Common Ground workshop teaches some of man's earliest skills

The oldest known natural human mummy in Europe was discovered preserved in ice with a quiver of unfinished arrows. He likely began to create these tools during his life in approximately 3100 B.C.

Were the iceman to wake up from a deep freeze, he might recognize some of the processes in use this week at McDaniel College in the workshop titled Primal Knowledge: Arrows.


Participants knapped flint, twisted organic fibers and boiled adhesive from sap to construct a functional arrow.

The workshop was part of Common Ground on the Hill, a three-week-long lecture and education series, that has events like concerts, art galleries and dances. It began on Monday, June 25, at McDaniel College and culminates with the annual Common Ground on the Hill Roots Music & Arts Festival on Saturday, July 14, at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

“It’s starting to look like an arrowhead isn’t it?” Sarah Gallagher asked instructor Guy Neal as she chipped away at a sliver of stone Friday afternoon.

“Yeah, that’s already lethal,” he said in an encouraging tone.

Neal defines primal skills as pre-metal Stone Age technologies. An expert on these technologies, he leads demonstrations and lectures on this form of experimental archaeology. More information is available at

Friday afternoon as the workshop was wrapping up, group members’ shoes crunched over the ground that was covered with stone chips that resulted from the day’s flint knapping activities.

Over the course of the week, the small group had gone step-by-step to make their own arrows, using mostly primitive skills and tools.

One day, they twisted the fibers from a dogbane plant to make thread to bind the fletching to the arrow shaft. On Friday, they boiled a mixture of spruce sap, pine sap and ash to make an adhesive to attach the arrowheads.

“These construction methods are a lot of the things people did 5,000 years ago,” said participant Bill Neal. He was fascinated by the history shared during the workshop as well as the physical skills.

He took the class because, “I’ve been wanting to learn flint knapping since I was 12 years old,” he said. After trying his own hand at the skills, he appreciated how delicate and small the arrowheads found in museums can be.

Guy Neal said he tried to bring in a new piece of ancient technology every day of the workshop.

By the end of the week, Gallagher said her fingers hurt from chopping stone with a copper nail. Others suffered scrapes and cuts as they flaked bits of stone away from their very real, very sharp arrowheads.

Gallagher said she took the class for the chance to learn something totally new. She has practiced archery for the Katniss Everdeen feeling, she said laughing, referring to the hero from the popular “Hunger Games” series. But what she learned during the week at Common Ground was totally outside her wheelhouse. As a history teacher, it gave her perspective on what her own students feel when they are starting in a subject that is new to them.

Neal said the small size of the week’s workshop was beneficial in some ways.


“I taught much more in-depth than a normal arrow class,” he said. While some classes could create the whole arrow in a day, taking the week allowed them to focus on each step in the process.

Gallagher said she originally planned to shoot her arrow once it was finished. But that was before she knew how much work went into making just one.

“This is going securely in a shadowbox in my office,” she said.