The Secrets of Ancient Shank Drilling

The Peace Pipe by E. Irving Couse, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1901

The Peace Pipe by E. Irving Couse, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1901)

A couple of branches up in my family tree is a great uncle of some sort who was an Indian agent for the U.S government in the late 1800s. I mainly know about this person, whose name I do not recall, because many of the Native American artifacts that he collected during his career remained in my great-grandfather's house. There was a saddle frame made of bone, a leather knife sheath, some beaded clothing, an incredibly smelly partial buffalo hide, and most fascinating, a pipe.

Indian agents were not highly thought of by society, which is somewhat reassuring given the level of disrespect shown to Native Americans and their artifacts, especially the peace pipe, which is a sacred item. Indian agents were responsible for making sure Native Americans learned to farm, learned to speak English, did not "idle for want of an opportunity to labor," did not drink alcohol, and did not leave the reservation without a permit.

From our perspective, that is a loathsome job that no one should hold. But even in the 1800s, Indian agents were publicly deemed as corrupt, unprincipled opportunists and were routinely subject to derogatory news articles. I'm not proud of this ancestor's career choice, but there are worse in my family tree, so I won't obsess about him.

However, he did inadvertently gift me with an interest in pipes. Whenever we visited my great-grandfather, I would bolt to the basement, which was filled with fascinating objects, the best of which was the peace pipe. Made of genuine pipestone, also known as catlinite, mined only in Minnesota and only by Native Americans, the bowl was a deep red streaked with white, and the stem was a white wood (probably ash or sumac, most often mentioned in articles).

It was decades later when I started wondering about pipes like the one I'd known as a child. Native Americans did not have electric drills or long drill bits of any sort. How, I wondered, did they drill a smoke hole through a foot and a half or more of solid wood? The question is even more intriguing when considering those sacred pipes with curved stems. Flexible drill bits were as unthought of as regular drill bits.

Pipe Dance, Assiniboine by George Catlin, Smithsonian American Art Museum (1835-1837)

Pipe Dance, Assiniboine by George Catlin, Smithsonian American Art Museum (1835-1837)

At last, I ran across a 1949 article in Pipe Lovers magazine that satisfied my curiosity. The cores of the woods used for stems contain pulpy, soft, pith centers. The Native pipemaker would pour grease into the wood and the pith would soak it up. Then a small hole was fashioned for placement of a hungry grub, which was sealed inside with pitch. The grub would eat through the greasy pith and come out the other side, leaving a smooth, even smoke hole behind.

What an elegant solution to a puzzling problem. Further research indicated that some tribes merely laid lengths of wood on ant hills, and the ants would eat the soft pith. Quartz was used as a smoothing agent, like sandpaper, and some tribes did use drill bits of sorts, with hard white quartz points at the end of a thin shaft wrapped by a bow string attached to a bow, generating rotation as the bow moved forward and back, similar to a well-known fire-starting technique.

The ingenuity of ancient peoples continues to amaze me. In fashioning pyramids or pipe stems, they found brilliant ways to accomplish their goals. Many problems that puzzle us today were solved long ago with simpler and more insightful means than we would imagine.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Editorial History Pipe Culture Pipe Making


    • Lee Brown on October 3, 2019
    • Love your articles. Keep them coming.

    • Elijah Steele on October 3, 2019
    • Fantastic article!

    • DAVID F on June 9, 2021
    • Fascinating article!

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