Stone smacked on stone, momentarily blocking the sound of rain on the roof of the Quonset hut at the Thunderbird archeological excavation near Front Royal.
Staff archeologist Bob Verrey was hammering a piece of Virginia quartzite to make a simple cutting tool. Chips fell in clusters around his legs.
"You can slice animal flesh or work wood with that," he said when he finished,handing his product to Linda Pritchett and me for a closer look.
It was shaped like a half-moon and at first glance seemed an ordinary chunk of gray rock. A closer look showed that the flat end was thick and had been smoothed and formed to fit a human hand, but the edges around the half-circle were sharp where they had split from the larger stone.
"Be careful," Verrey warned as I ran my finger lightly along the edge. "Stone makes the sharpest, most effective cutting edge there is."
It dulls quickly, though, he added, and unlike steel, can't be rehoned.
Man has been making simple stone tools for two or three million years. Though most of us tend to think of them in terms of clubs, spearpoints and arrowheads, according to Verrey 99 percent were simple "flake" tools, made by splitting a wedge from a larger rock just as he'd done. Generally they were made, used and discarded on the spot.
Tools, spearpoints and debris from the Thunderbird dig are the oldest confirmed evidence of man yet found this far east, and show that Paleo Indians were in the Shenandoah Valley as early as 9500 B.C. One would expect the site to be a "hot dig," but the Thunderbird project is being strangled by cuts in federal and state funding.
If, as Barbara Tuchman suggests, historians see the past in a dim and distant mirror, archeologists get to see it only through pinholes.
To add dimension, they may try to recreate the activities represented by artifacts, not just to acquire the skill but, as Verrey put it, "to help us understand the reality we are trying to interpret."
Each Saturday afternoon through July 17, the Thunderbird staff will hold a workshop that recreates basic skills: gathering foods, making pottery and cordage and stone tools.
Only Linda Pritchett and I bucked the cold and rain one Saturday for Verrey's first toolmaking class. In deference to the weather, we moved into the laboratory.
We were to use quartzite, not jasper, because it was less likely to injure us. It's harder to work with, though: "It takes more oomph," Verrey said.
Choosing a big chunk of multifaced quartzite, I discovered an ancient truth: It's terribly heavy. No wonder the Indians used and discarded tools on the spot, anticipating our throwaway culture.
Turning it over and over, I finally chose a face that seemed to fit the criteria, sloping to a lip on one side but flattish on the other.
The idea was to blunt and thicken the lip by chipping it, then knock off a big flake from the bottom that would have sharp, feathered edges.
As we began pounding with softer greenstone, Verrey tried to set the scene for a world very different from ours, harder and more essential.
In 9500 B.C. the Shenandoah Valley was grassland, with clumps of sycamores and box elder along the river and spruce higher up. The river was so shallow the Indians had no trouble crossing to their campsite from their quarry on the east bank. The temperature averaged five to ten degrees cooler, and the weather was wetter. They probably wore hides and greased themselves with animal fat to stay warm.
"These people's very existence depended on making stone tools and they became very good at it. Though we focus on the stone tools and hunting, their toolkit included many tools, some wooden implements for digging and clubbing."
He took up a three-foot stick, scored it around the circumference and began boring holes on each side with his stone tool with an air of practiced ease I tried to imitate.
When I had chipped away the lip, I began whacking at the slope, closing my eyes each time. At a hollow sound, Bob said "That's it. The next one should do it. Try to hit in the middle. If you hit too shallow, you'll just get chips. If you hit too high, it'll just stare back at you."
With surging anticipation, I shifted my handhold on the rock and willed as much oomph as possible into the blow, which landed right on my middle finger.
I stuck it in my mouth. It didn't ease the pain, but it kept me from whimpering.
"Bet you'd like a piece of ice for that," Verrey said, producing one.
"Bet the Indians didn't have ice," I joked shakily, gratefully numbing the ache.
"They had tougher hands," he replied, "scarred by cuts and burns as well as hits. We have so sanitized our society against simple dangers, we forget how hazardous life can be."
Smashed fingers, cuts and flying chips are among the reasons for the age minimum of 15 for workshop participants.
Nursing my wound, I watched Verrey turn his stick into a handle and neatly insert a quartzite flake. Now he had a "hafted" tool.
When the throbbing let up, I went back to pounding my rock, keeping my eyes open, and finally produced a smaller version of Verrey's flake-cutter. I was inordinately proud.
By four, when the session ended, both Linda and I had several small but functional stone implements.
As I walked up the grassy slope to my car, I turned to look back at the river. If I'd expected the workshop to give me a sense of another time, and I had, I was wrong. For one thing, I wouldn't have been making the tools. The men did that. There had been only glimpses through the pinhole after all.
What it gave me, instead, was a different perspective on the present and a new respect for an ancient people who roamed this valley, hunted game and made tools from local jasper, and never saw an ice cube. DIGGING IT
The workshops will be held each Saturday through July 17 from 1 to 4 at the Thunderbird museum. The fee is $10; no reservations are necessary. The museum and dig are on the south branch of the Shenandoah seven miles south of Front Royal, just off U.S. 340. The museum is open to visitors seven days a week. The $2 admission fee includes a tour and briefing.