What was this used for? – Part 2: When is an “arrowhead” not just an arrowhead?

By Matthew Davidson

A selection of probable arrow points from Fort Ancient village sites in northeastern Kentucky.  Art by Jimmy Railey, published in Fort Ancient Cultural Dynamics, edited by A. Gwynn Henderson (1992).  Original figure caption tells the reader which site each artifact came from – retaining this information is important; it allows archaeologists to develop a unique history of each village.

In Part 1 of this blog we described how archaeologists study Native American stone tools. To recap, until about the 1970s archaeologists looked at examples of stone tools from living and past cultures to understand how artifacts were used.  So using this comparative method, an artifact shaped like a “knife” must have been used in the past as a knife.  Starting in the 1970s archaeologists found a more scientific approach; they began replicating stone tools, using them, and then comparing the results to stone tools they found at actual dig sites.  Over the last 50 years, archaeologists have learned a lot about stone tools using this experimental method.  In this blog, we will describe what the experimental method has taught us about a stone tool type pretty much everyone is familiar with – “arrowheads”! 

The parts of a bow and arrow.  Illustration by Tim Weitzel in American Indian Archery Technology

“Arrow heads” – as most people call them – are the triangular stone heads or points attached (hafted) to the ends of arrows (see image above).  The bow and arrow was the main hunting weapon used by Fort Ancient and Mississippian farming societies in Kentucky between about 1,000 and 300 years ago. For the most part, the stone point of arrows is the only thing that archaeologists find at dig sites.  The other parts of this weapons system – the bow, bow string, and the arrow shafts – are made of wood, sinew, feathers and other materials that break down over time.  Although there are a few rare examples of partial and complete bows and arrows, they are almost all from the 1700s or later.

Different types of arrow points used by Fort Ancient farmers in Kentucky from 1,000 until 300 years ago.  Art by Jimmy Railey in Fort Ancient Cultural Dynamics, edited by A. Gwynn Henderson (1992).

If you have been part of an archaeological dig, or walked a plowed field where a Fort Ancient or Mississippian village once stood, you have probably seen a few arrow points littering the ground (image above).  In fact, they are so common that even archaeologists often assume that any stone tool that is thin, sharp, small and triangular was the point of an arrow.  BUT, remember in part 1 of this blog, we talked about how the shape of something does not always tell us what it was used for?  Well, this is also true for the stone tools we often call “arrowheads.”

 “Something splashing this way comes”, by artist John Buxton (used with permission).  In this scene, Iroquoian hunters see something in the marshland.  Although Kentucky was not the original homeland of Iroquoian people, there is evidence they raided Fort Ancient (Shawnee) towns in the late 1600s.

Several studies of “arrowheads” from Fort Ancient village sites tell us that these stone tools were used for a variety of tasks.  The first study, by archaeologist Dr. Richard Yerkes, looked at stone tools from a Fort Ancient village site in Scott County, Kentucky (see Pickelsimer 2010 in citations below).  People lived at this village about 900 years ago. This study used a microscope to examine 14 stone tools shaped like arrow points.  The goal was to see how they were used.

Examples of complete and broken arrow tips from the Fort Ancient village in Scott County, KY (from Pickelsimer 2010, reference below).

Archaeologists could only tell how half of the items from Scott County were used.   On most of them, the tip of the point was broken off, which you can see in the image above.  In experimental studies, a broken tip is the most common type of damage on arrows made of stone.   A few also had microscopic damage to the base where they were connected to the arrow shaft.  This looks like lines or scratches in the stone, which you can see examples of in the next image.

Examples of microscopic wear found on the base of one arrow point where it was attached to the arrow shaft.  From the Fort Ancient village in Scott County, KY (from Pickelsimer 2008, reference below).

The second study was at a Fort Ancient village site in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  This study, by archaeologist Dr. Flora Church, used a microscope to look at 69 stone tools thought to be arrow points (see Pullins et al. 2008 in references below).  It was found that most of the tools had muscle or hide polish on their surface, suggesting they were arrow tips that were shot into animals.  When an arrow hits an animal, anything it rubs on – including the hide, muscle, and bone – can leave traces on the stone point for archaeologists to find.  Some arrow points even retain traces of blood that can tell archaeologists what animal they were shot into!  Most of the stone tools were also worn on the base, which suggests (like above) they were attached to arrow shafts.  Finally, about one-third of the artifacts had broken tips – also evidence they were used as arrows.

Examples of microscopic bone or antler polish on stone arrow tips.  Top is from West Virginia site (Pullins et al. 2008), Bottom is from Kentucky site (Pickelsimer 2010).

In summary, both the Kentucky and the West Virginia studies found strong evidence that stone tools shaped like arrow points, were most likely used for arrows.  However, both studies also found that at least some (10-20%) of the stone tools were used for something else.  In the Kentucky study, one arrow point had been broken and later reused to scrape dry animal hides.  In the West Virginia study, about a quarter of the artifacts had microscopic bone or antler polish on them.  This suggests they hit bone or antler when shot into an animal, or they could have been used to cut or scrape bone or antler.  What these studies tell us is that most things that look like arrow points were used for arrows, but sometimes they were also used for other tasks or were recycled after being broken.

To see how archaeologists use microscopes to study stone tools, check out this quick video featuring archaeologist and stone tool specialist Dr. Melody Pope (now at the Glen Black Lab at Indiana University).  To learn more about stone tools that we often call “arrowheads” check out the super-interesting article “arrowheads and other points: myths and little known facts” by archaeologist and science writer K. Kris Hirst.


Henderson, A. Gwynn

1992  Fort Ancient Cultural Dynamics in the Middle Ohio Valley.  Monographis in World Archaeology No.8.  Prehistory Press, Madison Wisconsin.

Pickelsimer, John

2010  Phase II and III Archaeological Investigations at the Kentuckiana Farms Site (15Sc183), in Scott County, Kentucky. Compiled by Gray and Pape, Inc. for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Frankfort, Kentucky.

Pullins, Stevan, Anslinger, Michael, Bradbury, Andrew, Bybee, Alexandria, Church, Flora, Spencer, Darla, and William Updike. 

2008  Late Prehistoric, Late Woodland, and Late Archaic / Early Woodland Transitional Occupation at the Burning Spring Branch Site on the Kanawha River, West Virginia.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District.

Weitzel, Tim

n.d.  American Indian Archery Technology.  In Series in Ancient Technologies, published by the Office of the State Archaeologist of Iowa, University of Iowa. Iowa City, Iowa.

Additional Sources

1. The Archaeology of Fort Ancient Farming Villages:

Fort Ancient in Kentucky (see Chapter 7)

Fort Ancient Village at Augusta, Kentucky

Fort Ancient Village at Fox Farm, Kentucky

Fort Ancient in West Virginia

Fort Ancient Village (Sunwatch) in Dayton Ohio

2. Experimental Archaeology of Arrow and Dart Tips:

(i) Odell, George, and Robert Cowan

1986 Experiments with Spears and Arrows on Animal Targets. Journal of Field Archaeology 13(2):195-212.

(ii) Dockall, John

 1997 Wear Traces and Projectile Impact: A Review of the Experimental and Archaeological Evidence.  Journal of Field Archaeology 24(3):321-331.

(iii) Odell, George

2004  Lithic Analysis.  Plenum Press, New York.

(iv) Coppe, Justin, and Veerle Rots

2017  Focus on the target. The importance of a transparent fracture terminology for understanding projectile points and projecting modes.  Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 12:109–123.

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