Making a Neolithic axe from Graig Lwyd volcanic material: a short photo essay

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One of my colleagues, Alison Ollier, is doing her PhD research sourcing the volcanic materials  from North Wales that were used to produce Neolithic polished stone axes. She has a geological background and is also interested in how the material can be worked. Consequently she brought me a large block of this volcanic stone to experiment with.

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Because I am not familiar with Neolithic axes Elizabeth Healey lent me the replica discussed in the previous post. This was to give me an idea what I was aiming for. One of the outstanding aspects of this block was the fantastic platforms it presented. Because it was both large and potentially dense I used my hardest hammerstone, an almost perfectly rounded cobble of flint, and off we went.

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This volcanic material flaked cleanly and provided very sharp edges, but I would struggle to tell from the flakes what kind of hammer had been used to remove them.

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Anyway, after removing a good number of large flakes semi-disaster struck. My best hammerstone retired itself. I have got to say that the volcanic material has a really good feel to it, and also an interesting smell when you knap it.

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Anyway, I shifted to a smaller hammerstone and was surprised to find that the roughout I was producing was Neolithic axe like in shape. Things were going well, partly because I was taking it slowly as I wanted Alison to have something useful to take away.

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Whilst the earlier photograph presents this axe’s ‘acceptable’ face, this other side boasted this series of horrible step fractures. As I carried on with the hard hammer these presented a problem that proved increasingly difficult to remove. I needed a different approach and it was this step fractured section that led to my own second moment of enlightenment. I have to segue here to a short video I watched recently of Will Lord making a flint point. I saw him using a large antler hammer differently to how I understood them to be used. Essentially he hit into the body of the flint to remove long thin flakes. I observed with interest and that was that.

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So I was left with this horrible stepped section and it seemed that I needed to do something different to remove it. Consequently I used an abrading stone to isolate a platform and then chose my heaviest antler hammer

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Following Will Lord’s example I hit into the body of the material through the isolated platform and with the heavy hammer. It worked beautifully in that a large and long flake removed all the horrible stepping in one go. Perfect. This was a real eye opener for me and as you can see, the character and size of that flake scar differs from all the others on that piece. I stopped after that. It was getting late and I felt that I had achieved a result. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was the right shape and size, and I had learned something. Elizabeth has suggested she may have a go at grinding and polishing it which would be interesting. For me, I am just keen to explore a little more this novel way of using the antler to achieve these long thin flakes. And Alison has her Neolithic axe and associated debitage.

 

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Exciting times

I had a very exciting day yesterday, when a number of different elements came together and opened my eyes to a particular phenomenon. This post is about this one particular phenomenon that I will term here ‘asymmetrical flaking’, something that I find myself doing with almost every handaxe. So, what is this ‘asymetrical flaking’ phenomenon? For me it has two facets (literally): on one face a high ridge will run the length of the object but will be off centre; on the reverse face exactly the same pattern occurs. I have observed it with my own products but was surprised to see it exemplified on this Neolithic Axe produced by John Lord for Elizabeth Healey’s teaching collection.

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If we ignore the refitted flakes, the key thing to note on the above photograph is the longer flake scars on the left hand side and shorter ones on the right. The result is an off centre raised ridge running longitudinally. This equates to a shallower angle from edge to ridge on the left, and a correspondingly steeper angle on the right.

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Flip it over and the same phenomena is reproduced, although here the ridge is more sinuous. What this results in is an artefact that has a cross section similar to the sketch below.

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Important to note that with this cross section, if you are holding it in your hand and then flip it over you are presented again with the same surface topography.

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Whilst discussing this with Elizabeth I held the axe in my hand in order to illustrate the phenomena from a production perspective. What occurred was that the shallow angled section accommodated my palm perfectly. This allowed me to offer up the steeper angled face to be worked by the antler hammer. The flakes are then removed from the lower face and the steep angle allows long invasive flakes to be removed.

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Flip if over and the freshly flaked area again accommodates the palm and again presents the steeper angle to start invasive flaking.

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It is worth looking in closer detail at the flake scars on the steeper face (see above). These scars are curtailed as the bulbar scar has been removed.

