A Day spent Knapping (note the ‘K’)
One of the things I’ve long wanted to do is to be able to recognize ancient worked flints for what they are. How often do you come across a piece of flint in the field, pick it up and wonder if it had been shaped by an ancient hand? How better, I thought, to learn to recognize the signs than to be taught to shape simple tools oneself.
A chance conversation threw up the name of John Lord and I was given his e-mail address. I had in mind a group workshop for a number of us from the mineral club and asked if it was the sort of thing he was prepared to do. Much embarrassed when he replied ‘trust you’ve looked at my web-site which gives details of my courses’ – woops! (www.flintknapping.co.uk) It turns out that John, along with his wife Val, gives demonstrations around the country; makes reproductions of flint tools for museums and exhibitions and, even better, holds workshops at his home at Gooderstone in Norfolk – almost on our doorstep. He recommends a maximum of 4 people at a time so that each gets the best from the day. I lost no time in fixing a date for Alan and I and thought we might enjoy Bob Snowball’s company for the day.
Tuesday 10th July was a memorable day. It dawned bright and sunny amid the gloomy days we’d been having. As we sat drinking coffee in a room filled with artefacts in John Lord’s house he gave each of us a copy of his book: ‘The Nature and Subsequent Use of Flint – The Basics of Lithic Technology’. He told us we would find it useful to later read about what we had practiced during the day and, hopefully, it would act as both a reminder and an encouragement. Then outside we went.
John had set up benches and chairs on a tarpaulin in the back garden. He then sat and talked to us about flint knapping as he worked away at a flint in his hand. He made it all look so easy! When it was our turn and we found out just how many variables there are.
The choice of flint is obviously of primary importance. The best flint is usually black inside though some grey or brown is almost as good - experience will tell. It is best to choose a fresh flint direct from the strata rather than one that has been rolled around. The former is better hydrated and less likely to have picked up internal damage. One tip to help the selection is that sharply tapping a loosely held good flint produces a ringing sound, rather than a dull thud.
Then it is important to choose the right tool as a hammer. Flint or quartzite will make a hard hammerstone, sandstone or granite a medium hammerstone and mudstone, wood, bone or antler a soft hammerstone. The size of the impact end of the hammer needs to reflect the job you are using it for. The best way to learn is to try for oneself.
John chose a large nodule of flint, gave me some layers of old sheepskin coat on my leg and showed me how and at what angle to hold the flint against my leg with my left hand. He then chose me a heavy stone hammer for the right hand. He pointed to a spot on the flint and said ‘hit it here, a sharp blow’, and indicated the angle of strike. I managed to avoid both my left leg and my right fingers and the chosen piece of flint knapped away from the core. We passed the coat and core flint to Alan and he knapped as instructed. Then to Bob (who for some reason was determined to keep all away from his metal knee – seemed to think he might have trouble explaining to his doctor if he missed!). Back to me, on to Alan, then Bob…. Then there it was - a flint hand axe that fitted just right into the hand and that you actually felt could be used.
We spent all afternoon happily selecting pieces of flint from those John had to hand and from the debris we were making at our feet. We picked them up turned them this way and that and tried to imagine what tools we could see within the flint. We then each set about transforming our chosen piece into the object of our imagination (carefully adjusting our mental image as the piece we were knapping got smaller!). John was very busy giving advice on hammers to use, where to hit, what angle, how to rescue the piece etc. We quickly realized why he advised a one-to-one workshop to be best.
Alan particularly wanted to learn how to make an arrow head so, a bit later, John showed us how. He chose a suitable flake to make a bifacial (ie shaped from both sides) tool and knapped it into a basic arrow shape. He then showed us how to pressure flake – a difficult technique to describe but even harder to master. The tool to be used was about 8” long - either antler or a piece of wood with a solid copper point (the finer the point the finer the flake that could be removed). The flakes are removed by pressure along the sharp edges of the blade. The arrow-to-be was held against a leather pad in the left hand (if right-handed), this hand supported against the thigh. The point of the tool was then placed against the flake to be removed, keeping the right elbow against the body. Then if one twisted forward, pushing the tool into the edge of the arrow, the tiny flake was forced off. Again the angle and force (and experience!) determined the size and shape of flake removed. The arrow-to be was then turned over and a flake removed from the other side – again and again along both edges until he had a beautiful arrow. He then showed us how to force (gently!) notches in the trailing edge. Alan and Bob made reasonable reproductions but I found it difficult to master the pressure technique.
We were introduced to making platforms and to “core technology”. John chose a suitable nodule of flint and knapped off the top. This made a horizontal platform on the top of the piece. The idea is to provide a platform for your hammer to strike so that you can control the flakes that you are removing. To shape the core he struck the platform at intervals around the edge with a heavy hammer stone thus detaching long shards running from the top down to the base. The core looked almost like an inverted cone and, looking down on the platform, it had a scalloped edge. A point was chosen from which to remove the first blade. The edge of the platform on either side of this point was strengthened by rubbing with quartzite pebble. Choosing a heavy soft hammer and delivering the right strength of blow, at the correct angle, to the point will detach a blade the length of the core. This is then repeated all around the perimeter of the platform. The core is now smaller, but again with a scalloped edge (the indents being where the previous points were) and another series of blades can be knapped off. Choice of hammer, angle, strength of blow, can all be varied to produce the type of blade required. Even the small “microliths” can be used as they are so sharp.
By the end of the afternoon we were very satisfied with what we had produced – several hand axes, scrapers, arrows and small blades. I was particularly pleased with the discoidal knife I had made. But we also realized how much there is to learn about flint knapping and the day left us eager for a return visit.
During the day John had shown us a beautiful knife he had made.The carefully crafted blade was fitted into an equally fine handle with cordage. Before we left he showed us how to knap such a blade from a nodule – first roughly shaping it and then pressure flaking off the edges. By now we could really appreciate the knowledge that guided what he was doing. We have the blade here and it will give us something to aspire to