In farm fields across Wisconsin, spring is the time to pick rocks. But Bob Keiper and Gary Eldred aren’t farmers. They’re flintknappers and they’re looking for rocks shaped by ancient hands and then left behind in a farm field outside Hixton, WI.
“All of the different cultures of Indians from Paleo all the way up to modern times are found in that field,” says Keiper.
The field is just below an ancient rock quarry called Silver Mound. “My guess is they were quarrying it right off this slope and taking it down there to work it up,” says Eldred.
There never was silver in the hill, but the ancestors of modern First Nations people found something more precious; a rock they could shape into knives and scrapers and arrowheads. Broken pieces and raw material were left on site and covered up by the passage of time.
“You just can’t imagine how much material there is in these fields,” says Keiper.
Each year spring brings old stones to the surface and the farmer makes rock piles on the edge of the field. “Of course he says, ‘Take all the stone, because it wrecks my farm machinery, ‘” says Keiper.
Keiper and Eldred aren’t just looking for artifacts, they’re looking for the raw material so they can make their own points.
“Knapping is a German word that means to break stone,” says Keiper. “So flint knapping is to break stone.”
A few thousand years ago, people used a hammerstone and a deer antler. Modern tools aren’t that much different. Knapping is about technique and the quality of the material. The stone must be hit in just the right spot to knock off a flake. That makes the original stone thinner and sharper. The flake itself could become a smaller piece.
“You against the stone is what I like to think,” says Keiper. “But a lot of times, it’s you against yourself.”
Not every stone is knappable. Outcroppings of silicified sandstone, like Silver Mound, were destination spots for ancient toolmakers. “It was not only Native Americans that worked flint. I mean my ancestors, you know, Norwegian and German, they worked flint too. We all went through the Stone Age. All of our families went through the Stone Age. It wasn’t just our Native Americans here.”
Keiper and Eldred each remember finding their first arrowhead as boys and wanting to know how it was made. “I just kind of stuck with it all these years. I don’t know why but the whole history of the thing just captivated me,” says Keiper. “You can pick up a flake of stone and you make this connection with whoever it was that knocked that off or made that point.”
They also travel the country attending knap-ins, where knappers get together to trade stone and stories and break rock. “There’s a rhythm,” says Eldred. “If you get eight or ten guys together, and once they get focused, there’s not a lot of talk going on.”
Even the knap-in has a connection to ancient peoples. “Can you imagine what it would be like way back when and another group comes to the same quarry?” asks Keiper.
“Is there a conflict?” adds Eldred. “Or is it a time to share knowledge, experience, stories?”
Eldred and Keiper have each been knapping for more than 40 years with no plans to stop. “It’s like opening up presents,” says Eldred. “You never know what’s going to be inside the next rock.”
“It’s all about the creation for me,” says Keiper. “You sit down and knap and something flows through your mind. It’s just this primordial connection that’s there. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”