era is directly relevant to food preparation, the transition from indirect heating (stone-boiling) to direct heating in pots represents a dynamic techno-cultural change. Ever since Coe (1964) demonstrated that early Woodland triangular projectile point forms differ dramatically from the stemmed terminal Archaic forms that immediately precede them, archaeologists have sought plausible reasons for this change. This article explores the possible influence of early ceramics on the practical manufacture of adhesives used in hafting, which would accommodate significant changes in projectile point form. This is inferred from the apparent shift from Archaic period use of plant resins (pitch) to early historic use of animal collagen (“hide”) glue.


The manufacture of hide glue requires precise heat control, which is greatly improved by the use of a clay pot. The glue can be made from a variety of animal parts, including hide shavings (shown in pot), sinew (also shown), hoof, velvet antler, and fish skin.

Archaic points, irrespective of form, have explicit haft areas. These haft elements often have large amounts of surface area, providing a sturdy bond between the tool and the haft. Basal grinding is common on many Archaic point forms (not just Early Archaic types, on which grinding is often extreme). This helps prevent damage to fiber bindings, but of equal importance, grinding strengthens the haft area against breakage.

Despite poor organic preservation in the southeast, pitch residues are occasionally found. Webb (1946) mentions pitch on a number of antler and bone artifacts from Indian Knoll, as well as a block of pitch in a burial; pitch residues were found on the stone points from the Windover site in Florida (Doran 2002). In Georgia, Ledbetter et al. (2001) report plant resin residues on processing tools from Bartow County.

From dry caves and rock shelters of the western U.S., Aikens (1970), Dalley (1977), Gunnerson (1962), Jennings (1978) and others refer to the use of pitch on various artifacts. Cosgrove (1947), however, specifically states that hafted artifacts from his study area were bound with sinew alone, and pitch was not used. Despite this absence of pitch, his emphatic remarks highlight the prevalence of this adhesive in other parts of the arid west, while illustrating the importance of fiber bindings (e.g., sinew) in the Archaic tradition.


Pitch glue can be made with simple equipment such as a shell (shown, containing raw resin) or a flat rock (a small pot or large sherd can be used as well). It can be made into pitch sticks for future use. It is used for hafting tools (knife and projectile foreshaft shown), patching and caulking, and inlay work.

Thus it would seem that plant resin mastic—pitch—was widely used during the Archaic period. Yet by historic times it seems to vanish from the technological landscape. For instance, Swanton (1946) cites several sources who describe how Native Americans (mostly in what is now Virginia) of the early historic era hafted their arrow points. In addition to sinew bindings, these accounts uniformly mention animal glue, specifically that made from deer antler. Such glue is particular to the immature growing antler, in the ‚“velvet” stage. Swanton also refers to glue made from deer skin and fish. Yet nowhere does he mention the use of pitch or pine tar, noting only that pitchpine (presumably heart pine ‚“lightwood‚“) was a source of soot for tattoos.

How, though, does this apparent change in hafting relate to ceramic technology? Can a case be made for a relationship between hafting methods, projectile point form, and pottery? To consider this, let us look at the merits and limitations of plant mastics and animal glues. Pitch glue is made from the resins of coniferous trees (notably pine in the southeast), and a small number of deciduous trees (sweetgum is our best example). Pitch is a good hunter-gatherer adhesive—it requires minimal equipment, it is maintainable, and it allows re-hafting—and fits into Bleed’s (1986) maintainability type. It is easy to make, requiring a modest supply of resin and minimal gear: a mussel shell or flat rock for a preparation vessel; some organic temper (such as charcoal powder); and a fire on which to heat it (see Jones 2005 for a discussion of pitch glue). Short lengths of fiber may be added to the pitch as well (Silsby 1999). In a pinch, pine resin may be gathered and heated as-is on the end of a stick, and applied while hot. Pitch provides support and fills gaps within the haft, and is more or less waterproof. The down side is that it is not very flexible and becomes brittle over time, thus requiring maintenance.

