Out Knapping

As I write this, Jim’s out in the yard flintknapping.

Some of Jim's work

That is, he’s making arrowheads. I think this one is out of blue glass. Jim primarily works in obsidian (a natural glass), but he enjoys the colors in manufactured glass and plays with that as well. Pictured are Mexican obsidian, mahogany obsidian, and blue glass.

People often ask me what it’s like being married to an archeologist. Well, I can’t say in general, but I can say that this particular archeologist is pretty fascinating.

Jim is a senior project director for the Museum of New Mexico, working within the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job embraces a wide range of duties and skills, ranging from the physically demanding to the highly intellectual. He not only needs to be able to work outdoors in the punishing conditions of our New Mexico weather, but also to be familiar with the most cutting edge theories of his profession. In addition, he also does laboratory analysis, and trains newcomers in skills that range from lithic analysis to how to shovel without doing yourself damage. Oh, and he has to write budgets, too.

And it doesn’t hurt that he knows how to make arrowheads.

Why this last you might ask? Well, one of Jim’s specializations is lithic analysis – that is, analysis of stone tools including arrowheads, knives, scrapers, gunflints, and the related detritus.

Contrary to what television and movies may have led you to believe, artifacts are rarely found intact. In fact, in the case of lithics, it is much more usual to find the detritus associated with the creation of the artifact than the artifact itself.

In the years that Jim has practiced flintknapping, he has learned first hand what that detritus means. He can often tell whether a specific flake indicates a skilled worker, a novice, or merely someone in a hurry. He can look at a partially finished piece and tell you why it wasn’t competed.

Not always, he wants me to assure you, but a lot of the time.

That reminds me of a funny thing that happened a few years after we got together. Jim’s office had two young hotshots who were training in lithics with Jim. Their assignment was to analyze the lithic assemblage from a particular site, making conclusions about materials, type of flakes, and stuff like that.

Because they were in training, Jim was checking their work. I guess they figured that maybe Jim didn’t know as much as he thought he did. Maybe they were just feeling their oats. For whatever reason, these two young men came into Jim’s office all serious and presented him with a piece of stone.

“Jim, we’ve looked at this, and we just can’t figure out what it is.”

Jim accepted the artifact in question, swung around to his microscope, and inspected the artifact.

“Well,” he said, after a moment. “If I didn’t know better, I’d figure that somebody banged on the edge of this flake with a piece of metal.”

Two faces shifted from serious to astonished. Guess what? That’s just what they had done.

Jim’s pretty cool in other ways, too. I’ve seen him down in a hole that’s nine feet deep – an Ancient Puebloan (or to use the now outdated term “Anasazi”) pithouse – tossing out shovels of dirt and, without looking, hit squarely in the center of a wheelbarrow that’s another three feet up.

I’ve watched him present academic paper at invitation-only seminars, then be complimented for his scholarship by the people who were once his professors. In fact, Jim has more publications than most writers I know – and that includes me.

And I’ve watched him talking with a law officer who has stopped by his site to ask for advice about some bones that have just been found where a flash flood washed out a dirt road. I’ve seen him listen patiently while a tourist who has read precisely one article on Southwestern archeology holds forth as if she’s an expert.

This summer, Jim has a project going into the field. I’ve volunteered for him before (usually taking notes in order to free up someone who is more skilled). I’m already setting aside time to go and volunteer on this one.

What’s it like being married to an archeologist? I can’t say in general, but I can say that being married to this one is pretty cool.

9 Responses to “Out Knapping”

  1. janelindskold Says:

    Apologies that this went up late.

    I thought I’d set it, but I think I forgot to push the final button.

    Blame it on pre-travel chaos here…

    Hope to see some of you at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on Saturday.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    You’re lucky!

    I’ve had some great conversations with California archeologists. The question is why there’s an Indian village in some spot. I start looking at the plants and say, “Oh look, there’s their food, their firewood, their water,” and the archeologist is talking about the lithics and all the evidence I’m missing about human occupation.

    Do you ever do that in New Mexico?

  3. Debbie Says:

    Jane, you forgot the part about how generous he is with his time when a friend seriously wants to get the archeological facts right in the piece of fiction they’re writing. I so enjoyed my visit to his office and meeting the characters there.

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    He’s a generous host, too — you both are — as we learned back in 2007. I can see how he is an excellent resource for writers (as in a certain short story, “Jeff’s Best Joke,” in the story collection, “Past Imperfect” (2001) — heartily recommended!)

  5. janelindskold Says:


    Actually, no, I don’t. Lithics are only one component archeologists examine.

    Archeologists do look at the botantical component. Jim’s office has ethno-botanists on staff and contracts with palynologists (pollen specialists). It’s amazing what these people can tell you about what plants the long-ago inhabitants ate or the wood they used.

    For another, sites change over time. What is there now is not likely what was there even fifty years ago, much less a hundred or five hundred.

    I remember a pasture in Maryland where as a little girl I fed the horses. Today my niece sees it as a primal forest.

    Judging yesterday by today — especially with plants — doesn’t usually work.

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    Jim sounds like a fascinating person. I love experts (I don’t care what their expertise is in). They are always full of knowledge, full of enthusiasm and always keen to share that enthusiasm with anyone who will listen. I’m always willing to listen.

  7. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    I may see you in San Diego. At one California site I was working on, the tribe had actually started tending the wild bulbs and such. In the spring, the whole place was covered by edible wild plants, unlike any place for miles. That tribe was moved out 150 years ago, and their biological traces are still all over the place. That’s true for much of “wild” California. We’re not working with the Ancestral Puebloan cultures here.

  8. Ann M Nalley Says:

    One of the most amazing and wonderful things about being alive is all there is to learn! It must be so enriching to be able to dip into the “well” of Jim Moore’s knowledge and expand your own view of the world so greatly on a regular basis. I know this is tangential, but that’s why reading is such a joy to me. I had no idea Jim was so widely published, but of course, that makes sense.

  9. Eric Says:

    I’m with Alan on this one. I’ve vastly enjoyed college, and the professors are one of the main reasons. In fact, every time I visit my history professor’s office, I end up staying there for an hour or more, talking about all kinds of things. I never would have guessed that my history professor is also well-versed in aeronautics!

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