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Oconee Joe: The Knapper, distant rock from distant lands shaped by local hands

Chert Rock Used by aboriginal North Americans along the Upper Oconee River Watershed.

He watched the young that sat amongst him chip, chip, chip at the black stones. Some would never be able to complete their walk of Talon and Tooth before the Winter Solstice. His spirit sank at that realization, and the deadness of his lame leg was briefly forgotten. Less every generation worked the points of spear, knife, axe, and scrape. That same lamenting song of the Stone Shaper had been sung around the fire, since he first learned his talent. Still he showed the way.

Trading and exploring, he had saved the solid grey pieces, devoid of impurity. These final weeks of his peoples' season settled on this peaceful ridge he had handed them out to youngsters. Most of the Clans had already broken down camps, packed tight into their logboats with family, and had paddled them on downstream. His own sons and daughters now leading out the first families. The roar of the Big Shoals still echoed for miles into the hardwood ridges.

He sat and listened to the eternal fall of water and took comfort in the forgotten ages that had passed over eroded stone. Long before they first came to these Big Shoals. Long after he returned as sky and dirt, water, root, and rock. He would stay here this next season instead of floating on with the last group.

He felt the hillside ready to accept his bones. His spine had finally healed, but his leg still lay limp on the deer hide before him. His boat sat unfinished just below the last rapid of the Shoals. The beautiful wood rotting slowly in silence since the day he felled and fired the tree, and that burning log turned, then rolled over him.

His best stone were distributed among the children who fired and fractured the smoky stone into that moonless dark edge. They worked on in silence. Micro-flakes fell, as did thousands before them, in this one spot on the gentle rolling ridge above the river.

Careful. He watched his sister’s younger children carve the rock.

An over aggressive knap with the hammer stone could ruin the blade and severely injure the learner’s hand. The younger folk were most eager to show their strength, but that was not where precision lay when working fine stone such as this. Although life and fertility of these balanced land and waters had proven sacred, turn and turn again unto the moon and sun, unto food and safety, they found themselves in between and much without the rich blade deposits. Red Tooth Rock, was located much further downstream, while the Black Talon Stone, distantly was traded from the far plateaus and ravines in the Northwest of the Big Shoals on the Oconee.

The lower hillside trails below the rapid were starting to thin of village folk. Most are already around the next bend... His people were all but gone. His sister would be coming to collect her young kin and many an ugly blade, ill prepared for the future hunts.

Hurry. It was time they finished off the sharpened stone and left. His season was at an end...

What Is Chert Rock and Where Is It Formed?

“Chert is a compact, siliceous mineral occurring in the Coastal Plain and Ridge and Valley Provinces (of Georgia). It is found in discontinuous, widely scattered outcrops generally associated with Paleozoic and Tertiary (Paleogene) Period Limestones.” (Goad, 1979)

Thus, a most succinct way in presenting this curious rock is presented in Sharon I. Goad’s informative CHERT RESOURCES IN GEORGIA: Archeological and Geological Perspectives (UGA, 1979. This text is significantly beneficial to this article and has laid the foundation of future research for chert rock utilization by aboriginal North Americans along the Upper Oconee River Watershed. I wish to thank her deeply for her contributions. Also, it should be acknowledged with credit given to the preeminent Scott Jones, forensic litho-archeologist, author, paleo-demonstrator, and founder of Media Prehistoria. Mr. Jones found, identified, and cataloged much of the Old Barnett Shoals Archeological Site registered as 9OC216 that is presented in this article. This site is located on the hillsides above the Barnett Shoals Hydroelectric Dam along the Oconee River approximately 8.75 Miles southeast of Downtown Athens, Georgia.

Chert Distribution in Georgia (Goad, 1979)

Geologic studies over the years have confirmed the state of Georgia has only two sources of the geologic formation classified as chert. There has been much debate on the distinction of chert from flint. Both are formed in the same manner, as bands of silica residues. However, chert is more often found in limestone, while flint is found in chalk deposits. These two substances are very similar and in this article the term chert is used to simply define any number of fine grained silica material used by aboriginal North Americans along the Upper Oconee River Watershed.

