Hannibal man carves rocks into art

Friday, January 20, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Tim Murphy holds one of his carved pieces in Hannibal, Mo. Murphy has traveled around the tri-states, the Dakotas and Italy.

HANNIBAL — In a makeshift workshop inside the back room of his modest home, Tim Murphy has piles of rock awaiting their fate.

They sit in huge chunks piled inside a blue storage container. They are thick. They're art.

"I started hunting with arrowheads late in my life and moved down here to Hannibal and was over in Kampsville, Ill. — there's an archeological hub over there and I saw a guy chipping flint, making stone tools," Murphy said. "About a year later I was able to get a hold of him and asked him if he would show me how to do that, I'd be willing to pay. I went over there to his backyard for a weekend and watched, and that's kind of what got me started."

Murphy prefers a Burlington chert, a type of flint rock. It can be found in many areas across the country. He said it's the easiest material to use when it comes to crafting different arrowheads and other artistic pieces.

"It has to be flint in order to be able to chip it. The reason is because it has a round molecule in it in a random order, so when you strike the platform edge with the energy, the shock wave will travel through the stone," Murphy said. "It could be chalky on the outside, and if you were to bust it open with a hammer or another hammer stone, you would see slick, kind of slick flint. It'll be sometimes glossy, if there's any flint at all, it'll bust and it'll be a controlled break."

Other rocks useful for carving are volcanic rock, he said; obsidian, agate, jasper, Texas flint and Ohio flint are some of the rocks he seeks when he quarries. A trip to Bowling Green awarded him with more than 2,000 pounds of rock, and a trip to Arkansas was also successful.

"Last time I was down there, I got 1,200 pounds of flint," Murphy said. "Just depends on how much money I have and how much I can haul home."

If there's a festival going on in Hannibal or anywhere in the area, Murphy is sure to be there giving lessons, trading art and selling his work. He also frequents the Dakotas throughout the year and makes special trips to Italy.

The years have been good to him. Murphy has been doing rock carving for the past 15 years, which allows him to come up with a simple carving in a matter of 20 minutes. Murphy's most important lesson has been distinguishing what rock types are best for carving. Materials such as marble and crystal are attractive, but their components don't allow for convenient chipping.

"Crystal and other type rock, the molecules and the structure are ordered, so it stops the shock wave from smoothly traveling. So the molecule of a crystal is the shape of the crystal compared to a random order," Murphy said. "My goal was to be able to make a piece lay flat on the table (made out of) raw Burlington, and I wanted to learn how to do it primitively, not these modern ways of doing it. They have modern gadgets that can chip flint; I use moose antlers and deer tines."

And because he's a bow hunter, Murphy carves his own arrowheads for such occasions.

"This is not like masonry or carpentry or mechanic stuff that you can learn in a relatively short period of time," he said. "I want to thin it out in the middle as I take the flakes off, so I want the flakes to go halfway past the center, or all the way across. And so you get that lenticular look to it like a lens, so it tapers down the edge. Then you take a pressure flaker like a deer antler and you just take the edge off, and you have a sharp, serrated edge. It helps to have a good, thin edge."


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Harold Sutton January 20, 2012 | 9:28 a.m.

The skills needed to do this kind of work, which is trully an art, cannot be learned at any modern university in the world. While there will be individuals at some of the schools who have taught themselves this ability, it still cannot be acquired from text book. Text books can only attempt to explain the the mechanics, but the student must first have the natural dicipline to master the art.

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