Ancient slate tools

Hello slate people

Anyone working with slate with bare hands has been cut by the sharp edges of the rock. At this point, we have always wondered the same, while sucking the blood of the wound. “This could make a good blade…”. Well, you are not the first one to think that. Ancient cultures have been using slate to make tools and weapons since the first time they cut themselves with this rock. A quick search on the web will highlight several examples of the mighty “ulu knife”, a very characteristic work knife used mainly for women. The ulu blades were used for many domestic tasks, especially butchering salmon. This blade has a semicircular shape, with a wood handle right after the back of the edge. Ulu knifes are designed to chop and cut, instead of piercing. Native Northern Americans from Alaska to Newfoundland have been using slate blades for centuries. Ulus were also present from Labrador south to New England more than 4000 years ago. Nowadays, steel has substituted slate, but there is still possible to find slate blades. In 2003, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin compared the performance of several ulu knifes with slate and steel blades when butchering salmon. The results showed that slate blades were more difficult to use than steel blades, which is logical. Archeologists assume that adopting new technologies is a “problem-solving-process”. Steel blades are more sharp and durable than slate blades, so they were adopted by the native in modern times. Steel is great, but slate blades are very easy to obtain, you just need a solid piece of slate (a roofing slate shingle will do) and some patience. Slate blades are a link with Prehistoric times, and represent the craftwork of native people from North America living in an extreme environment.

So next time you feel the call of DIY, consider making your own ulu knife.



To know more:

Turnbaugh, W., 1977. An archeological prospect of the Ulu or semi-lunar knife in Northeastern North America. Archeology of Eastern North America 5, 86-94.

Frink, L., Hoffman, B.W., Shaw, R., 2003. Ulu Knife Use in Western Alaska: A Comparative Ethnoarchaeological Study. Current Anthropology 44, 116-122.

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