ART AND THE FOLSOM POINT

November 5, 1997

This is a paper I wrote in 1984 for a class in "North American Indian Art". I recently re-discovered it while going through some old records. After reading it again, I decided to include it on my WEB page because it contains some interesting concepts. Most of these concepts I still agree with, but on some my views have changed. To let the reader know my current thoughts I have included them when they differ. The original paper is in bold font and the material written at this time is in normal font. This paper also caused me to write a separate page on my current views on the Clovis first / pre-Clovis problem that is so popular today.


Art and the Folsom Point

first written in November, 1984

The classification of objects as art is cultural, subjective and at times controversial. Individuals with knowledge of the Folsom tradition of the Paleoindian stage in the New World do not consider the associated projectile as art and only occasionally ascribe it to the realm of magic and religion. Over the last twenty-five years I have heard many reasons justifying this particular projectile and these reasons almost always are utilitarian. This paper will examine these reasons and present the argument that the Folsom projectile existed because it was a work of art.

The Webster's Unabridged Dictionary states that art is "the disposition or modification of things by human skill, to answer the purpose intended" (1983:105). In different words, it is the altering of nature. Aristotle subdivided this modification of nature into two types of art; the utilitarian art that was necessary for life, and the pleasurable art that was for recreation (The Great Ideas 1952:67).

This Descartes-like division between utilitarian and pleasurable art is seldom displayed when one considers all of man's creations. More often there is a combining of the two art forms and this combination is obvious back through prehistory. The painted designs on the Anasazi pottery, the bead work on the clothing of the Potawatomi Indians, or the engraved barrel on an expensive shotgun are examples of embellishments that do not improve the function of the creation. They are added because the particular culture deemed them proper and desirable.

The etic knowledge of a given culture is inversely proportional to its remoteness in time. As a result, it is difficult for an archaeologist to discern between the two art forms in ancient cultures. For example, Cro-Magnon man created exquisite cave paintings over 30,000 years ago (Pfeiffer 1969:220); however, the lack of knowledge of the culture prohibits the archaeologist from discerning the functional aspect of these creations. In contrast, the Folsom projectile manufactured approximately 10,000 years ago, has the obvious utilitarian art form of piercing and cutting in the food gathering process, but does it also have the pleasurable art form? Since the only knowledge of these cultures comes from the scanty archaeological record, the answer to these questions can only be subjective and lie in logic.

Traditionally, archaeologists have ignored the pleasurable art forms in the Paleoindian stage and concentrated on the utilitarian reasons for the artifact's design. This strategy has not only been convenient, but partially justified when one considers that the purpose for pleasurable art is lost with the culture. However, as a result of this strategy there are contradictions in their theories that possibly could be resolved if the pleasurable arts were considered. Therefore, in order to include the pleasurable art in this paper, I will employ the following logic: if only unsatisfactory utilitarian reasons can be found to justify an artifact or its attribute, then the motive for its being is pleasurable art.

The "flutes" on the Folsom projectile represent a potential pleasurable art form. Deriving their name from the architectural decoration of columns, they are described as "wide longitudinal channels (on both faces) which may extend nearly the entire length or only part way from the base" (Coffin 1937:7). These channels combined with exquisite retouching around their entire edge perimeters, make this artifact the most striking and unique lithic projectile manufactured by man.

Significant to this discussion is the knowledge that the Folsom projectile is constructed by first creating the flutes on either side of a large flake or crudely shaped blank. The final projectile is then shaped by adding the retouched flakes around the edges of the flutes. Until recently, it was believed the flutes were added as the final process and this belief lead to the theory that the Midland projectile (a contemporary tradition) was an unfluted Folsom. It was reasoned that in the manufacturing process, some of the potential Folsom projectiles were found to be too thin to remove the channel flakes. Therefore an unfluted Folsom or Midland projectile was the result. Today, with a better understanding of the Folsom's manufacture, the Midland is now recognized as a separate tradition.

In 1997, I know that the Midland projectile was actually made by Folsom people. It occurs abundantly in Folsom sites around Midland, Texas and appears to be localized in this area. The Shifting Sands site is an example of Midland and classic Folsom points mixed together (Hofman et al. 1990). On the other hand, I still do not believe the Midland projectile was constructed in lieu of a Folsom point for a functional reason. Such as, the preform was too thin to flute or there was shortage of lithic material. I believe the decision to make a Midland point was based on esthetics or pleasurable art.

