What most see as just another rock in the ground is treasure for friends Jerry Barrett and Kurt Phillips, two Klamath Falls resident experts in the art of flint knapping to form arrowheads and knife points as authentic in appearance as those created thousands of years ago.
Acquiring the skill to recreate a somewhat lost art mastered by Native Americans over thousands of years has been a lifelong pursuit for both, and each are eager to share their talents and mutual passion for the art at the upcoming Rock, Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show presented by the Klamath Rock and Arrowhead Club.
An annual celebration of the many treasures hiding just beneath the surface, 2019 marks the 33rd year of the event, themed “Nature’s Treasures” this year; encompassing demonstrations, vendors, children’s activities, and more. The show takes place on Saturday and Sunday, March 9-10, at the Klamath County Fairgrounds.
Activities include thunder egg cutting, arrowhead knapping, silver-smithing, wire-wrapping and rock painting. There will also be gold-panning, soapstone carving, a fluorescent mineral display as well as silent auctions, hourly door prizes, and raffles. People are also encouraged to bring their own gemstones to be identified by gemologist Dr. Mark Kovechar.
Phillips has participated in the annual show for the past 15 years, but for Barrett it is a lifelong passion. His mother, Laura Lee Barrett, 93, founded the Klamath Rock and Arrowhead Club back in the early 1960s, and since a young child has been fascinated with collecting arrowheads. Barrett’s father was a machinist who began a rock shop, and over time through studying others who kept the flint knapping tradition alive, and a lot of trial and error, he developed skills to masterfully mimic ancient arrowheads.
Phillips similarly started young and found the process fascinating, though his specialty caters more towards knives. When he was five years old he watched his father convert an old broken beer bottle into an arrowhead, and he was immediately hooked. Now with decades of flint knapping experience, Phillips creates around 10 custom knives per month from obsidian, agate, jasper and other gemstones; decorating each with antler horn, leather and beadwork.
There are two main methods to shaping rocks into sharp points: pressure and percussion. Barrett and Phillips utilize copper or brass tools they customized to suit their own personal techniques, both quick to joke that the other’s methods are completely wrong. Percussion utilizes precision strikes with brass tools to cause rocks to flake, while pressure uses force to literally push flakes off of the stone being shaped.
“We get asked often why we use copper rather than antler,” explained Barrett. “We can do it, but we have to find a high-quality antler, otherwise we’ll destroy that thing real quick because we are pressing so hard, whereas copper holds up.”
The two venture around the country in search of raw materials to shape, but find a plethora of volcanic rocks and gemstones locally, each with their own unique coloring and elements that help dictate what shape will be molded. For Phillips he can turn a rock into a knife point within 45 minutes, but cautions that for novices they can make a point within a day, but it would take years of practice to reach their level of proficiency.
At the upcoming Rock, Gem and Mineral Show, Phillips and Barrett will be among many local experts providing demonstrations and tutorials for those interested in learning how to shape their own arrowheads through flint knapping. Phillips will also have many of his custom knives available for purchase alongside many other vendors offering jewelry, fascinating fossils, gemstones, artwork and other related items.
“If someone comes in and wants to learn, either of us will be happy to work with them; it just depends on if they want to learn the right way or the wrong way,” laughed Phillips. “During the shows we will walk people through the whole process if they want to learn – it is something that we have a passion to do ourselves, but it’s also fun to pass the knowledge on. Neither of us is the type that wants to keep everything to ourselves; even just talking about it is a lot of fun.”
“I think most people are rock hounds, whether they realize it or not,” added Barrett. “This is something that takes a lot of practice to get good at, but it’s not an expensive hobby – it’s a skill.”
Through decades of their own work and countless treasure hunting adventures the pair have come to recognize quality when they see it, whether a recently knapped arrowhead or a 10,000 year-old club that many would pass by as just another rock in the ground. Both are history experts, noting that obsidian from Oregon volcanic flows has been traced to archaeological digs over 3,000 miles away, indicating that for Native American tribes arrows were more than just a means of survival for hunting – they were an art form and prized trade material.
There are of course the occasional hazards. Phillips stated the two essential tools for flint knapping are brass and a box of band-aids. He has sent shards of sharp rock on more than a few occasions into his legs from percussion strikes gone awry, and despite decades of experience there are still the common finger cuts. Regardless, the joy of the journey from raw material to finished product makes it all worth it.
Learn basics of flint knapping, gold panning, or the simple wonders that can be found in rock collecting at the Rock and Arrowhead Club of Klamath Falls’ annual Rock, Gem and Mineral Show on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A suggested $2 donation for admission is requested for the event. The Klamath County Fairgrounds are located at 3531 S. 6th St. in Klamath Falls. For more information about the Rock and Arrowhead Club of Klamath Falls visit www.klamathrockclub.org.