Flaked Glass Tools & Leprosy in Paradise

Back in 2008 I worked with my good friends James Flexner and Jesse Stephens on Moloka’i, the 5th largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. We recorded surface middens and opened up very small excavation test pits in the leprosarium on Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the north side of the island. Kalaupapa is very isolated–it is cut off from the rest of the island by the highest sea cliffs in the world and rough seas on three sides.

Contour map showing the study region

The settlement is equally fascinating and tragic; people suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were quarantined in Kalaupapa and Kalawao from 1865 to 1969 and they constantly struggled to obtain sufficient food, clean drinking water, clothing, and shelter–add this to being isolated from their families and former communities and the health problems that arise from Hansen’s disease such as losing sensation in your extremities.

Another interesting aspect of the island is the eventual presence of Father Damien. He served as a Roman Catholic missionary, ministering to the inhabitants and eventually built St. Philomena Church. When we visited the church, James pointed out the holes in the floor next to the pews where parishioners could relieve themselves of one of the afflictions of the disease–excess saliva–without disrespecting the church by spitting on the floor. There is also one next to the altar. Father Damien eventually caught leprosy too.

Father Damien has recently been canonized, and the potential for tourism in Kalaupapa National Historical Park is high, but will not be fully realized until the last of the residents of the leprosarium has died. When we were there, access to the park was very restricted, and we had the densely forested uplands and gorgeous beaches to ourselves.

This is me documenting the flat rocks where a house built on posts formerly stood.

While I was working there on James’ project, we collected and documented the historical assemblage–rusty bits of metal, ceramics, broken glass, and animal bones. I started to notice something strange about the glass though–some of the edges appeared to have usewear on them. Usewear is the damage that archaeologists can identify on a sharp edge  of stone tools. I was cautious though–depositional processes can play havoc with glass. I had just finished an analysis on Ishi’s glass points and debitage in the Hearst Museum (click here for a bit more information on that tragically unpublished paper) and was attuned to worked glass.

James and I did a bit of experimental archaeology, documented in comic book form:

(The rest of it can be found here: https://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/utilized-glass-and-experimental-archaeology-in-kalaupapa/)

Essentially, it appeared that given the dearth of resources available to the residents of the leprosarium, and that metal rusts at an extremely rapid pace, glass was used both expediently (you find a shard, you use it to cut something) and was worked–we found what appeared to be a clear glass blade formed from a flake. Given that people suffering from Hansen’s disease lose fine motor control, it is an especially interesting technical innovation. We found a few instances where the necks and bases of bottles were preferentially selected to provide large surfaces to grab on to.

Finally, this innovation is especially interesting in that the communities on Hawaii do not have a history of making blades from stone–The obsidian that occurs there is very small and nodular and is usually worked into 1-2cm sized flakes from bipolar reduction. Flaked (or chipped, if you are British) glass is seen as a quintessential “contact” artifact, showing the use of introduced materials into cultural practices that were based around obsidian or flint.

James and I coauthored a paper on the project, which then turned into a chapter in The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture. We’re pretty excited that the book has finally been released! Here’s the full citation:

Flexner, J. L., and C. L. Morgan (2013) The Industrious Exiles: An Analysis of Flaked Glass Tools from the Leprosarium at Kalawao, Moloka‘i. In The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, edited by J. J. Card. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, pp. 295-317.

We’ve been asked not to upload proofs of the chapter yet, but in the meantime you should check out James’ other articles on Kalawao. He’s got a whole lot of them uploaded on Academia.edu:

Flexner, James (2012). An Institution that was a Village: Archaeology and Social Life in the Hansen’s Disease Settlement at Kalawao, Moloka‘i, Hawaii International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 16 (1), 135-163 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-012-0171-4

Utilized Glass and Experimental Archaeology in Kalaupapa


One of my pet interests in archaeology is utilized glass, that is, glass that has been repurposed for cutting or scraping.  One of the best examples of this are the glass points of Ishi, a collection that I studied and wrote up during my first year of grad school.  Since then I haven’t worked much with utilized glass, so it came as a lovely surprise to find so much of it at Kalaupapa.  James and I planned and collected a large scatter that came up as at least 50% utilized after we looked at it in the lab.

We washed all the glass, then sorted and drew pieces that were either utilized or had identifying marks on them.  A lot of the glass looked really modern, as in, about 100 years old or so.  You can figure out a bottle’s age by color and by morphology, particularly by how the bottle’s neck and base were fixed to the body.  If you’d like to find out more about how to do this, one of the best references is the Parks Canada Glass Glossary, available here.

But we going “chicken blind” (as my darling Serbian friend Marina would term it) and we were starting to doubt our analyses.  So we did a little experimental archaeology.



This is the first movie I did (that wasn’t a joint project), back in Spring of 2006, in conjunction with a project about the glass debitage of Ishi that is held in the Hearst Museum.  I’d really like to publish the paper someday, but it needs substantial work.

It’s sorta long (13 mins), so I certainly don’t expect anyone to check out the full thing, but any feedback is welcome.  I probably won’t edit this one anymore because the drive that had all of my scratch files died, alas.

Maybe someday I won’t be terrified when I put my video work up on the internet, but it won’t be any time soon.