Experimental Archaeology at the Park

by Patricia Samford & Tim Thoman

If you visit the Indian Village over the next few days, you just might catch Village Manager Tim Thoman and park volunteers Marco de Pompa and Simon Gannon working hard to solve an archaeological mystery uncovered in the 1970s.

Over four decades ago, excavations were conducted at the Biggs Ford Site (18FR14), a large and well-preserved Native American village site on the Monocacy River in Frederick County, Maryland. This settlement was occupied between around 1000 and 1500 AD. A number of human burials were discovered during the excavation. In one of the pits that contained a burial, remnants of charred wood that appeared to have been a bow were also recovered. A number of arrow points placed near the possible bow may have represented a quiver of arrows.

While some study of this very unusual find has occurred over the ensuing years, no detailed analysis of the charred wood had taken place—that is, until charcoal and wood specialist Simon Gannon arrived in late October for an extended stay at the park. Simon, who hails from Ireland, wanted a project he could really sink his teeth into and MHT archaeologists Maureen Kavanagh and Charlie Hall provided it for him.

Charlie and Maureen were curious about what species was represented by the wood. Earlier analysis done by Harry Alden indicated the wood was a species of yellow pine; not a type of wood that would have made an effective bow. Simon found no reason to disagree with Alden’s assessment. The distinctive shape of the charred wood, however, left no doubt in his mind that this wood was once a bow and in discussing this matter with Tim and Marco, an interesting project was born.

The three men decided to recreate the bow, using replica Native American tools and techniques on Virginia pine. Making a measured drawing of the wood confirmed that this was a very small bow–only about 650 mm (25.5”) long. Tim, Marco and Simon easily found a stand of Virginia pine on the park and felled a small tree using a stone ax.

bowmaking tree
Simon Gannon and Tim Thoman look for the perfect pine.

Cutting down a tree with a stone axe looks difficult!

Cutting down the tree was a simple matter compared with deciding the best way to begin shaping the wood into a bow. The first piece of wood they cut was split using a stone celt struck by a wooden billet (think “mallet”) and then shaped with a greenstone adze. But this method removed too much wood to create a bow of the proportions and dimensions required, so Marco, Tim and Simon decided to go directly to shaping the piece of wood with the stone adze. After using the adze on the first piece they were all very impressed with how well it worked, the sharp stone quickly cut the piece down to size, but also works well to remove very small shavings. They tried other methods to shave the reconstructed bow down to size, but the adze proved to work the best. Once they had completed the complicated shape of the bow they sanded away the tool marks on a slab of stone covered with sand, then rubbed it on a large block of argillite (a type of stone commonly used for making stone tools) and a piece of shale to smooth it out. The bow was finished by burnishing it with a piece of smooth bone to polish the surface and then coating it with fat. The sanding, smoothing and burnishing took a lot of time, but Simon, Tim and Marco are satisfied that they have made as faithful a reconstruction of the original artifact as is possible.

The size and shape of the bow would make it impossible for it to be used to shoot arrows, so we can only surmise that it would have had a ceremonial purpose, but what that purpose was we can only speculate. This has been a very interesting project, but of course it only opens the door to more questions, as so often happens.

bow making1
A stone celt is used to skin the bark from the pine.

completed bow
The completed bow.

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