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On the same edge but opposing face the longer flake scars retain more of their bulbar section. This indicates that the steep side was produced first, and then the bulbar scars were worn down by the process of removing the longer invasive flakes on the opposite face. I need to look at this more closely when I have the axe in front of me.

So what does this all mean? I am not sure, but it does illustrate a really interesting relationship between the form of the human hand, platform angles, length of removals and the production process. I have not fully digested all this yet, and may have to return to this post. However, for now that is a summary of my observations on this phenomenon. It is however, part of a larger story…

Object style and author biography

This week I indulged in a little after hours flint knapping and made this pointy handaxe. I like it, and it bears a genetic similarity to many of the other handaxes I have made previously. This shape and form is not a blueprint I start with, but more a negotiated outcome.

Within university the concept of object biography is a current component of our undergraduate teaching. Considering the past lives of the object, and interactions that have helped to shape it over time. By its very nature, it takes the object at its present point in time and ventures backwards to reveal the objects story.

This must have been on my mind as this handaxe embodies a number of stylistic features that I can relate directly to my own biography. First of all the shape and aesthetic. For it to be a ‘result’ the acid test is that I have to like it. I have said before, I am competent at making functional tools, but I enjoy making aesthetic tools. This one chimes with my aesthetic and that is how I know it is ‘finished’.

Second up is the steep scraper retouch I have applied to the thick handle bit. Karl Lee taught me how to make a scraper, and I now use his same method to teach our students. In fact, that is what I had been doing earlier in the day, and the day before. Consequently the handle bit (if I cleaned it up) would be akin to, and could function as, a large scraper.

Finally, Because of the depth of the original flake I was using, to shape the basal section involved taking a series of long and thin removals. I was again using a ‘finger’ method learned from Karl, and with a little conscious care I could have used this process to produce bladelets. This reminded me of an observation by Damien Flas regarding an Early Upper Palaeolithic blade point from Kent’s Cavern. He recognised a series of bladelet removals from the basal section of the dorsal surface, suggesting it had also been used as a bladelet core.

The image above is a screen shot of page 207 of my PhD thesis showing the blade point in question. Observe the four removals travelling in a right to left direction on the proximal dorsal section. So the artefact aesthetic and form is clearly embedded within this author’s biography, and these aspects emerged through the process of making. This object will shortly be going on its travels, to my knapping comrade Rob Howarth. Consequently, this object biography is not ‘finished’, but has in fact only just started.

Our wet March pit firing: a short photo essay

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On Friday the 8th of March we had our postponed pit firing. Friday was the least wet week-end day we have had for a fortnight and so we went ahead in far from ideal conditions. This was partly because Eleanor, a student from Chester is examining the process for her dissertation, and the timing had to also fit within her academic deadlines. Anyway, spoiler alert: 99% success rate!

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After digging the pit the above photo shows the initial heating stage, to get the fire going and nurture a steady heat source.  

This initial heating dries out and warms up the soil in the pit. After heating for an hour and a half the pots could then be slowly introduced around the fire.

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Our task then was to both feed the fire, and gradually turn the pots and move them closer to the heat source. The aim of this stage was to evaporate moisture from the pots very gently.

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The fire generated hot embers and once established it was possible to rake the embers towards the pots, as well as move the pots towards the embers. These were the variables being controlled in order to facilitate a smooth heating and evaporation of moisture from the pots.

 

We had started the process at ten in the morning and at around one in the afternoon the rain started. Nacho (or rather the Met Office) had anticipated this, and so Nacho had bought two packs of aluminium foil. The cold-hearted drops of rain falling on the now heated pots presented the possibility of thermal shock, or breakage through rapid cooling. Nacho covered the pots with the foil to both protect them from the raindrops and reflect the heat from the embers back onto the pots. Although not strictly a Neolithic or Bronze Age solution, it helped us work in far from ideal conditions.

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The photograph above is of ‘the office’. We had two thermometers (one on the left courtesy of Sean Ashton) with which to monitor the internal and external temperatures. Alan (Eleanor’s dad) was charged with recording both every 20 minutes, and every time the pots were moved. Eleanor wants to compare and contrast temperature data with the subjective decision making of Paul and Nacho throughout the process.

