Bone awls or perforators are found at most archaeological sites and were in use throughout all prehistoric periods. They were used for punching holes in skins or leather for sewing garments or other articles of clothing. Bone awls could be used for perforating most softer materials and many of them were probably also used in the manufacture of basketry, matting, or similar woven materials. As a consequence of usage, the awls became highly polished, not only from handling the awl but from contact with the working material.
Awls are essentially pencil-shaped pieces of bone which have been tapered at one end to form a pointed tool. The point exhibits the greatest care in workmanship, and the other end, or handle portion, may be without modification or it may also have been carefully shaped to make it easier to hold for actual use. There is considerable variation in any assortment of bone awls, not only in the amount of polish from wear but in the amount of preparation in forming the awl and in the actual size. Some appear to be sturdy with strong tips for heavy work while others are finely shaped to produce delicate needle-like points. The average length of specimens falls between about 75 mm and 150 mm although both smaller and larger specimens are fairly common (Figure 29).
Classification of bone awls is not standardized among writers, but there is a general trend to classify them according to the characteristics of the bone of which the awl has been made. For example, awls made on bones in which the joint end remains complete and unmodified, awls made on bones that have been split in half or sectioned into smaller pieces but which retain portions of the joint, awls made from a split section of
bone in which the joint end has also been removed, awls made from bone splinters which were sharpened at one end but remain otherwise without modification, etc. One also finds awls made from sharpened sections of bird bone, awls made from split sections of animal ribs, or other variations.
One type of awl that is commonly found on the Southern Plains and in Oklahoma is termed a "rib-edge awl." This is made from the rib-edge or vertebral spine edge of the bison and can be identified by the triangular shape in cross section and the presence of the spongy or cancellous portion of the bone along its length. Rib-edge awls tend to be short in length and the base end is blunted by grinding to form a short conical-shaped tip. The rib-edge awl is characteristic of the Plains Village occupations and may have served some special purpose. Many specimens are so short that they were probably mounted in a wooden or bone handle (Figure 29g).
A popular bone awl found on the Washita River focus sites is a split bone awl made from the deer cannon bone. Examples found in various stages of manufacture indicate that the cannon bone was first split in half by cutting a lengthwise groove along both sides and then snapping the bone in two halves. The half section of bone was then grooved in a similar way, snapped in two and the resulting quarter section of bone was shaped down with a point at one end, leaving the other joint end of the bone serving as the handle. In this fashion, four similar awls could be made from a single cannon bone. Awls were sometimes decorated around the handle or basal section with incised lines or simple designs. Most recovered examples, however, are plain and undecorated.