By Larry Merriam, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
And Christopher Merriam, Norman, Oklahoma
In 1934 Robert E. Bell and his friend Chuck Aronhalt made a return trip from their homes in Marion, Ohio, to archaeological sites in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Between March 26 and April 16 of that year they traveled to the Locksburg mound group in southwestern Arkansas. There they ran across some old friends, Ike Dowell and Charlie Banks. They knew the two men from a meeting a year earlier at the Spiro mound site in Oklahoma. There the two men had been working for Joe Balloon of Dardanelle, Arkansas, who had leased the far southeast cone of that mound for digging. That effort at Spiro had proven unsuccessful and the effort had been abandoned. (Later in the fall of 1933 a group of six men had leased the rest of the Spiro Mound for digging and had been recovering incredible artifacts.)
Figure 1. The Big Mound at Locksburg: This photo was taken in 1934 and shows the largest mound at Locksburg. Dr. Bell reported that there were no artifacts found in this mound. (Photograph by Robert E. Bell.)
Since his unsuccessful efforts at Spiro, Joe Balloon had obtained a lease to dig at the Locksburg site. The Locksburg site would later become famous for its outstanding large blades, but in 1934 the site was relatively unknown. The largest mound at the site was said to contain no significant artifacts. (Figure 1 is a picture of the big mound taken in 1934.) The men had been digging at a smaller mound when Bell arrived. The diggers had uncovered a cache of eight blades. (Figure 2 is a photo of the area where the cache was found.) The top seven blades were all broken but when they uncovered the bottom blade it was intact! It was a wide blade of incredible thinness. The blade measured 9″ long, 33/8″ wide and as thin as 3/32″ at one point. This is an astonishing width-to-thickness ratio of over 42 to 1. (Figure 3 is a tri-view image of this blade.)
Robert Bell bought the cache from Joe Balloon. It was during the Depression and Bell did not have a lot of money. Therefore, he restored the broken blades and sold them to recover his expenses in order that he could keep the unbroken blade. (Figure 4 shows two of the broken blades after restoration.) Unfortunately, we don’t know the whereabouts of all seven of the broken blades, but the eighth blade stayed in Bell’s collection for 72 years. It remains in his family’s possession to this day.
We have discovered three of the “killed” blades from the cache. We know they are from the cache because Dr. Bell kept a catalog of artifacts in the family collection including their cost. The Bell-Locksburg blade is item number 150. (Figure 5 shows a backlit picture of the blade.) In his inventory items 150 through 157 are listed at a cost of $10 each. Items prior to 150 and after 157 are listed at values other than $10; therefore, we can conclude that items 151 through 157 represent the broken blades from the cache. Bobby Onken has two blades he obtained from Earl Townsend, who had purchased the Bell collection. Those blades have Bell’s inventory numbers 151 and 153. (Figure 6 shows the numbers from blades 150, 151 and 153, which shows the handwriting to be the same on all three blades.) A fourth blade, number 156, is in the Roy Hathcock collection and was also obtained from Earl Townsend. We have shown photographs of the three blades to knowledgeable Arkansas collectors who are experts on Locksburg. They agree that the blades are forms found at Locksburg and appear to be from that site. (Figure 7 shows blades 151 and 153.)
Figure 2. Mound containing the Bell-Locksburg blade cache. This photo shows the area of the site where the Bell blade was uncovered. The man on the left is one of the diggers, either Ike Dowell or Charlie Banks. The man on the right is Chuck Aronhalt, Robert Bell’s friend from Marion, Ohio. (Photograph by Robert E. Bell.)
Of all the flint pieces Robert Bell saw in his lifetime, what makes blade 150 so special? The Bell-Locksburg blade is a masterpiece, a work of art. It is made from a translucent Edwards chert. The dark chocolate brown color is typical for Locksburg pieces and may reflect patination created by the soil conditions at the site. When illuminated by backlight, the blade shows a warm golden glow. (See Figure 5.) It is so thin and translucent; you can actually read Bell’s inventory number on one side through the piece from the reverse side! The high quality of the chert allowed removal of the broad shallow flakes that are necessary to create the unbelievable thinness of the blade.
Figure 3. Tri-View picture of the Bell Blade. This figure shows three views of the Bell Blade in one photo. (Photograph by Christopher J. Merriam.)
Figure 4. Two restored blades from the cache. In this picture are two of the seven killed blades found with the Bell blade. In this photo the blades have been restored. (Photograph by Robert E. Bell.)
Knappers we have talked to who have seen the blade do not know what techniques were used to achieve this ultra-thinness. The flakes actually dive towards the center of the blade such that the thinnest spots are near the center of the blade. There are examples of this flaking technology in Caddoan blades where the flake actually broke through to the other side, creating a hole in the center of the piece.
At this time, the best-known Caddoan ultra-thin blade is the Sweetwater biface, found in 1986 by Roland Kramer. It was found in Nolan County, Texas, near the town of Sweetwater, on the surface in a gully. It measures 9716″ x 33/8″ and is only 3/16“ at the thickest spot. It was originally curated by Charles E. Shewey and is now in the collection of David Bogel.
Peter Bostrum of Lithic Casting Lab has created a museum-quality cast of the Sweetwater Biface. Peter reports the blade thickness ranges from/ t1, 16“ to 5, 32“. These values are very comparable to the Bell-Locksburg blade. A side-by-side comparison of the Bostrum cast of the Sweetwater biface and the Bell-Locksburg blade illustrates the similarities in the flaking style. In fact, these are so striking it is easy for one to speculate that they were knapped by the same maker. The Sweetwater biface is slightly longer than the Bell-Locksburg blade. It is also made of Edwards chert but a different variety than the BellLocksburg Blade and is not translucent. The two blades represent a pinnacle in the art of flintknapping.