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Once the pots were judged to be dry enough and hot enough they were introduced to the hot embers and a fire built on top of them. The fire needed to get hot enough to transform them from clay into ceramic. It was very much up to Nacho and Paul to decide at which point to start the fire and how hot and how long it should carry on for.

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The final stage for Friday occurred after 3.30pm, when Paul returned from picking up the children from school. This final stage involved covering the fire with greenery and soil to starve it of oxygen. This effectively ‘slow cooks’ the pots.

Fast forward to 10am Saturday morning, and the fire was still smoking and still pretty hot. In an ideal world Nacho would have left the pots in the ground for a couple of days, to cool slowly and naturally. Because of our deadlines we took a risk and raked off the upper surface to speed up the cooling process, had a cup of tea, and then went back to excavate and recover pots from one section only.

As you can see, in spite of the challenges the firing worked pretty well. I had to leave at 11.30am but Paul texted me later to say they had a 99% success rate. Nacho and Paul now have really good control over both the clay and its necessary processes and inclusions, as well as the pit firing variables. They fired all the pots they were given by our participants from from the Early Neolithic, Late Neolithic and Bronze Age sessions, and I think Eleanor has got some excellent material for her dissertation. Result!

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Learning (slowly) about gum

About a week ago I bought a multi-pack of Mint flavour sugar free chewing gum and chewed just over one packet worth. I then packed it into the slit in my handle, and inserted the blade. My assumptions about gum have been, and are still being tested. Encountering chewing gum in unexpected places, it is usually hard and stuck convincingly to something else. I assumed this was because it had dried out. Consequently I had it in my mind that once the gum dried in my knife handle the rigidity it delivered would hold the blade in place.

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One week later and the gum is still soft. I have tried a number of strategies to dry it out which include leaving it outside in the damp cold, but this didn’t work. I then left it on a radiator hoping the heat would dry it out, but the gum just became more pliable. Innovatively, I left it in the freezer for 24 hours and this did harden it up, but throughout the following day the gum became maliable again. I then left it buried in wood ash in my wood burner for three days. Because the ash is dry I thought it would draw out the moisture from the gum, but no, it is still maliable.

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I am slowly working out that I am attempting to manage two variables: temperature and moisture content. My assumption that chewing gum hardens is I think correct based upon all the bits I have found stuck to things in the past. However, I read a comment on a blog post today that stated that chewing gum would be hard at room temperature but softens as it reaches body temperature through the chewing process. If correct then it is temperature that is the key factor, but not necessarily for reducing moisture content. Perhaps moisture content is not a factor here? I have also been reading about Neanderthal birch bark tar production where the tar is ‘sweated’ out of the bark, so again heat seems to be the key factor. If correct then perhaps my chewing gum hafting is as hard as it will get at room temperature, probably a similar hardness to when I initially started chewing it. Like the famous parable that people in far northern latitudes have fifty words for snow, I think I could do here with a few more descriptors than ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.

It gets even more complicated if I introduce data into the discussion. Whilst the knife has been languishing in the ash of my wood burner I have tested it daily for moisture content with a ‘Moisture Meter’. I usually use it on wood to see if is dry enough to burn, but I have been using it on the gum and the wooden handle once a day. It indicates that the gum has more moisture than the wooden handle, and both the readings for the gum and handle are remaining pretty constant. This suggests that the gum does in fact contain moisture, and contradicts my emerging ‘plastic’ hypothesis.

Finally, there is the issue of the chewing gum found stuck to things in the outside world, and that has become hard! How does that happen? What I need is the input of a materials scientist, and funnily enough my niece Isabella is a materials scientist. She thinks that the gum outside may be oxidising and it is the oxidisation process that makes the gum become hard. So time becomes another factor in the discussion, and probably surface area as well. TBC.

