This antler punch from Illinois dates to the Late Woodland period, ca. 1000-1500 BP.
The antler artefact in this model is typical of North American indirect percussion punches. A punch works most effectively if the edge of the punch—rather than the centre—is braced against the platform. This tends to cause attrition in this area and, as the punch is rotated during use, a conical end is produced. This morphology can be seen at the small end of the punch. A single wear facet can be seen at the wider end of the punch also, indicating that the punch was rarely rotated when this end was used. Small punches can remove surprisingly large biface thinning flakes because of the way the small-diameter end concentrates the force of the blow onto the platform. A much larger billet would be required to achieve the same-sized flake using direct percussion, and this may be one reason why indirect percussion was so widely used across the Americas: flintknappers could carry a relatively small, lightweight toolkit.
The punch was for making bifaces using the indirect percussion flaking technique. Indirect percussion involves placing the indentor on the platform edge where you want the flake to initiate, and then striking the indentor’s opposite end with a hammer to detach the flake. The indentor is called a ‘punch’, sometimes referred to as a ‘drift’. Using a punch allows the flintknapper to precisely locate the location where they want the flake to initiate and, by angling the punch, the direction of the crack can be carefully aligned with the mass on the core face. Indirect percussion is a well-known technique used by modern flintknappers in Europe to make long blades (flakes that are twice as long as wide), and the technique was widespread in Neolithic industries in Europe and Western Asia. Indirect percussion was also used to made axe blanks with rectangular cross sections in Europe, parts of island Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. In the recent past, Lacandon Maya flintknappers used indirect percussion to make obsidian blades for arrowpoints, and an unusual indirect percussion method continues to be used by flintknappers in India to make bead blanks and objects sold for jewellery.
However, in making bifaces, most modern flintknappers used direct percussion—striking the platform directly with the hammer—to remove thinning flakes. Nevertheless, historical accounts of flintknappers in Mexico, North America, and South America clearly describe the use of indirect percussion in biface-making. Most of these accounts describe the punches as relatively short and made from antler, bone, ivory, or stone. The Karuk flintknapper Ted Orcutt likely used the indirect percussion technique in the early- to mid-1900s to make the large obsidian bifaces used in the White Deer Dance renewal ceremony. Early archaeologists often classified short sections of antler with worn ends as ‘drifts’ and interpreted them as punches used in flintknapping, in reference to the historical accounts. Hundreds of antler and bone drifts are illustrated in old excavation reports. More recently, a cache of items found in a dog-skin bag inside Sand Dune Cave in southeastern Utah included a smaller prairie dog-skin bag containing 8 indirect percussion punches. The bag dates to ca. 1814 BP, during the Basketmaker II period. Tiny chert fragments were found embedded in the ends of six of the punches, verifying that they were used in stone flaking. Antler drifts have been recovered from sites dating to the Early Archaic, suggesting that indirect percussion was used to make bifaces in the Americas for at least 8000 years.
Few modern flintknappers use the indirect percussion technique to make bifaces. This may be partly because it is difficult to secure the biface and hold the punch securely onto the platform with one hand, and swing the hammer with the other hand. In fact, at least two of the historical accounts describe two flintknappers working together to accomplish this. Also, most modern flintknappers have learned their methods from other flintknappers and in North America the chain of instruction mostly leads back to self-taught experts, such as Don Crabtree, who used exclusively direct percussion in making bifaces. Despite this, several modern flintknappers have recently explored and mastered the technique of using punches in bifacial flaking, finding that the technique can be used to make exceptionally thin, refined bifaces. This has inspired efforts by other flintknappers and the use of indirect percussion technique for biface-making is growing in popularity.