“That’s right. It’s a dolphin”

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WordPress sent an email to remind me that I haven’t posted anything in a while. We have been digging on a hill above Rochdale where Mesolithic microliths and debitage have been identified eroding from a footpath. Consequently, not much knapping has been happening, and I have not had much to report (although this is a lithics based post from the dig).  The only real news is that I have ordered some flint!

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This is what £100 worth of flint nodules from Needham Chalk looks like. I have destroyed about four nodules since I last wrote. In the process I have generated plenty of flakes for scrapers and arrowheads, but still struggle to work any nodule that is not tabular into a core tool. I have watched a couple of Youtube videos and have strategies in mind, and I think the key thing is being able to get rid of lumps from the core. This involves experimentation and practice, hence the flint.

The nodule of flint in the initial photograph, and the title of the post can be seen as a homage to Karl Lee. He has done a number of introductory sessions for us with students new to lithics, and students perhaps not so enthusiastic about lithics at 9am on a Tuesday morning. Karl’s approach was to remain silent until the start of the session. He would then hold up a nodule of flint that looked startlingly similar to a large human penis, and ask the students: “What does this look like?” The students were invariably unsure of how to respond and lots of sniggering and whispering would ensue, but no answer. Karl would then break the tension with “That’s right. It’s a dolphin“. Laughter followed as the students realised the session wasn’t going to be as boring as they had feared. After that opening Karl had their attention and would proceed to talk through the process of making a handaxe. As well as being a skilled flint-knapper he is very engaging, and that is a really valuable attribute in a teaching and learning environment. The irony here is that the nodule in my photograph actually looks like a dolphin.

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The handaxe of solace

I am pretty busy at the moment. Busy in a good way but it means I don’t have much free time to be playing in the backyard. I remedied this tonight. I was supposed to go to what looked like a good meeting this evening, but it felt like too much and so I dropped Karen off at the meeting and took the dog for a slow walk. Whilst walking I remembered I had a nodule of flint donated to me by Elizabeth Healey sat in the backyard. My next thought was leaf shaped arrowheads, but my pressure flaking gear is at uni. My third thought was handaxe as I did have hard hammers at home.

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The above photo is of a step fracture, or it could be a hinge fracture, I am not sure how I would categorise it, and besides, it has gone now. The interesting thing about this step fracture is that it occurred just at the point where the nodule was connecting with my thigh. My thigh was acting as a damper and encouraging the flake to run out of energy, thus causing the step. I observed this happen a number of times, and it parallels the phenomenon that can occur when pressure flaking arrowheads. This is why American knappers use a base with a channel so that the flake being removed has no support.

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Anyway, I was able to successfully reduce this nodule and produce a small, but neat and tidy hard hammer handaxe, to order so to speak. I used both a large and small hard hammer, the large one for most of the work, and the small one for invasive thinning to straighten up the edge. All very controlled with no hairy moments when it could have all gone wrong.

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One of the things I am doing at the moment is writing an article for John Atwood. I am at the stage where I have the article almost complete, it is just that I am not sure what it is I am saying. It would have been good to finish it tonight and send it to him so he can get on with it, but I felt like I needed to go into the backyard. This is in fact partly what the article is about: doing stuff as opposed to thinking about stuff. When I am overwhelmed by thinking, making things, flint-knapping in particular makes me feel right. I have had a pretty productive day, not yet found the ending to my article, but this session in the backyard and resultant handaxe has been the highlight.

The crunch of crushing platforms

Overnight I have gained some insight. As I said in the last post I have now mastered the production of leaf shaped arrowheads on flint flakes and can make them relatively quickly. I have also gone on in previous posts about the function of platforms for avoiding crushing and shock absorption, which compromise the blow or pressure. The crunching sound associated with that is what the title of this post refers to. These particular insights have come from working predominantly bottle bases, where systematic thinning is necessary throughout, and a crushed platform leads to thick edges that resist flaking. In the ‘bottle bottom world’ crushed platforms are a pain.

