Archaeologists from the Northern Illinois Field Station recently recovered two bone tools from a small site in Stephenson County. ISAS faunal analyst Steve Kuehn has identified the elements used to make the tools. The finer tool (left in the image below) is made from a turkey tarsometatarsus (i.e. the last long bone before the toe bones). It has wear on the tip and the edges and may have served as an awl. The other awl (right in the image below) is made on a white-tailed deer metatarsus.
When people think of prehistoric artifacts, they often think first of projectile points and then of ceramics or groundstone tools. However, bone tools also survive in the archaeological record if conditions are good for bone preservation. Bone tools were used to work on soft materials such as hides, baskets, and mats where the harder and sharper edges of chipped stone tools would have damaged or torn the material. In the modern world, many items that were once made of bone (buttons, combs, beads, needles, hairpins, ornaments, and gaming pieces) are now made of plastic.
Bone tools are proxies for activities that do not survive and that, ethnographically, are often associated with women’s work. Bone tools were a vital part of the toolkit in prehistoric North America, as they were necessary to make clothing, shelters, and containers.
Griffitts, Janet L., 2013, Bones, Stones and Metal Tools: Experiments in Middle Missouri Bone Working. In The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, edited by Jeb J. Card, pp 342-363. Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Paper No. 39, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
Hoffman, J., 1980, Scapula skin dressing and fiber processing tools. Plains Anthropologist 25(88): 135-141.
MacGregor, A.G., 1985, Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Croom Helm, London.
Oakes, J., 1991, Copper and Caribou Inuit Skin Clothing Production. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull Quebec.
Spector, Janet, 1991, What this awl means: towards feminist archaeology. In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Meg W. Conkey, pp 388-406. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.