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July 2, 2010 Collecting obsidian for stone tools in Oregon

Finding some obsidian flakes
Driving a gravel road south of Glass Buttes, Oregon, we saw a low hill which seemed like the kind of place ancient hunters would have stopped and decided to check it out. We found these obsidian flakes which we think were left by a tool maker. However, they could have been left last month for all we know!

Driving along the gravel road about 5 hours southeast of Portland, Oregon, the pungent smell of sage filled our noses. My dad and I were doing a road trip through the desert and had pulled off the highway to drive behind Glass Butte. The looming peak was to our left while to the right the land dropped away toward a distant ranch. We decided to stop at a low rocky hill maybe 6 feet high. I imagined an ancient group of hunters and figured they would like a place like that which had a commanding view of the sweeping valley below. Scrambling up onto the small plateau, I looked down to see several small shiny black flakes. Obsidian! And they appeared to be the flakes left when someone made a tool, perhaps a spear point or arrowhead. The flakes were all about an inch across and had very sharp edges. They were all left in one area bout two feet square while the surrounding desert was just rocks, soil and sage brush. There was even a rock bench right next to them where the tool maker might have sat as they worked.
Now, I've read on the internet that people do primitive skills training workshops at Glass Butte, so these flakes may have been left last November rather than 1,000 years ago. But it was still neat to see the evidence of tool making left behind in the open desert. It was like an echo of the people who were there before. Who were they? Were did the go? What were they like? These are the questions we hope to answer with archaeology!

Obsidian flakes
See how the flakes are scattered on the surface? Could someone making a spear or arrow head have left these flakes here? What do you think?


It was the lead researcher on my PolarTREC expedition who suggested I come to Glass Butte in Oregon. Dr. Jeff Rasic of the University of Alaska's Museum of the North had been there to collect obsidian for his own flint knapping (stone tool making). The land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management which means we can all go use it without trespassing. He said people have been going there to collect obsidian for projectile points for thousands of years! Anyone can visit Glass Butte which is about halfway between Bend and Burns in Oregon's central high desert. I collected several obsidian cobbles about the size of softballs which I hope to use in the classroom next year. Thanks for the great idea, Dr. Rasic! See you in a couple weeks up in Fairbanks for the start of our expedition.

More obsidian flakes
More obsidian flakes left by tool makers?
Our campsite in the desert
What an amazing sunset! The smell of sage and the howl of coyotes made it even more wonderful. Thanks, Oregon! For dinner we bought burgers from the nice couple at the Riley store and cooked them on my parents' 3-burner Coleman stove. That was a wedding gift they got from my mom's mom in 1969! Still works great.

Photos

Finding some obsidian flakes
Obsidian flakes
More obsidian flakes
Our campsite in the desert

Details

Karl Horeis's picture
Author: Karl Horeis
Expedition: Early Human Settlement in Arctic Alaska
Weather Summary: Sunny with wind