This is a second post from my day in John Lord’s polytunnel.
After attempting blade production (next post) we had a half hour left. I suggested a quick handaxe, and so John selected a flat nodule with a chunk missing, and then guided me through the process. I have made them before, but don’t have a particular or systematic approach so I am inconsistent. For expediency we decided upon a pointy handaxe with some cortex remaining. In an approximate order these are the points I took away from this experience. Firstly the scar from the missing chunk provides the platform for the next removal. In this way alternate removals can be taken from each face, as illustrated here by Karl Lee.
I made removals up to the cortex ‘handle’ using a hard stone hammer and this resulted in each face having a series of ‘ridges’ and ‘valleys’. We then focused upon facetting the platforms. Facetting removes weak ‘sticky out bits’ from the striking platform as they can act as shock absorbers and compromise the blow. John uses facetting and abrasion to sculpt an ideal platform, and an ideal platform is slightly concave presumably to collect the energy of the blow. It also needs to have a nice prominent ridge underlying it for the energy to follow. With a platform prepared thinning the handaxe could begin.
Thinning was done with a large moose antler billet and used in a similar manner to the stone, i.e. punching into the flint. This is different to how I have seen Karl Lee working with an antler hammer. Interestingly, rather than change the angle of the blow, John changes the angle of the nodule receiving the blow. This is a useful distinction for me because in many ways it reduces the variables, although I am currently used to doing it the ‘Karl’ way. This involves variation in angle of the blow and angle of the nodule simultaneously. Karl’s way seems more intuitive.
It took me a little while to get used to John’s billet because it had uneven wear and so I had to be careful how it made contact, but it thinned the handaxe pretty well. After the first round of thinning I needed to shape it by targeting protruding sections. A smaller antler hammer was used and no platform preparation was necessary. I used the Karl method for this, but was aware that short removals were required and so kept the handaxe fairly flat. In this way the pointed shape was produced.
And then it was finished. It took about 20 minutes or so and John likened it to those handaxes found at the site of Swanscombe and produced by Homo heidelbergensis. As stated in the title, I find it ugly. I really like these pointy handaxes, but this feels to me unfinished. Within a Palaeolithic context of needing to rapidly quarter a dead animal before other predators arrived, this ugliness would probably not have been a concern. Without wishing to compare her to a predator, Karen was picking me up at five o’clock and so I too had my deadline. In terms of expediency this handaxe worked really well. However, I am a modern knapper and rightly or wrongly aesthetics are important to me.
It took less about 20 minutes and I learned a lot from John whilst making this. In fact I have found John Lord to be a very patient teacher. However, now I am back in Manchester I will probably be spending some time ‘refining’ this so that I like the look of it. I also spent yesterday morning at East Runton collecting flat nodules on the beach and so I now have some material to practice on as well. I feel I am entering my pointy handaxe phase!
Addendum. I like it a little better now!