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  • Ian Thompson

Tallahatta Quartzite, Choctaw Silver Stone

Updated: Aug 1

Through this post, we'd like to share a path of learning and reconnecting that we’ve been exploring at Nan Awaya Farm this summer. Although this writing will be brief, the path itself begins in the Choctaw homeland back in deep time, and it journeys up to the present through an important part of Indigenous Choctaw culture. Closely tied to the land, this part of culture is not widely known outside of the Mississippi/Alabama area.

If we were to take the spearhead in this post's title image back about 40 million years in time, it would be a handful of sand sitting on an ocean beach in present-day Choctaw County, Alabama. This is a time period known to geologists as middle Eocene. In the Eocene, as our sand is washing around on the beach, the continents of Europe and North America are in the process of slowly separating from each other through continental drift. The forebears of modern mammals are developing, among them, the dog-sized ancestors of the horse.

In some ways, the Eocene world was different from today’s, and yet in other ways it's a world that we're headed back towards. (By that, I mean that the early middle Eocene was a time when lots of CO2 was loose in the air; even more than today. The CO2 warmed the planet and oceans enough that it caused sea level to rise to the point that central Mississippi was ocean front property; Florida was completely under water. With CO2 and sea level on the rise today, every gallon of gasoline we burn brings us a little closer to a past/future like the Eocene).

After tumbling around in the surf and sun on its tropical Eocene beach, our silica sand eventually gets buried over in sediment. Geologic ages pass with our sand sitting in silent, smothering darkness. Newer sediments pile up as events continue on the surface up above. Silica-rich water percolates through the sediments, eventually solidifying our handful of beach sand into a hard, beautiful rock known as quartzite.

Fast forward to the early 1800s. Materials left from the Eocene beach have become a long, narrow band of rocks that extends across much of the Southeast. Alternating layers of sandstone and claystone are exposed on the surface in places where the overlying sediments have eroded away. Our quatrzite is found only at the western end of this formation, in a few counties of eastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama. As American colonizers settle on these lands, they occasionally seek out the hard quartzite and fashion it into millstones used to grind grain into flour. At first, they call the rock “buhrstone”. As geologists learn more about the layers of rocks in the area, they give them more specific names. In 1898, Professor E. A. Smith suggests that the name of this formation of Eocene rocks should be changed to "Tallahatta". This name refers to the Tallahatta Hills in Alabama where the formation outcrops. I don't know if it was Professor Smith's intention or not, but the name change connects this special stone back to an Indigenous history in a cool kind of circle.

In the Choctaw language, Tvli Hatta means “Silver Stone”. Through the name change, the English name for the stone has become the same as the Choctaw name for it. How often does geology call rocks by the same name as the Indigenous people who used them? - Not very. Since time immemorial, Tallahatta quartzite was an important resource for the Choctaw ancestors. It's one of the few types of rock in the area that breaks like glass, allowing it to be chipped into sharp-edged tools and weapons. Choctaw people named two streams after this stone, one in Clarke County, AL, and one in Newton County, MS. Both of these Tallahatta Creeks cut down through the sediments and expose the quartzite, where it can easily be picked up or quarried. The eroding Tallahatta quartzite takes the form of big, heavy slabs, several inches in thickness. Ancient stone workers broke these down into massive flakes, called spalls. Spalls were chipped into blanks for making spear points and tools. Finished points and tools were also made at the quarry sites. Today, the debris left from processing still covers the ground at some of these places. All of that debris represents weight that the ancestors didn't have to carry back home in their packs.

A number of Clovis points made from Tallahatta quartzite have been found. These were made 13,200-12,900 years ago. By 5,000 years ago, massive amounts of this stone were being quarried. For several thousand years, people living in the Choctaw homeland traded Tallahatta quartzite widely. Finished spear points made from it ended up all the way at Poverty Point, a World Heritage Site in present-day Louisiana and at other sites as far away as southern Indiana. As millennia passed, people in the homeland eventually stopped trading the stone so widely, but continued to use it themselves. I’ve seen a small, triangular Tallahatta arrow point from a Choctaw homestead site in Mississippi that dates to the time of the Trail of Tears.

The first time that I handled Tallahatta quartzite, it was in the form of ancient spear points that had been sitting in paper bags from an archaeological excavation for decades. The material was crumbly, with grains of sand falling off the edges of the points as I gently handled them. How could such a material ever make a usable cutting edge? I would later learn that the crumbliness I observed was the effect of these points having sat in Alabama’s acidic soils for centuries previous to being excavated and then being dried out in the bags. The acids had literally begun to dissolve the matrix holding the grains of sand together. This happens more on some pieces of Tallahatta than others.

This summer, I had the privilege of receiving a box of fresh, high quality Tallahatta quartzite in the mail, direct from Choctaw County, Alabama. The fresh stone is gorgeous, with translucent, silver and

white sparkling grains that make the stone look like it's a block of sleet pellets frozen together. The art of making spear points from Tallahatta quartzite is a bit different than than shaping any of the different types of stone that I've worked previously. The matrix holds the sand grains together so tightly, that when you chip Tallahatta, the fracture breaks through the individual sand grains, but they don’t break perfectly smoothly. This leaves a granular, sparkly surface on the fractured stone. The sand grains act a bit like temper particles in pottery. When you hit the stone to drive off a flake, the sand grains diffuse some of the energy. Thus, the rock is hard, but at the same time seems a little spongy in the way it absorbs energy from the blows. Quartzite chips easiest when it's fresh out of the ground, so I store mine in a bucket of water (There's something poetic about returning 40-million-year old beach sand to the water). I've found that the water-infiltrated stone chips well with my antler punch tools. It actually pressure flakes quite well, far better than I would have expected from its rough texture. I understand that some people in the past probably worked Tallahatta quartzite using wooden tools, rather than antler ones. I've yet to try that.

The fresh, broken edges are sharp, but not as sharp as most other stones that are used for making points. The edges of Tallahatta are not as durable either. I'm sure a spear tipped with a Tallahatta point traveling towards a deer at 100mph would do the job just fine. However, this stone would not be on my list of materials for making a scraper to thin a buffalo hide. Edge durability issues aside, I'm sure the size, beauty and cool-looking translucence were factors in why it was imported in such large amounts into other regions where people had access to types of stone that produce a tougher edge.

As I've said in a previous post, it's a privilege to get to make pieces of traditional art from exactly the same materials that your ancestors used for hundreds of generations before you. Silver Stone has been a part of the Choctaw homeland for millions of years, and is an important part of Indigenous Choctaw culture. I'm glad to get to share a little bit about it with our readers through this post. If you're a knapper and want to try some yourself, send us an email and we'll hook you up with a source.

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