Friday, October 3, 2014

Anasazi Jet: Making a Prehistoric Style Pendant Using Stone Tools

 A year ago I spent an unforgettable week at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center learning how the Anasazi made their elegant jewelry.  I've been fascinated with it for many years, from the time I was a professional illustrator to my present work as a full time jewelry designer.  Located in the heart of the Anasazi "homeland" near Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, Crow Canyon invites the public to experience hands-on archaeology and lab work.  I'd long wanted to do something there, and when I saw that their 2013 Fall Lab would focus on ancient ornament study and replication I jumped at the chance.

The week was full of excellent lectures, visits to the Dillard Site (CC's latest Basketmaker III excavation) and the superb Edge of the Cedars Museum, studying and cataloguing ancient ornaments, and learning replication techniques.  I took plenty of notes and photos and in the past year have used that knowledge to create my own contemporary pieces using ancient-style materials and tools.  Working with jet has been especially challenging but it's produced beautiful results and has become my favorite ancient material.  The pendant above is the latest piece that I've sold in my Etsy shop, Desert Talismans, and while it was in progress I and my friend Flo Bargar photographed how it was done.   
The first step involved breaking or roughing out a piece of raw jet.  Jet is a very hard type of coal, lightweight like amber but extremely tough; I purchased this raw Colorado jet at Zuni Pueblo.  I started by dribbling some water on my roughest sandstone slab and grinding the jet to shape it.  The water helps the grinding process and eliminates dust.  When grinding, I try to retain as much of the material as possible while creating a pleasing shape.   This is pretty vigorous work as it takes a fair amount of pressure to grind down the material.
After 1-2 hours of continuous grinding, I arrived at the rough shape of the pendant.  As you can see, it's dirty work!  My next step was to create a facet on the upper right-hand edge to grind out that rough spot.
Once I was satisfied with the overall shape, all of the surfaces were refined on a finer-grit sandstone.  These two sandstone slabs actually came from Crow Canyon and were used in the class.

Here's the final shape.  I liked the raw surfaces on the bottom and back of the piece, so these were left primarily in their natural state.
Drilling the jet, using a piece of knapped flint.  Making a hole with a hand drill like this involves twisting the drill back and forth over and over...and over... while at the same time applying pressure.  This creates a conical hole, and it's very tedious work and requires a lot of patience.  Drill ends easily break or become dull.  I went through this piece from both the back and front, flipping it over repeatedly to create a fairly symmetrical biconical hole.  Besides hand drills like this, the Anasazi commonly used pump drills with much narrower stone bits to drill their ornaments, especially smaller beads.  They were even rumored to have used cactus spines to drill the tiniest heishe beads, but I've yet to see this done.  Hand drills give you a hole that is very wide at the top and they take longer to use, while a pump drill will give you a much straighter perforation.  I hope to find a good flintknapper who can supply me with some pump drill bits because making my own is definitely beyond my skill set.  My idea of flintknapping is to bang the rocks together and hope I'll end up with a usable corner or edge somewhere.
Finally, the finished hole.  This took about 1 1/2 hours of continuous work, plus frequent breaks for stretches: it's tough on the muscles if you're not used to it.  You can see where a few chips spalled out of the right-hand edge, and these were smoothed down later. 
Next the channel had to be carved out for the shell inlay.  I used a series of flint flakes for this.  First a set of parallel lines was incised to establish the dimensions of the channel and then the center was dug out.  It takes a lot of control to incise precise lines, and I find that the trickiest part of this is neatly squaring off the upper end.  Completing this channel took about 2-3 hours.
Now the fun part: making the tiny abalone shell tesserae for the inlay.  For these I needed thin pieces that had minimal curvature and good iridescence.  I'm using a flint blade to saw a strip of shell from a larger piece, which is being cushioned on a piece of elkhide.  Shell is easier to work than jet, fortunately.  At right, you can see a couple of mosaic tesserae already completed and laid into the pendant. 
Here I'm reducing the tiny mosaic pieces to just the right width.  I finished by beveling the sides for the best fit into the channel.  The smallest size tessera I've been able to handle so far is 1.5mm wide.
I researched and created my own pinon pitch adhesive for the inlay.  Pinon sap was gathered from trees in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains near our home.  This was melted together with powdered juniper wood charcoal, producing a glossy black substance that smelled heavenly.  I transferred some of it to a stick and then a smaller amount to a toothpick.  Pitch is only workable when it is heated, and it only adheres to a surface that is also hot.  I did this by holding the pieces over a candle flame, the jet in one hand and the pitch stick in the other, and quickly applying the molten pitch to the channel.  Then the pitch-filled channel had to be reheated along with the tesserae which, one at a time, were pressed into place.  This was the only time in the entire process where I used metal tools: tweezers were required to hold the tiny abalone tesserae while they were being heated.  I don't know how the ancients got around this and I'll be researching that in the near future.    
Once the tesserae were seated into the channel to my satisfaction, it was time to clean up the excess pitch.  I try to heat and wipe away as much as I can but some residue always remains that has to be scraped and ground away.  I use both small flint blades and the larger grinding stones for this step which, again, takes a couple of hours to do.
For the final polish, I vigorously buff all sides of the piece on elkhide, as well as my cotton canvas dropcloth.  The Anasazi had cotton and I expect they also used it for polishing. 
There you have it!  Pictured below is a gallery of my other creations from the past year, made with the same stone tools and techniques, and sold from my Etsy shop.  If any of you out there want to try this and have questions or additional information, don't hesitate to let me know!  Thanks for reading! 
 My first argillite (pipestone) pendant.  Argillite is easy to work, but very fragile. 
An abalone shell pendant incised with flint blades.
My own inlaid jet pendant.
A two-toned argillite bird.
Abalone shell earrings.
The first and smallest of the inlaid jet pendants.
Jet and abalone beads on the handwoven cord.
Mexican turquoise.
A beautifully marked argillite pendant with argillite and abalone tab counterweights.
Argillite earrings with abalone inlay.


Sparrow said...

Good are just amazing. I am so endlessly in awe of the lengths you go to for authenticity in your work. I've long wanted to re-set my skills in object making and give up modern tools and ways in favour of 'how the ancients did it', but in losing my creative spark these last couple of years I lost that intention as well. This post has kindled a flame!

Dawn said...

Thanks, Sparrow! I've loved your work as well. You know, I've found that the creative spark tends to run in cycles and has to go quietly underground from time to time; there's nothing wrong with it (or you!). I've learned to be patient when this happens because the creative urge eventually resurfaces, often in a new direction.

You might want to look into the Aboriginal traditions in your area for ornamentation...there's always something interesting around if you investigate. I'm very happy to know this post has inspired you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dawn for sharing your process in creating these amazing pieces. Each one that you have painstakingly created is an amazing jewel. And I loved seeing a slice of your studio - your Gilgit shell buttons look like a starry constillation on your wall. Very lovely. :-)


Alice said...

Fascinating and beautiful! I would not have the patience for this.

Margaret Zipkin said...

Dawn, as always, I am just in awe of the beauty and integrity of your process. Thank you so much for sharing. The Ancestors must be smiling!

Clyde Hudson said...

Wow! I can see that those are finely crafted. Those are must haves for any home collection. You should be able to ship out those types of stones quickly, where the added pressure is simply taking the supply amount and sales into account. Good luck!

Clyde Hudson @ Stewart Technologies, Inc.