Use-Wear Experiment on Reed Baskets by Meg Kepley


Meg is a work-study student for the Department of Anthropology, and since last year she has worked with Colleen to digitize the comparative collection.  For part of this year, she will be assisting with use-wear experiments.IMG_4538

I am conducting use-wear experiments in the hope that the results might be comparable to artifacts of the past. Currently, my experimentation is focused on cutting round reeds, both dry and soaked. To put it simply, I am attempting to recreate how the Cherokee people may have utilized stone tools to cut reeds in order to make usable items, namely baskets.IMG_4503

The experiments are methodical by nature. I conduct 4 of each kind using a different tool and number of strokes, differing by increments of 250. So in one experiment of a set, I do 250 strokes, then the next, 500 strokes, and so on, with the greatest number of strokes in a set being 1,000.

Initially, the main focus was to determine what method and tools would work best so as to give the most accurate recreation of the activity. Without having had any prior experience with such experimentation, I gave my best guesses as to what would work well.

After analyzing the tools and reeds given me, I pre-determined that either a serrated edge or a thin, sharp one might work best. As to the method of action, I decided to try both unidirectional and bidirectional cutting to keep the action as simple and natural as possible. The way I held the items was Colleen’s suggestion. I pinched the end of the reed between my left thumb and forefinger while gripping the longer part of the reed within the last 2-3 fingers of my IMG_4516right hand. As I held the reed taut, the tool was also held in my right hand, betwixt the thumb and forefinger.* When it came to trimming the ends of runners on baskets, the only difference was not having to hold a longer end of a reed within the right hand.

After some experimentation, I quickly discovered that smooth and strong, but thin, edges were the most effective on both dry and soaked reeds. Even if dulled, such an edge generally would remain quite useful throughout the entirety of an experiment. As to the best method, I found that a unidirectional motion (drawn towards the user) was easiest and fastest. It was extremely difficult to use a bidirectional cutting motion, even with a seemingly smooth edge, since the tools dull directionally. A bidirectional motion worsens or deepens notches and/or serrations, while a unidirectional motion will soften notches/serrations directionally. A once hard-to-use tool can even become useful as it dulls. Furthermore, in one of my early experiments, I used a retouched tool. The retouch was a sizeable notch and using the tool for reed cutting was sort of awful. Finally, the last factor that contributed to my conclusion was the fact that bidirectional cutting caused the reeds to fray and sometimes split. Unidirectional cutting was different in that it left smooth, clean cuts, excluding the dry reed experiments. Therefore, I concluded that tools with strong-set serrations, or notches that the reed could get caught into, were almost pointless to use.

My conclusion was reached after I completed the following three different types of experiments:

Experiment Type Number


1 2 3
Rock Type



Florence A chert Florence A chert Florence A chert
Contact Material


Round reed no. 2, soaked Round reed no. 2, soaked Round reed no. 2, dry
Motion Unidirectional cutting (drawn towards user) Bidirectional cutting (drawn towards and away from user) Unidirectional cutting (drawn towards user)
Result Easiest, depending on tool. Left smooth, clean cuts Deplorable. Frayed and split reeds most of the time Tough. Fraying and split ends seemed to be worst with dry reeds

IMG_4559One might notice that I did not conduct a fourth experiment type: bidirectional cutting on dry reeds. Cutting dry reeds is rather tough, even painful. Because of this I believe it’s unlikely that the Cherokee ever tried cutting dry reeds with such tools, at least with these chert flakes. Since bidirectional cutting was frustrating enough with the soaked reeds, I elected not to go through the pain that that would have been.

Now, after all that trial and error, I am finally working on the fourth experiment type: Cherokee basket weaving. Due to the methodical nature of my experiments, I will be making a minimum of 4 baskets, this time without limiting the number of strokes, cutting as much as is needed.

So far I have completed one basket using the information that I gathered in the previous three sets of experiments. The experiment was similar to the first:

Experiment Type Number 4
Rock Type Florence A chert
Contact Material Round reed no. 2, soaked
Motion Unidirectional cutting (drawn towards user)
Result Swimmingly

My first basket weaving experiment went swimmingly. I was very lucky this time because the tool was nearly perfect for the job (I’ve been running out of good tool options so it didn’t look promising). The experiment required 1,133 strokes and the cut reed ends did not fray or split. Here is a picture of the finished product:Meg Basket

Presently, I am working on my second basket. It isn’t as easy as the first, the reason being that the use edge is rather thick and so more strokes are necessary to cut through the reeds.

IMG_4554Soon I will be creating more baskets and hopefully will create a good number of tools comparable to ancient artifacts.

*the tool angle to the reed was generally approximately 45 degrees. The greater the tool size, the greater the angle.

Use-Wear Experiment on Reed Baskets by Meg Kepley
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