Megabeasts' Sudden Death

Extraordinary Artifacts

More than 20 of them have turned up across the American West, including one unearthed in a Colorado backyard in 2008. They have been found by construction crews, artifact collectors, and in one case by a man hand-digging an irrigation canal. They are the Clovis caches, groupings of exquisitely carved spear points and other flaked stone artifacts crafted thousands of years ago. Were they stored for a planned retrieval that never came? Were they ritual objects used in sacred ceremonies or as grave goods? Did the ancients use them for all three purposes? No one knows. But that only adds to their fascination for us today. Here, savor the skill and workmanship, the artistry and mystery, of 10 artifacts from perhaps the most spectacular of these early American collections, the Fenn Cache.—Peter Tyson

Note on the photographs

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Artifact #149
The showpiece of the Fenn Cache, this is one of the finest Clovis points ever found. The Clovis were a prehistoric people who flourished in North America at the end of the Ice Age, hunting mammoths and other big game with spear points not unlike this one. To make the point, Clovis knappers used a billet, a hammer of ivory or antler, to flake off pieces of the point through a process known as brittle fracture. This point, crafted from red jasper, reveals an unusual flaking style: Its maker struck the point diagonally rather than from side to side, as was the norm.

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Artifact #142
Fashioned from Utah agate, this is a classic Clovis point in size, flaking, and proportions. It is in such perfect condition that experts suspect it may never have been used, bolstering the hypothesis that such caches may have served a ritual purpose. Like all but one of the Fenn artifacts, this point bears a residue of red ocher, an iron-rich pigment that Stone Age cultures often used in ceremonies.

Wing Structure
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Artifact #107
The scratches visible on the flaked base, or flute, of this obsidian point revealed a residue of fossil pine pitch. Experts believe the first step the Clovis took in attaching their points to spears or knife handles was to smear tree resin on each point's flute to serve as a kind of glue. They then wedged the sticky end of the point into a groove carved into the business end of the weapon's wooden or bone shaft and bound the two together with sinew.

Landing Gear
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Artifact #154
Made of smoky quartz crystal, this point is transparent. Its shape suggests to experts that it may have once been part of a larger point. While the stone used in many points can be traced to a particular rock formation or region, the original home of this stone is unknown.

Tail Assembly
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Artifact #151
No one knows what this crescent-shaped tool was used for, though it has turned up in association with Clovis points elsewhere. While the tool's middle edges are dull from grinding, its ends remain sharp. It is made of chert from the Green River Formation of southwestern Wyoming and contiguous parts of Utah and Colorado. This is not far from where the cache is believed to have been found, the three corners area where Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho come together.

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Artifact #152
Also of Green River Formation chert, this artifact is similar to other Clovis blades. Flaked from a stone core carried as source material, blades were fashioned into knives, scrapers, and other tools. The edges of this blade are dull, possibly as a result of use. Although the cache's discoverer died before sharing details of his discovery, he is thought to have found it around 1902 in a rockshelter or at the base of a cliff. Another story says he unearthed it during plowing, though none of the artifacts shows evidence of plow damage.

Bamboo Frame
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Artifact #116
This chert point shows superior control of "overshot flaking." In this process, Clovis knappers struck across the point in such a way as to remove a flake that included a portion of the opposite face. They used overshot flaking to quickly thin a point, but they had to be careful—an improper strike could result in taking too large a chunk off the edge. This point is not fluted and may not be finished.

Tail Skid
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Artifact #104
This specimen shows worn ridges on its flake scars, which may suggest that it rubbed repeatedly against other artifacts it was packed with during transport, possibly in a bag. With a variety of quality rock and mineral types represented in the cache—this point is made of obsidian—it is clear that its owner either traveled far to procure specific types of stone or traded with others who did. In either case, the stone in the Fenn and other caches was hand-carried great distances.

Tail Skid
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Artifact #111
This Clovis biface—or two-faced point with a continuous edge—is made of Green River Formation chert. Though precisely when the Fenn artifacts were made is unknown, experts used a process known as hydration analysis to get a rough idea of when two obsidian points in the cache were created. When a newly broken piece of obsidian is buried in soil it begins to absorb water, forming a "hydration rind." Experts can use the thickness of this rind to roughly determine age, which in the case of the two obsidian points tested was thousands of years old.

Tail Skid
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Artifact #100
At over eight inches long and nearly one and a half pounds, this obsidian piece is the largest artifact in the Fenn Cache. All told, the 56 artifacts in the cache weigh about 18 pounds, a significant load for a hunter likely also carrying food, tools, and other items. The weight and quality of the artifacts, along with their association with ocher, their pristine nature in many cases, and the simple fact that they were found together hint that this was a prized collection for one or more of America's first inhabitants.

Note: The photographs, many of which show both faces and one edge of each artifact, were taken by Peter Bostrom (Lithics Casting Lab, Troy, Illinois), who used a 4x5 camera and triple-exposed each image. To view his photos of all 56 artifacts in the collection, see The Fenn Cache: Clovis Weapons and Tools, by George Frison and Bruce Bradley (Santa Fe: One Horse Land & Cattle Company, 1999). This feature originally appeared, with the title "The Fenn Cache" and in slightly different form, on NOVA's America's Stone Age Explorers website.

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