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Man of Stone

Man of StoneBy Russell Thornberry
Photos by Larry Teague

Photo: Flintknapper Stanley Payne of Slapout, Ala., holds one of his creations for the camera.

-- To the uneducated eye, a primitive aboriginal arrowhead or spearhead looks like a piece of sharp rock that was used for hunting and self-protection. But upon closer examination, especially if you have the opportunity to watch someone make an arrowhead through the process of what is called "flintknapping," you'll quickly realize that primitive man was a far more ingenious weaponsmaker than one might imagine. 

photoHe was the master of an ancient art that could not have developed quickly.  It must have taken thousands of years for him to determine how to chose the right type of stone, how to bake it in the ground at the right temperature and the right length of time to alter the molecular structure of the stone so that it could be precision chipped into deadly weapons - deadly enough to kill mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, bison and giant bears.

photoAmerica's native Indians were masters of the flintknapping art, although it was a matter of a serious necessity rather than an art form to them. But as iron and steel and firearms entered the Indian's world, the art of working stone diminished and eventually ceased as a necessity for life and provision, as did the use of bows, arrows and spears. The only true native stone arrowheads and spearheads left are those that are found by artifact seekers, and they are considered treasures of the past.

photoOddly, as flintknapping faded into the sunset of American history, the art was picked up and perfected by white men, who have largely been responsible for keeping the art alive. In some cases, these knappers teach modern Indians how to recapture the traditional art of their forefathers. 

Whereas aboriginal people originally used very basic tools such as a hammer stone for cracking rocks, a billet (hammer) made of heavy antler from elk or moose for percussion flaking and the tips of deer antlers for fine edgework, many modern knappers have replaced these tools with custom copper billets and copper-tipped flaking tools, which makes the job somewhat easier. Today, stone is baked in thermostat-controlled kilns instead of holes in the ground, but in the end, the craftsman still has to understand how to read the rock and chip and flake it with the utmost precision.

photoSome modern flintknappers utilize their creations for primitive hunting methods, just as the aboriginal people did for hundreds of thousands of years, but more often these creations are valued works of art. Today, modern knappers search world wide for exotic colorful stones to increase the value of their work. There are collectors who are passionate about this modern work and rightfully so. America's top flintknappers can only be described as true artists.

A case in point is Stanley Payne of Slapout, Ala., (yes, that really is the name of the town). Stan's yard is laden with large rocks from far away places that are waiting to be held in a master's hands. He has a shop he built just for plying his trade, and there he can be found, sitting for hours on end, chipping away at a stone containing a treasure that only his trained eyes can see. To watch the process is magical. A chunk of rock is transformed by meticulously skilled hands into points and blades of unmatched beauty.

photoIn addition to Payne's knapping prowess, he specializes in making knives that join exotic blades and handles that primitive knappers could never have done. For instance, one of his knives has a blade made of cherry quartz from China and the handle is made of Print Stone from Australia. The marrying of such exotic stones makes each piece a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Payne's creations are sought by serious connoisseurs of knapped stone art. His creations are displayed in some lofty places, notwithstanding the White House, where a Stanley Payne knife is owned by President George W. Bush.

Editor's note: You can see more of Payne's work by visiting

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