Over the years, archaeologists and laymen alike have questioned the purpose of the flute. Ironically, research and theories on that purpose have represented almost a total hiatus in the literature with a few exceptions. Hans E. Fischel published in 1939, "... it (the flute) served to thin the base, thereby facilitating hafting" (234). In the same year, H. M. Wormington devoted a paragraph to the subject in the first edition of her famous Ancient Man in North American, offering the following:

The three theories (for the flute) that have been most often advanced are: (1) the grooves were designed to lighten the point so that it would carry farther; (2) they were made to facilitate hafting; (3) they were designed on the same principle as the bayonet, which permits a greater flow of blood from a wound than would an ungrooved blade (1939:7).

The first theory offered by Wormington can be best analyzed by elementary physics. Assuming a 500 gram spear which includes a 14 gram projectile can be thrown 90 feet, then the same shaft with a Folsom projectile would weigh approximately 493 grams (assuming 50% reduction in projectile weight for the flutes) and travel 91.25 feet. Anyone who has ever thrown a spear knows this additional distance is worthless when one considers the inaccuracy of a spear at 90 feet.

I am now aware of considerable, indirect evidence for use of the atlatl by the Folsom people; i.e. the Cooper Site in Oklahoma (Bement 1997: pers. com.). If this is fact, then the hafted atlatl would have obviously traveled further than the hafted spear because of the mechanical advantage and the lighter shaft. However, the difference in the distance traveled by a atlatl with a fluted point and one with a non-fluted point would still have been insignificant because the difference in the overall weight of the two systems (shaft, foreshaft? and point) would have been very small.

The third theory is that the projectile facilitated bleeding. This theory is also weak because, judging by the extent of lateral edge grinding, the majority of the projectile's body was mounted in the shaft. This leaves only a portion of the distal end exposed to realize the added bleeding benefits. In addition, archaeologists find an extremely low ratio of whole projectiles to fragments when compared to the same ratio of other Paleoindian traditions. This fact plus the thinness of the projectile's cross sectional area, suggests the projectile shattered on impact. If this was the case, then it is likely that the shaft was more easily dislodged from the animal, thereby permitting the wound to close and negating the bleeding benefit.

I have recently visited with a bow hunter who told me that fresh wounds will immediately swell, seal around foreign objects and stopped the bleeding. Assuming this is correct, then this is a stronger argument against the flute facilating bleeding than the one I offered in 1982.

A tangential theory arising from the shattering possibility is the theory of "fragmentation" which suggests that projectile fragments were designed to remain in the animal (Fischel 1939: 234.) The concept, derived from our modern understand of firearms, loses its potency when one considers that none of the contemporary or subsequent traditions adopted this supposably desirable attribute of fragmentation.

The last two paragraphs reminds me of an inconsistency in the archaeological record that I was unaware of, or glossed over, when I first wrote this in 1982. This inconsistency is that most proximal fragments (bases) found discarded in the campsites represent about 1/3 of the point while the lateral edge grinding extends about 2/3 of the way toward the tip. In different words, the basal fragments suggest that about 1/3 of the point was hafted while the lateral edge grinding suggests that about 2/3 of the point was hafted. In 1997 I do not know how these points were hafted and I do not have an explanation for this apparent inconsistency.

The utilitarian reasons for the Folsom flute were developed in the late 1930's and two discussed to this point have waned with time. One concept that has not faded and has become the generally accepted reason is the concept of basal thinning for hafting (attaching the projectile to the shaft). This theory is founded on the fact that there is an antecedent and many subsequent projectile types where basal thinning is practiced for this purpose. The classic example of basal thinning and the probable ancestor of the Folsom design is the Clovis projectile. The Clovis flutes usually extend only halfway from the base and are usually created by the removal of more than one flake on at least one side. Although both Clovis and Folsom projectiles have similar appearance, the manufacturing processes are diametrical. As stated previously, the Folsom flutes are created early in the projectile's manufacture while the Clovis technique, which is common to all basally thinned projectiles is to add the thinning flutes at completion. In different words, the flutes are finishing touches on projectiles with basal thinning, while the flutes of the Folsom are the foundation for the projectile.

