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Illuminated Individuals Share A Little Light On Primitive Skills

I rant on and on about how much I love North Carolina.  Little gems such as young knife maker prodigies and lesser-known, unique wilderness schools dot the map across the state.  With the mountains two hours west, the sea two hours east, and a plethora of things to do in between, its is no question where my enthusiasm comes from with regard to my affection for North Carolina.  One of these little known gems of NC is the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia…


To see a full gallery of pictures from the class, just go to this page and double click on one of the photos.  Then use the arrows to navigate back and forth through the pictures.

Next Page For The Full Article!!

A Quick Preface:

Around three years ago, I found myself in one of my more common sitting spots at Borders Book Store–the outdoor books section where the survival and camping books are located.  Of course I was used to seeing the ubiquitous survival books and the beginner backpacking books, yet I still browse the selection and see if there is anything of interest amongst them. Standing out like a bush beacon amidst the normal collection of books that I was used to seeing was a large red book entitled “Practicing Primitive”.  sI opened the pages and immediately fell in love with what was inside. It became apparent that this wasn’t your average run of the mill outdoors skills book, as it focused on prehistoric and historic techniques backed with drawings done by the author Steve Watts. It also had many pictures of the actual construction of the items and shelters mentioned. Each section paid specific attention to historic details including the discussion of methods and materials.  I continued reading  it, and finally flipped to the end to find out a little bit about the author. I yelled a loud “WOW!” in the quiet store when I  discovered that Steve Watts was in Gastonia, North Carolina where some of these classes were taught!  I was floored that a few hours away was a place where I could see an actual bark house constructed from prehistoric tools. I contacted him and jumped on some of the upcoming class rosters.

Some Other Features Of The Aboriginal Center
If I am a lowly  Woods Monkey, Steve Watts could be considered King Kong of the primitive camping and bushcraft world.  He graduated from Appalachian state university and completed his masters at Duke in Archaeology.  Because he is such a unique individual, I decided to let the Duke thing slide.  He is the author of plenty of articles, found in Backwoodsman, Wilderness way, and the Bulletin of Primitive Technology.  He was also a consultant on the movie Castaway and even helped with the idea of the soccer ball named "Wilson". In Gastonia, he directs the Aboriginal Studies Program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History. There, students can learn about aboriginal technology, historic camping, and other techniques of old.  “Aboriginal Skills are not taught for skill’s sake, an attempt to place these skills within an anthropological matrix, providing participants with information drawn from archaeology, history, ethnology, linguistics, experimental studies and living oral tradition.” (Watts 225)   As you can see, this isn’t a run of the mill outdoors survival school. Classes include “Camp Kephart”, Megalith Moving, Ancient Mask Making, and all sorts of flint knapping.  Did I mention how fortunate I am to be around places like this?

Shedding Light On Prehistory:

As I am typing this up, the dim light of the monitor is reinforced by the soft light from the soapstone oil lamp I constructed during the class. For this course, we learned a variety of stone age lighting techniques based on archaeological evidence and examples passed through oral tradition.  I’ll mention briefly some of the items we made, but won’t go into the actual construction details as this is more of a trip report than a how-to article.  If you see me at a rendezvous and want to learn, I would be happy to pass the humble flame of knowledge on if I can.

The class began with Steve talking about how fire plays into human history. I think the introduction to these classes are my favorite part, as one becomes impassioned to learn about the subject by the first words that come from Steve. “Fire is one of the most amazing things humans have ever found, it can turn night into day, protect you and keep you warm.”  Lamps have been found all over the Neolithic plain.  For our first task, we pecked stone and mixed cattail with bear fat to make wicks and a dish.  It is truly a  pleasure hearing over a dozen people pecking rocks in unison.  We used rendered bear fat for the fuel, however I’m using vegetable oil for the one I have going now as I type this, as I’m fresh out of bear meat this week.

We then learned how to make “tikki” torches out of cat tail reeds. The trick is that they have to be completely dry before you soak them in oil, but one can cut the bamboo and stick the cat tail in there–instant torch tranquility!  Another topic included bone marrow for a torch. I’m going to have to keep a look out for more DOR (dead on road) deer in the months coming up.

Fatlighter, lighterknot, pineknot, heartwood, whatever you want to call it, is the resin-impregnated wood of the center of a pine, and that was also illuminating. Most woods bummers worth their salt know about the flammable properties of said sap. Steve went over the tree briefly and touched on the subject of collecting wood from the stumps and skeletons. We had a junker axe, as he prescribed not to use your good axe or machete on the stuff.  Since the leftover resin-encrusted skeleton was so brittle, we used solid sapling beams to baton and club the pieces off.

Another method of torch making was the rivercane torch. When cured for a long time, the cane loses green luster and the oils in it are easily lit.  One can break the branch into smaller pieces and set the bundle on fire to produce light.  We bound our bundles with cordage made of dogbane. They have found examples in caves, left over from our troglodyte ancestors from long ago. 

Northern birch bark was also covered as a source of light.  I related with Steve as he swung the torch around in a gleeful manner, like that of an adolescent playing with a sparkler.  Another neat birchbark torch consisted of making birch bark flags on green sticks to light one’s way.

Most of the people left, I chose to stay the night and leave in the morning due to the good friends and good fire.  At night, accordions, violins, banjos, and djembes were brought out and I made an attempt to set a beat for the more musically inclined individuals that were there.  Steve and I talked knives, and he conveyed funny stories about his good friend Mors K, and talked of Kephart and Nessmuk throughout the night. I’m glad to have a friend such as him and look forward to more of the classes.



To see a full gallery of pictures from the class, just to to this page and double click on one of the photos.  Then use the arrows to navigate back and forth through the pictures.

Practicing Primitive: A Handbook Of Aboriginal Skills
By Steven M. Watts, Paul Campbell
Published by Gibbs Smith, 2005
ISBN 158685299X, 9781586852993
240 pages

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