Knife River Flint quarries and the Alberta connection

Written by: Emily Moffat, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Stone tools were central to life in pre-contact North America and the rocks that they were made of were highly valued. The archaeological record throughout vast regions of North America, including much of Alberta, contains Knife River Flint (KRF), one of the most significant and intriguing tool stones used before the arrival of Europeans. KRF gets its name from the Knife River, a tributary of the Missouri River that flows through the United States Midwest and Southeast Regions.

In an era of limited human mobility compared to modern times, KRF was regularly transported hundreds of kilometres from its source in North Dakota, where it was quarried for thousands of years. A relatively small geographical region contains the majority of quarry pits and this location is the hub of KRF’s widespread distribution.

Map showing the major source area where Knife River Flint was quarried, the area where scattered cobbles were collected, and the overall extent of Knife River Flint artifacts based on published records. White circles show the extent of archaeological sites in Alberta that have produced a Knife River Flint artifact (Source: Todd Kristensen).

Over the course of 13,000 years, KRF was shaped into projectile points, tools, and some unusual eccentric forms. Its translucent, coffee-brown colouration, ability to flake predictably, and stay sharp were desirable qualities. Some speculate that the bison-hunting peoples of the past may have even attributed spiritual properties to the stone. Whatever the reasons, KRF was considered significantly more valuable than other local materials, so great effort was invested in its procurement.

A variety of artifacts of Knife River Flint found in Alberta (Source: Todd Kristensen with individual images kindly provided by Eugene Gryba, Jack Brink, and Shayne Tolman).
Projectile points (spear heads, dart heads, and arrow heads) from Alberta made of Knife River Flint (Source: Todd Kristensen). These styles represent over 7000 years of projectile point manufacture in the province.

Dunn and Mercer Counties of North Dakota were the most intensively quarried regions, and evidence of those activities is still found on the landscape today. Pre-contact quarry pits appear as pock marks on LiDAR imagery, a remote sensing technique that removes surface vegetation. The primary source area is about 200 hectares and contains 29 pit complexes, each with up to 75 individual pits per hectare. On average these pits are 6 metres in diameter and 1 metre deep, with the largest reaching 20 metres in diameter and 2 metres deep. The pits visible on imagery represent the most recent quarrying activities but many were excavated two or three times prior, illustrating the high demand for KRF.

LiDAR imagery of KRF quarry pits (Source: Todd Kristensen with LiDAR data provided by the North Dakota Geological Survey, 2017).
KRF nodules are most commonly found in eroded secondary contexts (the original bedrock outcrops have since eroded away). Source: Left and top right image courtesy of David McDonald. Bottom right image courtesy of the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, State Historical Society of North Dakota.
KRF cobbles from North Dakota each weighing 2-5 kg. Images (from top to bottom) courtesy of Jack Ives, Scott Crawford, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, and the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, State Historical Society of North Dakota (Source: Todd Kristensen).

KRF first formed when low-grade coal, called lignite, was turned to stone by silica (SiO2, e.g. quartz) mineralization. These original rock formations, thought to be about 50-30 million years old, were eroded by glaciers and water, resulting in secondary deposits of loose pebbles and cobbles. KRF could therefore be pried from the ground fairly easily as opposed to chipped from a rock face or collected as river cobbles like some other lithic materials. Tools typical to the period, such as fire-hardened digging sticks and bison scapula hoes and shovels, would have been used to unearth KRF.

KRF quarrying activities were one of the first preserved instances of natural resource extraction in the region, and efforts were well organized. People may have camped at or near the quarry sites for several days or intermittently over weeks to dig for KRF. At the quarry pits, high quality cobbles were often flaked by hammer stones into smaller, more manageable cores that were either made into tools at nearby workshops or transported elsewhere for trade. Discarded flakes from this process still remain at the quarry sites today. In total, an estimated 12.5 million kilograms of KRF were acquired, from which 640 million KRF tools/cores were thought to have been made. About 160 million of these were exported beyond the primary source area, covering a 4.8 million square kilometre extent. KRF is therefore considered one of the most productive and widely circulated lithic raw materials in North and South America.

Infographic illustrating the scale of KRF quarrying and tool-making in pre-contact times (Source: Todd Kristensen and Emily Moffat with photograph from Eugene Gryba).

