Teaching stone tool making as social currency

Last week I was invited over to Chester to run a four hour glass arrowhead making workshop for the ArcSoc, and I was paid in chocolate! Jules took lots of great pictures and so partly I want to include these, but I also want to explore the experience of teaching and learning as well.

Chester’s Archaeology department has just emerged from a stressful few months where lecturers were under threat of redundancy. One outcome of this threat was a series of protests that included both members of staff, but also students who correctly recognised that a threat to the members of staff was also a threat to the student body.

The current economic rationalisation of an archaeology department is not designed to improve either staff or student experience, and it is exactly this staff and student experience that I find fascinating.

Making stone tools is the gift that keeps on giving. It is an occult activity, in that the skill and experience that allows me to do things like soft hammer thinning, or ribbon flaking with a copper pressure flaker, these things are embodied, or hidden within my body.

Consequently, what students experience during the learning process is not just my ability to do something, but their own inability. There is that interesting space where I show them how to do something, and they find they can’t do it. My job is to bridge that gap and facilitate their ability to produce something within a fixed amount of time.

So the look on these faces is not just about what they have been able to achieve individually, but also the bits they couldn’t do and they had some help with from me. That help is part of the process and so each of these arrowheads is a shared endeavour, and as such we both have a vested interest in a successful outcome.

It is therefore also a social process. Each person will have the same but also different problems with glass arrowhead production. The evidence of the particular problem is revealed by the arrowhead, but the solution to the problem lies within the person’s procedure. What do they need to do differently and how can I facilitate that change?

To make that change so we both focus in on the detail of what they are doing, and then what happens if they make particular changes. That process can also be understood as a ‘getting to know you’ experience, and coming out the other end with a pointy piece of glass that you have sweated over for a good few hours is a great ‘getting to know you’ outcome.

In the same way that I didn’t travel over from Manchester for a box of chocolates, I believe the participants were not there to maximise the value of their £9000 fees for that year. It was a shared four hours where we explored a topic of interest together, got to know each other and worked to achieve a (more or less!) successful outcome.

I think something similar happened earlier this year when staff and students got together in the centre of Chester. Understanding that teaching and learning is a social process becomes important as Archaeology as a subject comes under increasing pressure to justify itself to the university in purely financial terms. Participants recognised a shared interest in resisting redundancies and by working together achieved a (more or less!) successful outcome. I think this was a great learning experience for both staff and students.

Now it is hafted

I couldn’t leave it alone. The chip forks were rescued from the kindling basket. They effectively extend the handle. They are secured with nylon garden twine wrapped around the forks and the series of four notches on each side of the dagger handle. This is all tightly covered with a section of bicycle inner tube. Finally, the handle thickness is maintained at the end by a section of wine cork pushed between the forks and held in place by the inner tube. I don’t know if Brian will like it, but I am sure he will appreciate it.

Brian Howcroft: this is your knife!

I have been inspired a couple of times in the past two weeks. Firstly, by Brian bringing up the Gorple Dagger to Windy Hill.

The second thing was an excellent video by James Dilley on making a glass handaxe.

So guess what happens when you add these two things together? Well, as you can see, not straight away.

I have spent about eight hours this weekend slowly working through a series of problems: maintaining length; avoiding endshock; maintaining width with complete bifacial thinning.

Anyway, by Sunday evening I had something resembling Brian’s dagger, but made from sheet glass from the bottle dump. It is not perfect in any of the above areas, but I learned a lot. Brian hasn’t been too well of late and I think he needs some cheering up, so guess where this one is going…

Brian Howcroft’s Bronze Age dagger

Last week I went up to the Mesolithic site of Windy Hill near Rochdale. I have been away a lot over the summer and this was really a catch up, with Stephen, Brian and Richard, who have been excavating there all summer, and for the past four years.

Anyway, as a special surprise Brian brought up the flint dagger he found at Gorple Reservoir in 1994. Full details are on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website if you search on there for SWYOR-AABE73. However, I want to talk about two aspects of the artefact that I found intriguing.


