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Start talking about flintknapping, and most people think first of arrowheads or other projectile points. Though made using essentially the same basic techniques, a prismatic blade is a very different animal. In the archaeological record, prismatic blades appear as long, thin flakes of stone, usually having two parallel cutting edges and a trapezoidal or triangular cross-section.

Prismatic blades photographed by Joshua Ream

Photo: Joshua Ream, Arrowheadology.com

Though prismatic blades have been made in many different types of stone, by cultures all over the world, the technology arguably reached its height in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and Aztec, which enjoyed access to abundant supplies of natural obsidian. These cultures produced and traded prismatic blades on an industrial scale, for use both as utilitarian cutting tools and in the construction of elaborate hafted weapons–like the Aztec maquahuitl and tepoztopilli–featuring long, continuous, razor-sharp edges made by fixing prismatic blades side-by-side into wooden handles using natural adhesives.

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A few modern flintknappers make prismatic blades, but the leading light (online, at least) is probably Californian Jim Winn, aka “paleomanjim.” Jim’s YouTube channel is a deep, rich vein of hands-on how-to information for many aspects of flintknapping. For those interested in prismatic blades, particularly, I recommend Jim’s four-part series from 2012:

Another great resource, for those with more of an intellectual interest, is Pathways to Prismatic Blades: A Study in Mesoamerican Obsidian Core-Blade Technology, a 2002 compilation of academic writings from a dozen specialists published through UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, and edited by anthropologists Kenneth Hirth and Bradford Andrews. The prismatic blade reduction diagram in the slideshow above is a mash-up of Andrews’ illustrations 1.1 and 1.2 from this book.

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. ironleg says:

    While I guess it would have still been effective, That SpikeTV one looks more like a chunk of a pallet with broken beer bottle chunks in it.

    1. I saw that Deadliest Warrior episode and their crudely constructed maquahutil was devastating. They hung a side of beef (if I remember correctly) and sliced it in half in just a few whacks. Imagine what a real one would do in the hands of a skilled warrior.

    2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Yeah, I mean it would hurt, certainly. =) But it seems like it would be more of a spiked club than an effective cutting weapon. That whole episode is actually pretty cheesy, and I note that, for whatever reasons, it is one of only two episodes in Season 2 that is not available for viewing on the SpikeTV website. They use their lousy maquahuitl to hack through a ballistic gelatin horse head, which is a silly test, to begin with. And it doesn’t do a great job. Would love to see some cutting tests done with a more authentic maquahuitl.

      1. Maybe that’s a different show then, ’cause I’m pretty sure the one I saw was a side of beef and it cut it pretty cleanly in half with maybe three hacks. I think what I saw may have been a History channel show, I believe the same weapons program where they demonstrated the relative merits of a medieval broadsword and a samurai sword.

        1. Oh, yeah, on this same episode, they also showed how an Atlatl was used.

  2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    Hi, I’m a representative of Aztechnologies…