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When I visited John Lord he made a leaf shaped point from a flake of rock crystal. The flake he struck had quite a large bulb and didn’t look ideal for much to my amateur eye. The main thing to emphasise is that the flake had a largish bulb and was overall relatively thin.

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As you can see from the photograph above, from where I was sitting you couldn’t see much. What I heard was two things: some good pressure flaked removals; but also a lot of crunching. This is the sound I associate with crushed platforms, and consequently I didn’t hold out much hope for the end result.

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I was however proved entirely wrong. As I said at the beginning, and if I were to review the order of my posts, my focus and progress on leaf shaped points has been good since sitting down with John. I also semi-observed myself making that same crunching sound when working flakes yesterday. Flakes are formally different to bottle bases in that much of the flake is thin and I now understand needs ‘crunching’ into shape. The crunching sound relates to the crushing of thin sections of flint, but with a flake this can be a useful strategy for rapid shaping when the flake is already thin enough. The really interesting thing is that I learnt that in Norfolk some weeks ago, and applied it yesterday in Manchester. However, this process occurred unconsciously. I was provided with the audio data by John and it was duly logged and interpreted (incorrectly). However, through a process of making on flakes that same data was marshalled unconsciously into an experiment I didn’t even know I was doing. The results were incorporated into my new method, and then overnight I gained an insight into the process that had been going on all along below the surface.

There is a whole field of philosophy that rejects the mind body dualism, one that I definitely subscribe to. However, it is easy to ‘think’ about what needs doing (my piles of paper and jobs that still need doing!) and in the process override the more subtle processes that are going on under the surface. I suppose what I am drawing out here is that whilst I intellectually agree with the idea that we should reject the idea of a separate intellect, putting that idea into practice involves creating space to let ourselves process what is happening. Perhaps the term or concept of idea is unhelpful? In a social world which values ‘efficiency’ a process of allowing things to percolate, and giving time to play with things can sometimes be difficult. It can run counter to what our family, friends and colleagues expect from us. Anyway, it is now 9.40am and I need to be getting on 🙂

Neolithic points produced using a stone and antler tine pressure flaker

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This is the debris from my large slab of Runton beach flint. It has generated lots of flakes and I have a couple of Neolithic arrowhead events in mind. At uni we have a film crew recording part of a project we are doing, and they want some footage of experimental work going on. I have now mastered Neolithic arrowheads made from flint and produced using the correct methods: stone and antler. I think I can probably teach someone to produce one from a flint flake in about 40 minutes. That is my hypothesis and I get to test it out with the students in a week or so.

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Today has been a funny day. I had a lot of small tasks to do and this morning laid out my piles of paperwork to get through them one by one. They have remained untouched and I have been in the backyard and among other things produced these three points. The one in the middle was finished using my metal pressure flaker, the other two with my antler tine. I could feel unproductive having unfinished piles of paperwork, or I can feel productive having finished these points. It is obviously how I choose to contextualise it. I gravitated towards making these today, unplanned, and they have emerged into the world. They are an unconscious link between my positive feelings around the Bronze Age arrowhead workshop last week, and my thoughts about a future Neolithic Day at the same venue. They are also the result of my wanting to get better at using flint and leaf shaped points being simpler to produce. So a lot of things were going on for me and my body led the way into the backyard, and I came back in with these. Karen has just got back and we are going for a curry. I think I will choose to feel productive.

Anatomy of a handaxe

.DSC_1310I am a visual person, and the above title is a reference to a film, Anatomy of a Murder. More specifically it is a reference to the poster for the film, designed by Saul Bass. This handaxe was made from a large flake, from the largest slab of Runton beach flint. I have angled it so that the step fracturing is clear. Generally speaking, step fracturing is not good. I used a soft hammer on a lot of this and the step fracturing is a result of that. I am still learning.

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This handaxe is from our teaching collection and is ‘real’, real being Lower Palaeolithic and therefore produced by someone called Homo heidelbergensis. Main thing, look at the step fracturing, it is not just me.

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If we look at the edge blunting this is largely to do with movement through an abrasive sediment, perhaps over millenia. Originally it would have been sharp like mine. The orange colour has been absorbed from the environment it has been resting in. If it were chipped again the original colour would be revealed.