KRF materials were brought to Alberta through trading and long distance travel. A relatively high number of archaeological sites in Alberta contain KRF (243 sites), the furthest being about 1500 km from Dunn County, North Dakota. The abundance of KRF in Alberta’s archaeological record has fluctuated over time, but its presence spans the nearly 13,000 year human occupation of the province. The spread of KRF throughout pre-contact times hints at trade and settlement patterns as people adapted to the changing landscapes of Alberta’s past, which saw the creation and disappearance of large glacial lakes, a shifting climate, and the spread of cultural ideas across the Northern Plains.

Tracking the significance of KRF artifacts starts with correctly identifying the stone, which is difficult given the abundance of similar materials in North America. Artifacts made from other silica-rich rocks such as chert, chalcedony, and petrified wood can resemble KRF. Archaeologists mainly rely on naked-eye observations to distinguish KRF, including its translucent brown colouration, splotches of white mineral inclusions, glass-like or conchoidal fracture patterns, and the presence of a white patina (outer coating). Larger pieces of KRF may even have plant fossils, similar to petrified wood, embedded within it. Identifying lithic materials based on visual inspection alone is usually not enough, however. Geochemical laboratory techniques can help to determine the unique elemental or mineralogical composition of a rock. The geochemistry of KRF is quite variable due to its organic origins so research efforts to characterize it and distinguish it from other rock types have had mixed results (see recent studies from Alberta and Saskatchewan). Ultraviolet (UV) fluorescence can also be used to tell some rock types apart, as some minerals emit specific colours of light when exposed to UV radiation. KRF was once thought to fluoresce a specific colour, which helped archaeologists identify it, but recent work suggests that it fluoresces a range of colours under longwave UV light from yellow-gray to orange with some specimens of KRF that don’t fluoresce at all. Researchers are continuing to explore reliable, non-destructive methods for provenance work (using geochemistry and mineralogy to link an artifact to its original quarrying location).

A comparison of KRF flint projectile points from Alberta under artificial visible (‘normal’) light (left) and longwave UV light (right) (by Emily Moffat and Todd Kristensen).

The chain of interactions that transported KRF to Alberta and other far-reaching regions thousands of years ago is remarkable. KRF cobbles, cores, and tools were passed between countless hands to get from the quarries to the people who used the stone on a daily basis. The presence of KRF and any other exotic material at archaeological sites therefore signals a rich history of human connection and an incredible journey across cultural landscapes of the past.

For more information:

Ahler, S.A. 1986. Knife River Flint Quarries: Excavations at Site 32DU508. State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota.

Clayton, L., W.B. Bickley, Jr., and W.J. Stone. 1970. Knife River Flint. Plains Anthropologist 15:282-290.

Clark, F. 1984. Knife River Flint and interregional exchange. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 9:173-198.

Dawe, R.J. 2013. A review of the Cody Complex in Alberta. In: Paleoindian Lifeways of the Cody Complex, edited by M.P. Muñiz and E.J. Knell, pp. 144-187. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Evilsizer, L.J. 2016. Knife River Flint Distribution and Identification in Montana. M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana.

Gregg, M.L. 1987. Knife River Flint in the northeastern Plains. Plains Anthropologist 32:367-377.

Hickey, L.J. 1977. Stratigraphy and Paleobotany and of the Golden Valley Formation (Early Tertiary) of Western North Dakota. Geological Society of America Memoirs 150, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado.

Kirchmeir, P.F.R. 2011. A Knife River Flint Identification Model and its Application to Three Alberta Ecozone Archaeological Assemblages. M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

Kristensen, T., E. Moffat, M. J. M. Duke, A. J. Locock, C. Sharphead, and J. W. Ives. 2018. Identifying Knife River Flint in Alberta: A Silicified Lignite Toolstone from North Dakota. Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper 38:1-24.

Root, M.J. 1992. The Knife River Flint Quarries: The Organization of Stone Tool Production. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington.

Root, M.J. 1997. Production for exchange at the Knife River Flint quarries, North Dakota. Lithic Technology 22:33-50.

Steuber, K.I. 2018. Geochemical Characterization of Brown Chalcedony during the Besant/Sonota Period. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

VanNest, J. 1985. Patination of Knife River Flint artifacts. Plains Anthropologist 30:325-339.

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