Tracking down the right tool

A search for a well-made scythe leads to an appreciation of the great toolmakers who lived here 13,000 years ago.
Crosscut archive image.

The Boulder artifacts, from a cache 13,000 years ago

A search for a well-made scythe leads to an appreciation of the great toolmakers who lived here 13,000 years ago.

The other day, wandering down a tool aisle at Lowe'ꀙs, I asked a passing sales clerk if Lowe's carried machetes. She pointed to a whole stack of them, with red plastic handles and cardboard-sheathed blades, right under my nose. Then she said she was sorry Lowe'ꀙs didn'ꀙt carry scythes. She liked scythes. Her mother still had her late father'ꀙs old one. She could remember her father out in the field, cutting tall grass with it. I didn't realize I would soon be walking down a very long aisle indeed, leading into the ancient history of this land.

I told her I liked scythes, too, but I was told some years ago that only one company in the entire country still made them with wooden handles. Scythes with metal handles might be easier to come by. She said a metal handle wouldn'ꀙt be the same. I agreed.

So, obviously, do the scythe aficionados and craft tool makers to whom everyone now has access on the web. The Seymour Manufacturing Company of Seymour Indiana is evidently the sole large American maker of wooden scythe handles, or, to use the proper Middle English term, wooden snaths. A Seymour official says the company has manufactured snaths since shortly after its founding in 1872, making them primarily of Midwestern ash. But wooden snaths are available from some foreign manufacturers, too, and by looking on the web, it's not hard these days to find one. It'ꀘs not hard to find a variety of steel scythe blades, either.

If you look at old European pictures of scythes, you see tools with straight snaths. In the "Book of Hours" painted for the Duc de Berry in the early 15th century, the June picture shows three peasants scything a field of hay. All swing straight snaths with long curved blades. Dressed in short smocks and wide hats, they move in unison through the hay, practicing labor as ballet.

The modern American scythe (if that'ꀙs not an oxymoron) looks way different. The thick end of the shaft — which is much thicker than the opposite end — rises perpendicular from the plane of the blade, curves out away from the reaper, tapers as it curves back toward him, curves away again. The two stubby handles, or nibs, are set at right angles to the shaft. You don'ꀙt swing it like a golf club; you use a motion of gathering in.

A European snath will often be straighter, or completely straight, without the sweeping curves or the thick base. The scythe aficionados to whom everyone now has ready access on the web seem to prefer it. (The number of scythe afficionados is no doubt small, but larger than you might think. People actually hold scything competitions in Britain and continental Europe, including one in Poland's Biebrza National Park.)

Still, there is something about the sinuous curve of an American snath that makes it unlike any other common tool. Whatever the shape, the aficionado on the Scythe Connection site writes: 'ꀜAn ergonomic snath should fit 'like a glove.' It is an extension of the hands... Once you try a truly ergonomic tool of any kind, you simply would not be satisfied with the oft-accepted standard.'ꀝ

Contemplating the ergonomics of simple tools, I think about the balance of a really good kitchen knife, the difference between pounding on a log with an axe or maul and letting the weight of the head do the work. And I think about the recent news from Boulder.

There, two landscapers digging a hole for a back-yard fish pond have unearthed 83 stone tools made by people who lived in what is now Colorado 13,000 years ago. The landscapers found one of the few Clovis tool caches on record. The owners had evidently stored the tools for later use. The basic story sounds improbable, but it'ꀙs remarkably similar to the 1987 discovery of a Clovis tool cache in East Wenatchee by two guys digging a trench for irrigation pipe through an apple orchard.

Protein on some of the Boulder blades has given scientists enough DNA to figure out what kinds of critters they were used to butcher. The tool makers seem to have had a taste for camel. (They had also butchered members of the horse, sheep, and bear familiies. University of Colorado anthropologist Douglas Bamforth, who has led research on the tools, says this is one of the rare Clovis sites with no sign that anyone was eating members of the elephant family — mammoths or mastodons.) The owner of the back yard in question, Patrick Mahaffy, told the New York Times that he was struck by the tools'ꀙ ergonomic excellence. And by their beauty.

