The Awl-Knife: An Old Copper Multipurpose Tool

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Copper Artifacts

The Awl-Knife: An Old Copper Multipurpose Tool
by E.J.Neiburger and Steve Livernash, Waukegan, Illinois
Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.55, No.3, pg.134

The rat-tail spear point is a common Old Copper weapon/tool which has been frequent­ly found at Great Lakes sites. Originally as­sociated with the Archaic period (8000-1000 BC), the rat-tail point is unique. It consists of two parts: (1) the laurel leaf shaped, thin blade and the (2) rat-tail like tang which tapers down to a point. There are a variety of rat tail points which can be classified into two groups depending on their "tail" tang length: (1) the short tanged variety and the (2) long tanged (approximately 8 cm long) item (Fig 1).
The rat-tail point can be used in several ways. It can be inserted into a spear shaft and used as a projectile point. It can also be in­serted into a handle and used as a knife (Fig 2). The long tailed variety, being longer than an average man's hand is wide (8 cm), could also be used as a multi-function tool (Fig 3). The blade could be a double edged knife and the protruding, pointed tail could serve as an awl or drill; a piercing tool. This tool could be used for cutting, piercing products such as leather, wood, horn or bone, drilling, clam shelling, etc. Could this theory be possible?
Multi-purpose tools have been found in every culture. They are not unique. A multi­purpose tool makes efficient use of materials and is inherently ergonomic (mechanically ef­ficient). Rather than having a separate knife and awl (two tools to carry, locate), the single, long variety rat-tail could suffice for both ap­plications. The question is whether the longer tang on the rat-tail point could serve another purpose which is not awl related. The most obvious reason, other than a multi-purpose tool, is that the long tang would help better fasten the copper point to a shaft or handle. If this were the case, then the awl-knife multi purpose tool may not really exist.

Fig 1
Old Copper rat-tail points with long and short tangs (tails).
To test this possibility, we decided to do two tests:
(1). Historically, to investigate the rela­tionship between long Ganged and short tanged spear/knife tools in bronze age history.

(2). Experiment on the strength of the hafting of short vs. long tang rat-tail points on functioning spears.

Historically, we seldom see long tanged spear points in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Chi­nese, Mesopotamian and other ancient copper (alloy)-spear point producing cultures. Fig­ure 4 shows typical ancient Persian (Luristan 2000 BC) bronze spear points (A,B) with short tails similar to Old Copper points with similar short tails (D,E). The short tail variety seem to be the most popular and thus, probably the most efficient to make and use.


Fig 2: Simulated Old Copper rat-tail point with wood and leather handles.


An experiment was devised where copy rat tail points were made by hammering (Fig­ure 4 F, G and Fig 5), placed into drilled spear shafts (1.3 m long). They were re-enforced with circular cord binding to protect from splitting the wood. One spear point was a long tailed rat-tail with a 6cm long blade and a 7cm tail. The other was a short tail variety with a 6cm blade and a 3cm long tail. These spears were thrown forcefully at a pine board from a distance of 10 feet. The experiment tested whether the long or short tailed point was held into the shaft better and thus could be consid­ered stronger. Thirty throws of each weapon resulted in the spears sticking in the wooden target 85% of the time. The other 15% were glancing blows which bounced off after an oblique impact. Neither point (long vs. short tail) became dislodged or bent.


Fig 3: Sample multipurpose tools: Two simulated awl knives, modern Swiss army knife, 19th century shelling and hooking multi-purpose tools.

There appears to be no advantage in mak­ing an extra long rat-tail point if the only con­sideration is to "improve" spear hafting design (which experimentally does not). A long tail consumes valuable metal and requires consid­erable time to shape and sharpen. Consider­ing the drain on time and materials, a long tail would not be made for just decoration or idol activity since it would require more extensive drilling and other preparation just to be hid­den in the shaft/handle of the tool/weapon. It has to have a more immediate, direct utility and its use as an awl-knife would be a logical probability.


Fig 4: Sample of long and short rat-tail pints: A&B from ancient Lristan, Persia, C-E from Wisconsin Old Copper sites, F&G simulated Old Copper copper points

Historically and experimentally, long tanged rat-tail spear points show no structural advantage over short tanged rat-tail variet­ies in spear tip construction. They both work equally well. We conclude that the extra long length of many Old Copper rat-tails served a dual purpose. We theorize that these artifacts were dual purpose awls and knives being used for cutting on the blade end and piercing and drilling work on the other. The extra length of the tang would accommodate a handle (Figure 2) and extend beyond the edge of the human hand thus exposing the awl tip. This is what we describe as an Awl-knife.


Fig 5: Long and short tanged rat-tail points inserted into spear shafts and thrown at pine target. After 30 throws, there was no bending or loosening of either point. Both points functioned equally well.


"Used by Permission of the Author"
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