The above excellent photograph is from the Portable Antiquities Scheme website and the first thing I read from this artefact was that the thinning flakes (and the blade is very thin) were removed using a soft hammer. I know this because the removal scars start narrow but become wide and expansive, penetrating in some cases over half way across the face. In contrast it has been finely shaped by pressure flaking. This is evidenced by the small and parallel sided scars all around both faces of the blade. So far so good. This is interesting as it tells me that the real skill here is in the soft hammer work, and the pressure flaking was probably done with an antler, rather than copper.

On this first face what is interesting is the step fracture approximately one third of the way in from the left hand side. This kind of ‘problem’ is something I am very familiar with from my own knapping practice. However, what surprised me was the small flake scar emerging from the actual step. This suggests to me that the step fracture was originally more substantial, and a punch was placed on it to facilitate the central flake being knocked out. The scar from the bulb of percussion is present and so that tells us that the impact for the removal occurred one third of the way into the face.

The second point that caught my eye was the proximal tip or the base of the handle. It was patinated that suggested it was a small remaining part from the surface of the original nodule that the dagger was made from. You can see the white patina on the image above, but also in the first picture where I hold it in my hand. Brian also found another object at the same time as finding the dagger.

This is the box Brian keeps both objects in and you can see the second object on the right hand side of the dagger. The PAS analyst has classed this second object as a ‘razor’. The distal end of the ‘razor’ bears the same patina as the dagger next to it suggesting it is from the same nodule. The ‘razor’ is unworked. Neither the dagger or the ‘razor’ show any signs of use, and to me the ‘razor’ is more probably a thinning flake, a piece of symmetrical debitage associated with the production of the dagger. I do not know much about Bronze Age daggers but another factor to recognise is that both pieces were recovered in the vicinity of the remains of a Beaker period burial cairn. Brian found these two artefacts, but it is unclear how many pieces may have been originally present. I wonder if the dagger was made specifically for the burial event, and the production debris was included in the burial cairn as well? Thanks again to Brian for bringing it up. I am now interested in Bronze Age daggers! TBC

My Festival of Lithics 2021 presentation

Not much flintknapping has been going on over the past couple of months, mainly because of fieldwork. However, one thing I did do that I am pleased with is this presentation. Hazel’s help was really important to me when I was doing my PhD data collection in 2012 and 2013. This was my way of officially saying thank you (eight years later!) However, Hazel liked it and that was the aim of the exercise.

Adhesive as a hafting material: a case study from the Irish Mesolithic

My thanks to Will & Frankie of @OldStoneHeritageStudio for this brilliant guest post.

Getting a handle on the situation:

There are many ways to use a knapped tool. At the very basic end of the spectrum, tools can simply be held in the hand. This has the obvious advantage of requiring absolutely no extra work following the production of the tool itself! On the other hand, knapped tools are often sharp in inconvenient places, and the user may risk injury. 

Other methods include attaching handles of bone, wood or antler, wrapping the held portion of the tool in a softer material or using a coarse rock to grind the held portion until it is no longer sharp.

One method not often discussed is the use of a hard-setting adhesive such as (pine or birch glue) to provide a comfortable grip. The purpose of this post is to explore this method a little.

Examples of moulded hard-setting adhesive hafts are found from the Middle Palaeolithic of Europe, all the way through to post-contact Aboriginal Australian pieces. Three pieces were hafted with pine pitch adhesive hafts for this project – a Levallois flake (Middle Palaeolithic technology), a small serrated bottle-glass knife and a reproduction of an Irish Late Mesolithic ‘Bann Flake’. 

The three tools. Top to bottom: Bann flake, bottle knife & retouched Levallois flake.

The original inspiration for this experiment came from the latter – a ‘Bann Flake’ recovered from the River Bann, Co. Antrim in 1881 – with its moss haft still intact.

This ‘Bann Flake’ – defined as ‘a large, lightly-retouched butt-trimmed flake; of either leaf-shaped/elongated form’ (see below!) – dates to 4300-3900 BC and forms part of the Prehistoric Ireland exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland (Archaeology).

