This pressure flaking tool was used by an Iñupiaq or Yupik flintknapper who lived on the coast of northern or western Alaska. The composite tool was made by inserting a rod-shaped bone insert into a curved bone handle. Pressure flakers like this were used to make arrowheads and armatures for harpoons. It dates to the historic period.
The pressure flaker in this model consists of a split long bone wedged or inserted into a bone handle, and secured with a hide wrapping. The working end of the tool was altered in the recent past.
Sergeant John Murdoch was the naturalist on the Smithsonian-sponsored International Polar Expedition to Alaska, 1881-1883. He observed arrowhead manufacture by Indigenous people on the western coast of Alaska along the Bering Strait. These traditional flintknappers used pistol-shaped pressure flakers bone or ivory handles and bone inserts set into a slot in the top. The Iñupiaq flintknappers called them kĭ’gli. The insert—the tip of which was used to detach flakes—was held in place with lashings of seal skin thong. The insert projected about 1.8 inches beyond the end of the handle. The pressure flaker was held near the tip, with the thumb on top of the insert. The biface was held in the palm of the hand, which was protected from cuts by a thick deer-skin mitten, and ‘. . . by pressing the point steadily on the edge of the flint, flakes of the desired size are made to fly off from the under surface’. Murdoch collected 9 of these pressure flakers; bone (including whale bone) was used as the insert in most of them, but one was set with an iron insert, another was inset with ‘a short blade of black flint flaked into a four-sided rod 1 1/2 inches long’, and two more were inset with elongated ‘Nu’ɐsŭknan concretions’. The pebble concretions are iron-rich stones with mystical properties. This is the only historical observation of traditional flintknappers using a stone-tipped pressure flakers in bifacial reduction. The handles of the pressure flakers were antler (the most common material), walrus ivory, and fossil ivory. The slot for the insert in the ivory examples was created by boring holes into the material and cutting away the material between the holes. The handles were sometimes decorated with incised geometric patterns and coloured with red ochre; one was carved with a bear’s head to increase the value of the object to collectors. Murdoch observed pistol-shaped pressure flakers in use along the west coast of Alaska, and illustrates one from an ‘inland’ flintknapper named Ilû’bw’ga, but the geographical limits of these tools is unknown. In a footnote to the 1897 edition of Ancient Stone Implements of Great Britain, John Evans refers to an example of a pistol-shaped pressure flaking from Greenland; if this is accurate, these tools were likely a pan-Arctic tool type.
The British naval officer Sir Edward Belcher observed traditional flintknappers at Cape Lisburne, Alaska, using similar tools and techniques. He probably observed this in ca. 1825, when he served as surveyor on Beechey’s expedition to the Bering Strait. Belcher later commanded five ships in the search for the missing explorer, Sir John Franklin. One of Beechey’s ships, the Resolute, was made into a desk and given by Queen Victoria to the American president, and it is still used in the Oval Office. The flintknappers observed by Belcher used pressure flakers with fossil ivory handles and caribou antler inserts (the flintknappers apparently considered the ivory too brittle for inserts). The rawhide or plaited sinew lashing was applied wet and secured the inset when it shrank upon drying. An unusual variant of these pressure flaker, with a wood handle, is illustrated by Evans; in this case, the thongs are wrapped through slots cut through the wood and over the top of the inset. The flintknappers told Belcher they held the biface over a spoon-shaped slot in a piece of wood to detach the pressure flakes. Belcher described this as a wood ‘bench’ consisting of a wood ‘log’, but since he did not observe this directly, it is possible that the flinknappers were describing a slotted wood block held in the palm of the hand, in a holding gesture similar to that observed directly by Murdoch. If so, this is the only historical reference to the use of a slotted block by traditional flintknappers.