We tend to imagine — OK, I tend to imagine — stone tools as crude, blunt objects, made of whatever rocks lay close at hand, chosen with no more care than skipping stones. But of course that'ꀙs not true. People'ꀙs lives depended on those tools, and they needed things that would work. The shapes of simple tools are highly evolved — and they have been for a long, long time. Form has always mattered. As Colorado University's Bamforth says, people have been making stone tools for 2.5 million years. They've learned a thing or two. Beyond that, he says, 'ꀜthe fact is that they're well designed. . . . The people who made some of these artifacts were stupendously skillful.'ꀝ

The makers of stone tools used the best materials they could find. Indigenous people . . . knew how different stone tool materials performed,'ꀝ says North Cascades National Park archaeologist Robert Mierendorf. 'ꀜWithout the right kind of stone,'ꀝ Bamforth explains, 'ꀜyou don't have any sharp edges.'ꀝ

Agate, chalcedony, and obsidian give their tools a visual appeal, but those and other favored substances weren'ꀙt widely available, so people went to great lengths and traded over long distances to obtain them. Just as gold and other minerals drew European-American miners into the mountains in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so obsidian and other rocks that could be flaked into blades drew native quarriers and traders for thousands of years before that. Obsidian from the area east of Bend, Oregon wound up on the Pacific coast long before Europeans came to the Northwest. Perhaps 2,500 years ago, obsidian from what is now Yellowstone National Park wound up 1,500 miles away in what is now Ohio, where it was buried in mounds of the Hopewell culture. Obsidian from the Bend area and from Yellowstone also wound up in the North Cascades.

The Boulder tool makers got their materials a little closer at hand, but still a pretty good walk from where they cached the finished products. The right kinds of stone aren't all that easy to come by in the Boulder area. (They're easier to find near East Wenatchee. Redmond geoarchaeologist Brett Lenz says that the stone found there most likely came from the area around Soap Lake and Ephrata, just a little bit east.)

Bamforth 'ꀜsaid he knew immediately that much of the stone used to craft the tools in the cache originated from Colorado's Western Slope and perhaps as far north as southern Wyoming,'ꀝ ScienceDaily reported. 'ꀜThe stone appears to have come from at least four distinct regions, including sites in Colorado's Middle Park south of Steamboat Springs, he said."

Actually, Bamforth says he knows basically where two of the stone varieties came from and doesn't know where the other two (which make up only three of the objects) originated. One of the known varieties, tiger chert, came from northwestern Colorado or southwestern Wyoming — which means that some one carried it over the Rocky Mountains, possibly through the area now set off as Rocky Mountain National Park, along a route that passed by or across the glaciers.

Most of us encounter glacial ice only as a kind of novelty, when we're out hiking or climbing. But for thousands of years, people who lived in and near the western mountains knew it as an everyday companion. When the North Cascades must have been more heavily glaciated than they are today, some of those people traveled far up the Skagit valley into what is now North Cascades National Park to quarry chert. 'ꀜIn the northern portion of the North Cascades, numerous chert quarries have been found,'ꀝ writes Mierendorf in a 1998 Updated Summary Statement of the Archaeology of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Mierendorf envisions 'ꀜan industrial scale of tool-stone procurement'ꀝ in the upper Skagit valley. Separating usable pieces of Hozomeen chert from bedrock would have required 'ꀜa lot of hammering with fairly dense andesite.'ꀝ He has found quarry sites dating back 8,400 years.

The people who went into the North Cascades to quarry stone that long ago 'ꀜcertainly traveled light by today'ꀙs standards,'ꀝ he has written, 'ꀜand without the benefit of maintained trail systems of the present; they lived through climatic events that we have never experienced and at a scale that we are only now becoming aware of.'ꀝ

These were not people wandering aimlessly across the continent, or merely following big animals wherever they led. These were people who knew many square miles of the 'ꀜwilderness'ꀝ that they regarded as home, who carried maps of the mountains in their heads. The fact is that the people who quarried chert in the North Cascades, and those who quarried it on the west slope of the Rockies, had to know where the materials lay, and know how to get there. How did they know? It's 'ꀜaxiomatic for people connected to the land,'ꀝ Mierendorf explains'ꀝ 'ꀜIf you want to see what's up in the mountains, just look at the river channel bars.'ꀝ

One imagines them, over the generations, wearing trails deep into the ground, like remnants of the old Indian route through Stampede Pass. This started a very long time ago. Mierendorf says that archaeological sites around Cascades Pass — now of course a popular hiking route across the North Cascades, but for millennia a corridor for practical travel — prove that people hauled quarried chert across the mountains there. He describes a Cascades Pass still scraped bare by the last continental glacier. There were no old-growth trees. Forests were just starting to form. There was virtually no soil. The pass would have been strewn with boulders, and granitic rocks at the top of the glacial till would have made the ground look pale. People carried chert through that landscape 9,600 years ago.

Even 13,000 years ago, the makers and users of stone tools must have returned periodically to the same places, again and again. Why else would someone have cached all those tools in what has turned out to be Boulder? 'ꀜYou don't do something like that,'ꀝ Bamforth says, 'ꀜif you're not expecting in some sense to be coming back.'ꀝ

They evidently didn't make it. At the very least, they're really, really late. I can empathize.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.