The Folsom tradition, defined by its projectile design and manufacturing process, lasted at least 1000 years before it vanished. Logic permits the Folsom manufacturing process to evolve from the Clovis process if its purpose is that of basal thinning. However, the logic becomes inconsistent when one considers that the subsequent traditions returned to the Clovis process of basal thinning.

The carbon-14 dates, available today, suggest that Folsom may have lasted only about 500 years.

A counter argument can be made that the Folsom technique of basal thinning was extremely difficult and therefore the vanishing of the tradition was the logical regression to the Clovis process. Supporting this concept of difficulty of technique are the facts that three projectiles were lost in manufacture to every finished one, and the technique has only been mastered by a couple of today's many flint knappers. However, an alignment with this counter argument requires one to deal with the question of: why was the Folsom technique ever developed?

Today, I know this one-in-four success rate is too low. The data I have from camp sites indicate the rate to be about 50% or one success for each two attempts. When I presented this success rate at the Folsom Replication Workshop in the Spring of 1997, most of the participates thought it was still too low. They thought the number was closer to 70% or 80%. They suggested the reason my data was indicating only 50% was that I was only considering the finished points in the camp sites. Kill sites contain finished points, almost exclusively, and I needed to consider these in the numbers. Since, I do not have these data I can not make the actual calculation, but at this writing I believe the rate will ultimately be closer to 50% .

Another contradiction to the theory that the Folsom flutes were for basal thinning is the probability that other traditions existed concurrently with the Folsom people and they did not adopt the technique. For example, the carbon-14 dates associated with the Clovis, Midland, Agate Basin, Plainview and Hell Gap projectiles overlap the Folsom dates, which suggest they were contemporaries for at least periods of the Folsom duration (Bell 1958:16&74; Frison 1978:23&25; Haynes 1965:19-21). Each of these groups manufactured projectiles that are stylistically different from the Folsom and each other. If the Folsom flutes were so desirable for thinning, why did these potential contemporaries not adopt the technique?

A final obstacle to the basal thinning theory is the existence of Folsom-like projectiles found in the Eastern United States. Although these projectiles have similar appearance to the namesake, they are considerably thicker. This additional thickness contradicts the concept of fluting for basal thinning.

Recapitulating the discussion to this point, the Folsom projectile represents an anomaly in the Paleoindian stage if it is to be considered only utilitarian in purpose. Its killing potential, when compared to other projectile designs, could not have been much greater or the other traditions would have adopted some of its attributes. H. M. Wormington must have recognized this anomaly, because in the fourth edition of her Ancient Man in North America she added the following suggestion to the above quoted paragraph:

One might also consider the possibility that the grooving of projectile points was not functional and that it represents no more than a fashion. We do know that many people expended far more trouble on the production of certain stone artifacts than was necessary to make them effective.

I am in agreement with this concept and maintain that the fluting of the Folsom projectile represents pleasurable art. With the acceptance of this concept, the questions raised previously now have answers. For example, the development of the Folsom projectile was a result of improving on the Clovis design and the additional difficulty or expense associated with its manufacture was accepted because the culture desired its esthetic qualities. Second, the other Paleoindian traditions had the same patriotic feeling toward their projectiles and therefore produced their own unique designs. Finally, the Folsom-like projectiles found in the East represent a removed, but aligned cultural tradition and therefore the projectiles are similar.

One of the characteristics of pleasurable art is that it shows mastery of medium and technique. When man (Clovis) entered the North American Continent he brought with him a lithic craftsmanship that was near the zenith in quality. The Folsom tradition reached the zenith and the quality of workmanship and material selection declined after that time. The Archaic lithic work is not the quality of the Paleoindians and the post-Archaic is less than that of the Archaic.

Obviously, when I first wrote this I was a believer in the "Clovis first" theory. Today, I am not. Click here for my thoughts on the Clovis first / pre-Clovis problem.

With this heritage of lithic craftsmanship, the Native American was able to produce projectile designs that allow differentiation between traditions and stages. A Folsom projectile can be differentiated from a Clovis, Agate Basin, Pueblo 3, or any other projectile made. In fact, this is how today's archaeologists distinguish between the various traditions. It is important to note that the design of other lithic tools (scrapers, graver, etc.) tend to be nonrepresentative of stage or tradition (Frison 1978: 77). This and the fact that occasionally different projectiles are found at the same location are the cornerstones of the argument concerning the validity of typology (the classifying of different traditions based on projectile design). For the purposes of this paper, it is sufficient to state that the author accepts typology and believes all Paleoindian projectiles were equally functional and their differences represent patriotic art.