Ridge and Valley Province

The first of these bands of sedimentary rock, are found roughly from Cartersville, Georgia running up into the Northwest corner beyond Cloudland Canyon State Park. These are the Ridge and Valley chert deposits. Sandstones form many of the ridges with shales and limestones forming the valleys. The colors of these stones are found to be primarily smoky grey and black in color due to the carbonaceous impurities that permeated this layer of sediment during the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Mississippian and Lower Pennsylvanian periods in the Paleozoic Era. (100 Million Years Ago and earlier).

Ridge and Valley Exhibit (Verified by Scott Jones)

Coastal Plain Province

The second type of chert is found in abundance, though sporadically appearing, below the Fall Line of Georgia throughout the Coastal Plain. These are Paleogene or Tertiary Period formations (Which is the Period immediately after the asteroid slammed the Yucatán, decimating the dinosaurs). These are usually limited to the Eocene and Oligocene Epochs (56 to 23 Million Years Ago). Here, the color of the sharpened stone take on the mustard cream, and yellowish hue, that turns a brick red when fired in the ancient’s hearth. These colors are the result of ferric inclusions. The infusion of chromium can produce yellow rock. Red can be produced from magnesium and also from heat treatment both natural and man-made.

Coastal Plain chert artifacts (Verified by Scott Jones)

How Is It Found In The Piedmont, Barnett Shoals, GA Area?

For the simplification of this article, the state of Georgia has been broken down into three regions, Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge and Piedmont, and Coastal Plain. Chert rock is not found naturally occurring in the Piedmont Regions of the state. The vast majority of geologic content found in the Athens region is granite, gneiss, and quartzite. This is primarily due to this being part of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont formations of the Crystalline Region, which date to the Cambrian and even Pre-Cambrian System, (600 Million Years Ago.) This is the oldest lithic formations in the state and consist of ancient shales, limestones, and sandstones that have been altered over millennia into quartzites, marbles, mica, and schists.(Goad, 1979)

Trade and transportation routes by Archaic Native Americans

So how did chert rock come to be located on the granite and quartz hillsides overlooking the Oconee River when it does not occur naturally?

When chert rock is fractured it creates very sharp edges. Early Native Americans recognized this and used a technique known as knapping, wherein a hard hammer stone chips at the chert, or even an antler bone to apply pressure to the stone’s edge, creating a razor-like quality. Furthermore, the blade holds its point. At the Old Barnett Shoals Archeological Site, 9OC216, artifacts of projectile points, scraper blades, and even the discarded flakes still hold a cutting ability that is astonishing considering some of these points are approximately 8,000 years old!

Trade, travel, and even warfare sent these chert pieces all over the Southeastern United States. When chert deposits were located by early North Americans it was a site to be cherished, journeyed to, revisited, and perhaps even guarded. By foot or boat over thousands of years human migration and habitation brought these precious stones to the hillsides overlooking the rapids and falls on the Oconee River that later became known as Barnett Shoals.

Based on the initial findings along an upper ridgeline at Barnett Shoals, it is my hope that these fragmentary pieces of chert, eroding from the dirt will tantalize the reader's mind and boggle the eternal human spirit to explore and thrive...

This article is to establish the first of several, wherein I hope to chronicle the importance of the desired rock of chert from far off distant regions to the Barnett Shoals Dam area, the Athens Region, and the Upper Oconee River Watershed Proper.

Artifacts collected at the Old Barnett Shoals site (Verified by Scott Jones)

About Oconee Joe...

Eternal Student of the Oconee Land and Waters.

He has lived along the Oconee River for over 10,000 years. The River is his Mother, the Land his Father. You can continue to read about Oconee Joe, his guided trips, and explorations along our local river, here on Classic City News...

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