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This is the poster I like, and paradoxically it illustrates what a handaxe was probably used for: dismembering a carcass. This is an interesting theme for me. I am now good enough to produce ugly functional stuff consistently, but I get satisfaction from producing the aesthetic pieces. It is definitely not an either / or situation. It does however throw light on how experimental production is used today, and of course the different ‘economic’ contexts of myself and Homo heidelbergensis.

 

Reflecting upon my Bronze Age arrowhead workshop

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The title suggests that my workshop is about producing a Bronze Age arrowhead, but upon reflection I realise it is actually about people. The workshop went really well, so much so that I am keen to do another one soon. I received good feedback but most importantly I really enjoyed it, and I think the participants did as well. In total there were ten and a half of us. Rachele, from The Old Abbey dipped in and out, in between other pub related tasks. Of the nine participants I knew six already and three people were new to me. Interestingly, three of the participants were engineers. The day was sunny and everyone was in a good mood and the group mix was good.

I had them for four hours and I had integrated a half hour introduction explaining how stone tools have been used to structure our understanding of prehistory. This is a compressed summary of around 850,000 years of British prehistory in 30 minutes. Highlights include an Acheulean handaxe (made by me), a Bout-coupe handaxe (made by me), a blade core and blades (made by John Lord), a bladelet (made by me), Neolithic leaf shaped arrowhead and Bronze Age barb and tang arrowhead (both by me). The idea is that they can ‘handle’ their way through prehistory and it worked well. I have a day-school coming up in September and I am going to develop this section so that it is two hours and includes a Powerpoint and activity. I feel really pleased that I have produced an almost complete teaching collection in line with the historical discussion. After the main lecture bit we explored how can we develop an understanding of the stone tools themselves. One approach is through experimental archaeology, or Learning Through Making, and off we went. I introduced them to a Kimberley point (made by me) to provide a linkage between archaeological stone tool production and the ethnographic use of glass. This provided a segue into beer bottles.

Removing the base of the beer bottle using a length of wire is great, because people are amazed at how easy it is. After everyone had obtained their base I led them through hard hammer, soft hammer and pressure flaking. Without providing a blow by blow account, some people got it and others didn’t. In the middle of that bell curve sat seven people. I worked through the process in a linear sequential way starting with hard hammer and ending with pressure flaking. I may change this a little as really they need to move between the three tools on their journey through the process. The linear approach may not therefore be that useful.

It was a four hour session and based upon feedback I am going to instigate an official break in proceedings, meaning everyone would have a break at the same time. There are actually many advantages to this. First of all it gives people the chance to get to know each other a little. Secondly it provides a respite from the intense concentration that is required. Thirdly it will provide some business for the venue who kindly hosted my event free of charge. Along the same lines, a mini ‘icebreaker’ at the beginning has been suggested.

This feedback is really useful because it has highlighted to me the point mentioned at the beginning of this post. The workshop is actually about people, people who have come together in order to make a Bronze Age arrowhead. It is a social, as much as a technological process. Getting their feedback is a great reminder of this, and great way for me to think about how I can craft future workshops around the people taking part.

The best bit of feedback I received on the day was “that was really interesting. I am never going to do it again!

My thanks to Rachele for encouragement and hosting, and Brian Madden for these excellent photographs.

Do you ever find yourself…?

The full title of this post is ‘do you ever find yourself in the backyard at 6.30 am knapping a flake of bitumen?’

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Having got up early I started tidying up my office / room I keep everything in. This involved a sort out, and in the process I came across the above flake. It is a flake of bitumen, the kind that is melted down to produce a road surface. I found a block of it some time ago and recognised the characteristic fracture qualities that suggested it could be knapped. Having discovered the flake I unfortunately then had a choice: continue tidying up; or go out into the backyard and make an arrowhead.

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This was pretty quick, less than 15 minutes, which is good because it was cold outside. Having finished making the arrowhead I unfortunately then had a choice: continue tidying up; or do a blog post.