Pine pitch production:

Making pine pitch is not too difficult, though everyone has their own exact recipe. Essentially you just want a roughly 1:1 mix of pine resin:ground-up ‘filler’ (often charcoal) and perhaps a little tallow or beeswax if you’re feeling fancy.

The trick for strong pitch is to heat the mixture until it can be stirred properly, but not to heat it so much the oils and chemicals within the resin evaporate. If you heat it too much the glue can become very brittle, too little and it doesn’t set properly. Trial and error is essential to get your own method perfected!!

A variety of containers can be used, from oven-safe pots through to large shells and similar. For this project a large limpet shell was used.

Making a moss-handled Bann flake:

The use of the moss as a component in the haft acts a little like the straw (and often animal dung) in the ‘daub’ of wattle and daub walls, making for a very strong handle. It also means that should the pine pitch crack at all, the strands of moss running through it hold everything together. The haft can then be heated again and remoulded as needed. Whilst it is not strictly necessary to use moss, it does seem to make the haft less prone to shattering than pure pitch.

Pine pitch in a limpet shell, moss & Bann flake awaiting assembly.

To create the haft, the butt of the flake was first dipped into a small amount of hot pitch. Moss was then pushed into the pitch and roughly shaped. Using a stick, further pitch was dripped onto the moss and pressed into the desired shape. Hot pine pitch is extremely sticky, and using wet or greasy fingers drastically reduces the amount of time you will spend trying to remove it from your fingertips!! For the former, a glass of water on hand is ideal, for the latter a little Vaseline works wonders.

The Bann flake after receiving its first layer of pitch, with the moss pressed into it to form the shape of the handle.

Finally, once the moss is coated in pitch, you usually have a minute or so to do any final shaping before the pitch becomes too solid, although if you do decide it needs reworking a little heat will soften it again. The result is a comfortable handle on a very sharp cutting tool. The haft can also be co-opted as a convenient and portable supply of pitch for other uses.”

The finished moss and pitch hafted Bann flake, ready to be used.

I can’t stop

I made the left hand one yesterday from an unpromising fragment of the green ‘milk glass’. The one on the right is from just now, and from an even less promising (i.e. smaller) piece.

The leaf shaped point on the left is predominantly antler, finished with a soft iron nail pressure flaker. The one on the right was about 50/50 antler and pressure flaker.

As such they are technologically not correct. I should have used an antler pressure flaker to be Neolithic technologically. However, as objects I am happy with both of them.

Learning wise I have gone through the soil pipe, milk glass, bottle glass, and now back onto milk glass in short order. This feeding of my enthusiasm with amazing materials is a recipe that is working amazingly well for me. Although my intellectual understanding is the same, my body’s mastery of process has really stepped up. Now it’s time to take Bella out.

Regimes of value

As planned, today I took Bella for a walk to the bottle dump. What is it about this place that is so fascinating? The video above gives you a feel for it.’

Previous visits have seen me leaving with complete bottles with the name of the brewery embossed on the front, as with the example above. I have a vague plan to use the bottles and a reference text to get the students to plot the breweries onto a GIS map, thus gaining some digital skills.

As the above image shows, text on the bottles really adds value, even if this piece is not complete. It means we can hone in on where the brewery was in space. The relevant bottle type will help us know what period we are looking at.

But this time was fundamentally different for me. I was explicitly there for fragments, and particularly alert to colour. I wanted more blue glass, something I now realise is quite rare. So I was assessing things by colour, thickness and size. I was after materials.

This is what I came back with, and I was particularly impatient to get going with the large blue glass base. I so nearly got a small handaxe out of it, but it became a leaf point. I then had a go with a small and unpromising piece of green ‘milk glass’.

I was dying to get to the dump today, and it was so engrossing walking around. I know my shopping list is different to that of the bottle diggers and I know mine is more akin to an aboriginal Australian in the 1860s, or even a Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal looking for knappable materials 60,000 years ago.

Because of the skills I have developed I am alive to the fragments and their potentialities. It is also a very strong draw. I had things to do today but the key thing is I went with it, visited the bottle dump, found some exciting materials, and then spent an hour or so making the larger and smaller leaf points. This thing is taking over my life!