Patriotic art implies a conscious effort to produce a design that is representative of the group. I suggest it is more complicated than this and the patriotism is controlled by the "collective conscience". People subconsciously know what is esthetically pleasing and acceptable to their group and they will not step beyond the boundaries of that paradigm. These boundaries can be considered tolerances on a mental template and in the case of the Folsom tradition, the tolerances were so small that they give the projectiles an appearance of being cast from the same mold. This similarity between projectiles suggests there were single artists within a given band manufacturing all the projectiles, while the other tools were manufactured by all the members of the group and were utilitarian in nature.

The concept of an artist or flint knapper manufacturing all the Folsom points for a band has been around for many years. My father believed in this individual and I assumed he convinced me of their existence. However, recent work at the Cattleguard Site by Pegi Jodry has offered evidence to the contrary. At this site, which is believed to be a single event, there were several hearths possibly representing several nuclear families. Channel flakes were found at these various hearths which suggests that Folsom points were being made at each campfire. This then leads to the conclusion that members in each nuclear family were making their own points instead of a single individual within the band of 35 people or so (Jodry 1997).

Contrary to the evidence at the Cattleguard site is the fact that I know of no modern Folsom point replicator who can produce finished Folsom points similar to those in the archaeological record with a success rate approaching 50%. So, to which facts do I give the most weight? At this writing I am still accept the craftsman concept, based on the difficulty of making the points.

When people are able to dedicate an individual's time for the making of pleasurable art, it implies that there is leisure time within the group. There is an anthropological theory that maintains man's leisure time has declined each time there has been a technological advance and culture has evolved (Sahlins 1972:35). People with life styles of hunting and gathering are believed to have had a considerable amount of leisure time and an artist, manufacturing all the projectiles, would have been possible. The Paleoindian stage became the Archaic and later the post-Archaic, and there was a decline in leisure time with each technological advancement, and this corresponds with the decline in the associated projectiles' esthetic qualities.

The lithic material employed in the manufacture of projectiles and other tools is similar within the major divisions of Paleoindian, Archaic and post-Archaic. Of the three, the Paleoindian selected the best material, as defined by the least amount of faults and by the smallest grain size (most of the time it is not visible to the naked eye). There is also a pleasing quality in the color and texture of the material utilized; however, this may be the esthetics of today's archaeologists. In the southwest the Paleoindian tended to use obsidian, opal and very-fine grained quartzites. An archaeologist who is familiar with the lithic material in a given area can immediately identify material that was used by the Paleoindians, but he cannot classify it as to tradition or artifact type. The people of the later stages also utilized these high-quality material, however the percentage used is much less than that of the Paleoindian stage.

Today, I know the above referenced opal is really a very fine chalcedony.

Archaeologists have observed that the Folsom peoples and the other Paleoindian traditions preferred materials that today's flint knappers consider to have excellent flaking characteristics. As a result, there is the theory that these materials were required to achieve the Folsom projectiles. This is probably true to some extent, however the Folsom did utilize poorer material on occasion with equally good results and the later traditions occasionally employed the better material with no improvement in their workmanship. Therefore, the material selection by the Folsom and other Paleoindians was partially guided by esthetics.

The archaeologist's appreciation of the Paleoindian's mastery of technique and medium is not limited to the profession. The archeological record indicates that later traditions like the archaeologist, collected these older projectiles. One could argue that this collecting was just utilizing an existing tool; however, a contradicting fact is that these collected projectiles have been found in the Mesa Verde Cliff Houses which have produced an illogically small number of Anasazi projectiles (Rohn 1971:107). Since the Anasazi did not keep these collected projectiles with their own projectiles, one must conclude the Anasazi were collecting and enjoying these projectiles as pleasurable art.

In summary, the Folsom projectile represents a mixture of utilitarian and pleasurable art forms. It not only performed the functions of piercing and cutting, it was embellished with the unique design of flutes. This fluting design was borrowed from the utilitarian fluting of the Clovis projectile and exaggerated to the extreme that an artist was required to create it. This exaggeration also required a change in the manufacturing process which increased the effort to create it. This increase in effort was justified because it made the projectile a work of art as is the modern, more expensive, engraved shotgun justified today as a work of art.


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