Getting stoned in British Columbia: your guide to B.C.’s quality lithics

You are a discerning craftsperson, always on the lookout for top quality resources.  You don’t want just any old stuff.  Where do you go?

This is your guide to the sources of top quality raw lithic material in British Columbia.

Join me in learning about the fantastic and fabulous world of lithics!

This has nothing to do with this post but- HOLY CRAP!  Paleo-Indians hunting a glyptodont Heinrich Harder (1858–1935), c.1920.

This has nothing to do with this post but- HOLY CRAP! Paleo-Indians hunting a glyptodont by Heinrich Harder (1858–1935), c.1920.

Some Terminology

Rocks: In geology, a rock is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of one or more minerals or mineraloids (Source: Wikipedia).

Stones: Rocks that lead a more sedentary lifestyle, staying at home rather than going on tour with the band. Some call them lazy, but they just prefer staying in with a good book.  Not to be confused with Rolling Stones, which are actually Rocks in Britain, or units of measurement.

Lithics: From the Greek lithikos, meaning stony.  Used to refer to ancient stone tools, because artifacts (like archaeologists) enjoy sounding  important.

Studying Lithic Materials or Learning About Archaeological Methodology the Hard Way!

Lithic materials were more than about mining, they were about trade relations that formed complex networks across BC.  If you like there are several PhD dissertations on this very topic- some of this research happens at the Lab of Archaeology out at UBC. Looking at lithics is more than just identifying the source of the stone and the place the stone tools are found in.  It’s complicated and requires some clear eyed methodologies.

Sign at Lubbock Lake Landmark in Lubbock, Texas

Sign at Lubbock Lake Landmark in Lubbock, Texas

Lithic analysis is more than just connecting dots on a map, between source and use site for example.  Stone tools could have rather complex lives, being mined at one location, or washing down from one, being traded as raw stone, actually being made, traded as a tool, used by one or many individuals, broken or worn, discarded or retouched and reused again.

Plus there are the sheer numbers of stone tools as well as the waste of stone tool production. And they all need to be counted, described, weighed and measured very carefully.

Lithic Sources Ancient and Modern

Not all of BC’s sources of lithic material where known or mined pre 1900’s.  In fact Geological Surveys are continuously turning up new sources of stoney delight!

If you want to punish yourself read something about it on a government website.

Not all of this lithic material made it onto a map compiled by David L. Pokotylo, UBC Professor and Anthropologist Extraordinaire, in his 1988 book (written in both French and English), Blood from Stone or Rendre la Vie aux Pierres. But still its a good read, and a good place to start if you want to learn something about lithic technologies in BC.

Professor Pokotylo was kind enough to let me crash his Archaeology Lab Nights at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, where I learned a lot about how to distinguish and identify different types of lithic materials.

Maturity Test- Glass Buttes?

 Says Pokotylo (1988: 4): “stone materials occur in two main forms in the environment- in the deposits where they were formed, or as redeposited material.”

Outside of the environment al forces, people  move materials around. Many types of stone, for example, Volcanic Obsidian, were mined from multiple locations throughout BC and down into the Pacific Northwest.

Getting Stoned: Extra Fancy Style

If you want to make something sharp, that’s going to keep it’s edge, be on the look out for rocks with a micro- or crypto-crysitiline structure.  These are identifiable by what you don’t see- that is stone where minerals are not visible to the naked eye, with no inclusions or flaws.

Rocks with a tight and flawless crystylline structure are extra fancy because they fracture concoidally- meaning that when you strike them the force moves through them evenly, in a cone shape, down from the point of impact.

Besides being better able to keep their edges, this type of material is easier to shape.

An example of this type of stone would be a diamond. Just imagine how great having diamond tipped stone tools would be!

The Limitations of the Real World (ability, accessibility and just plain economics)

Talented, and not so talented craftspeople have to work within the real world, which includes limiting factors such as access to stone, availability of trade and their own lithic abilities.

The Goods

The following is a list of materials, graded in terms of crystalline quality from worst to best, with mention of where they can be found in BC, and what kind of tools they may have been used for.

Shale or Mudstone

Shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock composed of mud that is a mix of flakes of clay minerals and tiny fragments of other minerals, especially quartz and calcite.

Despite being of rather dubious quality, lots of tools were made of shale- maybe they were practicing?  In any case it does us some good not to get too snobby about our materials.

In any case shale is kind of neat anyways because you can sometimes find fossils embedded in the stone.  The Burgess Shale is famous for this.

Gas and oil deposits are also found in shale.

Looking for shale is a serious matter, and not to be trifled with.  Which I guess is why shale deposits have such serious names. Right “Poker Chip Shale”?


Argillite is a weakly metamorphosed shale or slate (remember metamorphic rock- those rocks that change under heat/pressure). It is a fine grained stone that is grey/green in colour. Its a fancy type of shale that polishes up and can be used to make pretty nice things.

