Williams column: Finding the hammer stone

  • Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 12:24 a.m.
This photo of Bernard R. Williams was taken at the Spencer yard around 1948. Mack Williams’ brother, Joe Williams, brought the old photo of their father to Steve Norman Photography in Salisbury to be restored.
This photo of Bernard R. Williams was taken at the Spencer yard around 1948. Mack Williams’ brother, Joe Williams, brought the old photo of their father to Steve Norman Photography in Salisbury to be restored.

When searching in a plowed field for Native American artifacts, a variety of things can be found: projectile points, scrapers, pottery sherds, stone axes, and sometimes even a “hammer stone.”

A hammer stone isn’t anything fancy, just a handy rock, which by the chance of its shape and size, adapted it for fitting it into the Native-American’s palm for use as a “handy” tool. It would be used by the Native Americans for cracking nuts, grinding corn, making fire, breaking the bones of deer to get at the marrow, etc. If it wasn’t perfectly round to begin with, it was often worn into a “round” shape, the outer grains of the quartzite cobble having a “hammered” look.

In the natural history museum of the Danville Science Center, where I work, we have a collection of displayed Native American artifacts, among them a “hammer stone.” From the looks of it, it would fit nicely into the palm of my hand, as well as the palms of everyone I know, making it evident that the average human palm size of today hasn’t changed from several thousand years ago, or changed much from several hundreds of thousands to over a million years ago, judging by scrapers and other tools found in the “Old Country” of Europe, (and the “really old” country: Africa).

The Native Americans used what was handy; and they also traded materials with other tribes desirous of materials for making projectile points, etc.

I’m just making a supposition now, but I think that it is a valid one, when I say that one night, during my father’s work at the Spencer yard, he, just like the Native American, found something on the ground in his “environment” which he adapted into a “tool.”

Included in my father’s “daily pocket items” lying on his dresser: loose change, wallet, etc., was a very large bolt with a multitude of rubber bands wrapped tightly around the bolt’s cylindrical part. The bolt’s size gave the impression of its having rattled loose from something much larger at the Spencer yard, probably falling on the tracks in the same area where the outside portion of my father’s third-shift job took him.

One morning, as a youth, I picked it up, and it felt a little too large for my childish palm. The feel of it in my youthful hand gave the same sort of impression as that of clothes which are a little too big, but into which one will grow later. With my own hand, I felt the mass of wrapped, finger-oil discolored rubber bands which served as the “tool’s” hand grip. Just as the bolt of my father’s ”hammer stone” was an adaptation of his work environment, so the mass of enwrapping rubber bands was an adaptation of his home environment. The green color and size of most of those rubber bands told me that my father had saved them for use from each afternoon’s front-yard delivery of the Salisbury Post (an afternoon paper then).

Just as the Native American hammer stone was wear-worn from striking, so was the head end of my father’s “hammer.” He used it to tack small paper “car cards” to a little wooden board mounted on the outside of each boxcar. The square head of this bolt always had the bright look of freshly exposed metal due to the repeated striking of tacks. The unstruck part always had the patina from metal’s exposure to the air. The small paper sheets being hammered contained the particulars of each boxcar’s contents and routing. This was the outdoor aspect of my father’s third shift job as a clerk for Southern Railway, also aided by his bulbed railway lantern, which had replaced his earlier one of wick and oil. Bar codes and scanners (not extremely different than those used at Food Lion) took the place of those box-car attached forms some years ago.

The Native Americans of long ago kept their hand-crafted tools in safe places, and so it was with my father and his “hammer stone,” evidenced by its daily presence among his pants-pocket things emptied on his dresser. He must have thought that if he left this handy tool at work, it would have “gone missing.”

Just as present-day deductions can be drawn from the artifact of an ancient American’s working day, so can inferences be made from that artifact of my father’s railroad working night. Both the Native Americans and he were resourceful with what they encountered in their environment, be it stone or bolt.

I talked with my brother Joe not long ago, and he told me that the old “hammer-bolt” was evidently lost during one of our mother’s moves, as he hasn’t seen it in years.

So the bolt is now lost, along with some of the Native American tribes of prehistory, whose daily lives are the subject of professional “conjecture.” Our father is part of the past as well, but his daily life back then is the subject of something even more professional than the most lettered educated guesses of academia: “personal memory.”

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