Animal (‚“hide”) glue, on the other hand, is somewhat more complicated, and conforms to Bleed’s (1986) reliability type. Water-soluble, it is made from velvet antler, hide, hooves, sinew, horn (bovine, not horn as misapplied to antler), and other collagen-rich animal products. It is very strong, flexible, and durable, though not waterproof. Because hide glue is prepared by carefully reducing the volume of cooking liquid to a residue, good temperature regulation is necessary. The jelly-like residue may be used immediately, but because it is essentially a protein-rich soup, it spoils if left in a liquid form. Although somewhat timeconsuming, it may be dried and reconstituted (see Richards 1997 for a discussion of hide glue). It is evident that stone-boiling would be an impractical and imprecise technique for a process requiring good heat regulation and prolonged simmering time. Also, hot rocks would likely scorch the glue as the volume is reduced.

Soapstone or fiber-tempered ceramic vessels can be used, but Sassaman (1993) suggests that early versions of these were not heated directly on the fire. And soapstone vessels, while relatively common, likely had cultural significance that exempted them from the realm of ‚“everyday” cookware. Cooking up a batch of hide glue in the village pot may have been distinctly frowned upon. Though conjectural, it seems that hide glue assumes the role of a practical day-to-day adhesive only when fire-worthy ceramics become commonplace.

Thus the advent of well made grit-tempered ceramics in northwest Georgia (e.g., Kellogg phase, about 700 B.C.) coincides approximately with the appearance of Early Woodland triangular points lacking a well-defined haft area. [Stemmed points continue to be used, but the trend is dominated by triangular forms.] Early versions (Yadkin and Copena points, for instance) are large, and through the Woodland and Mississippian periods triangular points become ever smaller. Size does not present a problem, since we know that the bow comes into use during this time.

The use of animal glue is not exclusive to triangular point styles. It is entirely possible to haft stemmed and notched points with hide glue and sinew. Triangular points are difficult to haft securely with pitch (with or without fiber binding). Regardless of point type, it is possible to use hide glue and sinew as the main hafting material, with a coating of waterproof pitch. This may have been done, but this does not seem to be the case. Drawing from ethnographic and archaeological inferences, it seems that the use of pitch glue in Archaic times is supplanted by animal glues by the historic period. The development and ready availability of ceramic pottery is a possible key to this change.

References Cited

Aikens, C. Melvin
1970 Hogup Cave. University of Utah Anthropological Papers, no. 93.

Bleed, P.
1986 The Optimal Design of Hunting Weapons: Maintainability or Reliability. American Antiquity 51(4): 737-747.

Coe, Joffre. L.
1964 The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 54(5). American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Cosgrove, C.B.
1947 Caves of the Upper Gila and Hueco Areas in New Mexico and Texas. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology Papers 24(2):48-58.

Dalley, Gardiner F.
1977 Swallow Shelter and Associated Sites. University of Utah Anthropological Papers, vol. 96.

Doran, Glen H.
2002 Windover: Multidisciplinary Investigations of an Early Archaic Florida Cemetery. University Press of Florida: Gainesville.

Gunnerson, James H.
1962 Unusual Artifacts from Castle Valley, Central Utah. University of Utah Anthropological Papers, vol. 60.

Jennings, Jesse D.
1978 Prehistory of Utah and the Eastern Great Basin. University of Utah Anthropological Papers, vol. 98.

Jones, Scott
2005 Pitch Glue. Bulletin of Primitive Technology 29:11-19.

Ledbetter, R. Jerald, Thomas Neumann, Mary Spinks, and Andrea Shea
2001 Archaeological Investigation of the Vulcan Site, Bartow County, Georgia. Early Georgia 29(2):97-179.

Richards, Matt
1997 Deerskins Into Buckskins: How to Tan with Natural Materials. Backcountry Publishing, Cave Junction, Oregon.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.
1993 Early Pottery in the Southeast: Tradition and Innovation in Cooking Technology. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Silsby, Scott
1999 Mummy Varnish, Spruce Gum, and Other Sticky Stuff. In Primitive Technology: A Book of Earthskills, pp. 187-189. David Wescott, editor. Gibbs Smith, Publisher. Salt Lake City.

Swanton, John R.
1946 The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, no. 137. Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

Torrence, R.
1989 Retooling: Towards a Behavioral Theory of Stone Tools. In Time, Energy, and Stone Tools. Edited by Robin Torrence. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

Webb, W. S.
1946 Indian Knoll: Site OH2, Ohio County, Kentucky. Reports in Anthropology and Archaeology 4(3), Part 1. University of Kentucky, Lexington.