Argillite is found in Southeastern BC, in and around the Kootanay Region. The Haida hold a monopoly on a type of Argillite known as “Black Slate,” found only at a quarry on a Slatechuck Mountain in Haida Gwaii.

Tools and work of a Haida argillite carver. Argillite is a soft slate which hardens on exposure to air. It can be carved and worked for some time after being mined, and the Haida have worked it since time immemorial. (Source:

Tools and work of a Haida argillite carver. Argillite is a soft slate which hardens on exposure to air. It can be carved and worked for some time after being mined, and the Haida have worked it since time immemorial. (Source:

Since the 1900’s many more miniature carvings than stone tools were made of this material, in response to the seemingly insatiable white appetite for knick knacks.

Chert and/or Flint

Chert is a particularly fine grained silica sedimentary rock with a nice microcrystalline structure that sometimes contains small fossils (Source: Wikipedia).

Fossils in Sedimentary Rock. (Source: Wikipedia)

Fossils in Sedimentary Rock. (Source: Wikipedia)

There is a whole bunch of this stuff up in Princeton, BC known as the “Princeton Chert,” formed from an Eocene deposit of flora. Chert is also found in the “Top of the World” Provincial Park in the Kootenays and in Hat Creek Valley– 7 and 4 on Pokotylo’s map.

Chert forms in sedimentary rock as a replacement mineral, occurring when sediments (like dead marine creatures) are compressed into sedimentary rock (through a process called diagenesis).  Thus Chert forms as irregular nodules in limestone or chalk formations.

When chert forms in chalk or limestone for example, we call it flint.

So Flint of Chert- what’s the difference?

Flint is just dark cherts, forming in limestone or chalk.

Cherts on the other hand, vary a lot in colour, but all the examples I have seen of it in BC are sort of a creamy beige in colour.

Quartz Crystal

Well Chert and Flint are types of Quartz- they all form in sedimentary rock, but Quartz often has a much higher silica content.

Wikipedia tells me that, “Quartz is the second most abundant mineral in the Earth’s continental crust, after feldspar. It is made up of a continuous framework of SiOsilicon–oxygen tetrahedra, with each oxygen being shared between two tetrahedra, giving an overall formula SiO2.”

There are lots of different type of Quartz. I am not sure if the distinction between Chert/Flint and Quartz was palpably different to those using these materials to make stone tools.

Pokotylo sites this material as coming from the Gulf of Georgia in Southwestern BC. Quartz often occurs around Gold deposits and a place called Quartz Creek, in the West Kootanays, was also the location of a Gold Mine in the 1900s.


Basalt is an igneous rock, formed by a rapidly cooling volcanic flow.  These cooling flows form six-sided Basalt columns.  There are a lot of these along the Sea to Sky highway between Vancouver and Whistler.

Rock of Ages. (Source: Pique News Magazine)

Rock of Ages. (Source: Pique News Magazine)

Pokotylo sites the Arrowstone Hills in the Southern Interior, as a major source of Basalt, but everywhere in BC there was a volcanic flow, you can find Basalt.


Like Basalt, Obsidian is also formed from volcanic flow, but Obsidian forms when the lava cools with minimal crystalline growth.  The stuff is shiny and feels wonderfully slick in the hand.  It’s also sometimes called “Volcanic Glass.”

On Pokotylo’s map its found on Mount Edziza (on the aptly named Obsidian Ridge) and in Anahim Peak (as well as on the Glass Buttes in Oregon).

This is a photograph of a flaked knife point made of obsidian from Mount Edziza. (Source: Royal BC Museum)

This is a photograph of a flaked knife point made of obsidian from Mount Edziza. (Source: Royal BC Museum)

Obsidian is also found in many other places in BC.


Jade is a dense and compact mineral nephrite, that is one of the world’s stronger materials.  It can keep and edge and is virtually shatterproof.

Jade is so hard that it takes a bit of a knack to work. Before steel tools, First Nations developed what is called “Ground Tool Technology”- using sandstone, granite or hard volcanic stones in addition to abrasives like sand and water to shape the material.

According to the one book I read on this, In Search of Ancient British Columbia (2006: 148) many jade tools seemed, “disproportionately large or lacked any signs of wear. It seems they were created purely as status symbols… or perhaps to trade.”

Nice Adze. (Source:

Nice Adze. (Source:

Jade is found in the Fraser River Canyon and the Interior Plateau, and was mined for material to make chisels, adzes and axes 3000 to 4000 years ago.

There are 50 odd places in BC where jade is found.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, lithics and the source of raw materials in BC is a complicated topic.

After all this can anyone recommend a good way to relax?

François Bordes showing us  how to learn about lithics and relax at the same time. (Source: Ancient Craft- Experimental Archaeology)

François Bordes showing us how to learn about lithics and relax at the same time. (Source: Ancient Craft- Experimental Archaeology)


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