Exploring the process of hafting

I have discussed before how many of the learning processes I engage in are also about social relationships. I am keen to haft my Johnstone blade and my friend Simon Harper is someone I enjoy spending time with, and is ‘handy’ when it comes to doing practical stuff. Consequently, we got together last week to spend four hours or so drinking beer and trying and haft my blade (note finger and plaster).

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Simon is into history and prehistory (among many other things) and his fantastic replica Medieval knife (above) was used to fashion the wooden handle for my blade. I feel the need to confess at this point that no stone tools were used in the making part of this project. Partly because I wanted to do it sooner rather than later, and partly because I wanted to see how Simon would approach the task with his tools. I was learning from him really.

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Simon’s first move was to select a suitable piece of wood from his wood burner pile that was approximately hand grip size. We had a blade and handle each and the above is my attempt after sawing to size, creating the slit and shaping with the metal knife.

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Functionally it is good, ergonomic and it holds the blade very tightly. Plus, I like the look of it. As you can see from the following photograph around 45mm of the blade is embedded within the handle. This provides good area of contact and the tight fit means that it has good strength in the longitudinal plane.

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However, it currently has no support that would give strength in the transverse plane. In other words, if I were to put pressure on the edge by cutting it would move the blade sideways in the haft. So the question I am playing with at the moment is how to provide transverse support for the blade. I have two ideas but have not settled yet upon materials. Firstly I think some kind of mastic that is malleable when warm, but hardens when cool. This could be pressured into the slot surrounding the blade and providing good support when it becomes hard. This is the kind of material that Kiefer has producing from resin, charcoal and beeswax. However this knife is a slightly different beast. It is not a replica of anything, but a creation based upon a certain set of principles, which I cannot fully explain. It is becoming an exercise in seeing materials differently, and the toilet cistern certainly fulfils this criteria. So mastic wise I have two main candidates: chewing gum; and tarmac. I am thinking chewing gum currently as it is easy to get hold of and I think will provide the kind of rigidity needed.

Once the gap has been filled a different kind of material will be necessary, one that has a behaviour best described as ‘shrink to fit’. In the prehistoric past sinew has served this function, stretching when wet, and then tightening upon drying. The tightening provides an internal cohesion that would bring together the blade, gum and wooden elements. I still have some sinew left from my adventures at Reaseheath, although Bella, our Lurcher, has eaten most of it. However, I have seen another artist’s work that I would like to try and integrate. Micaella Pedros uses plastic bottles for exactly this ‘shrink to fit’ kind of function. This is a video of her’s on Youtube.

This hafting project has been going on for over a week now, and I carry the knife in its current iteration round in my bag with me. It sits on whatever desk I am using as I work through my different ideas on how to take the next step. The next post (in theory) should be the end result. Let’s see…

 

Saturday night in the lab

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I ended up back in the lab on Saturday evening, inspired by the previous night’s results. I took in some undamaged cistern lids, but focused upon using larger fragments lying around from previous sessions. It was interesting because I could feel the enthusiasm taking over on this occasion, whereas the previous evening had been characterised by precise and controlled thinning. Consequently, the two new points are less refined, but are both long. I seem to be managing endshock well, and the main conscious strategy is to listen to the hits. When the point is sounding stressed I back off. I wont go into the sonic nuances but once you have destroyed a few you can begin to hear the material complain when misused. I now respond well to both sound and the visual clues available, and the reward is longer points.

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Whilst both the new points are less refined, I can say that they both have ‘character’. The first one was on a large, but curved, piece of ceramic. This presented the very same problems encountered when flattening the bases of beer bottles and so I applied the same methods. I was largely successful in a brutalist kind of way. Largely, because it is the longest of the three points, brutalist because there is lots of original surface left on the dorsal. As the photo shows, it has still retained some curvature in spite of my efforts. Removing that curvature would have reduced the length and so I have accepted one to achieve the other. I think for a knife blade this curvature is not an issue, but it may be problematic for a spear head as the longitudinal strength would be compromised.

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I know you are not supposed to have favourites, however, this is my third one of the set. This one was both intuitive and remedial. I worked away, and then adjusted when it went off piste. Consequently the longitudinal mid-line edges are wavy and very much follow the flow of the process of making. It feels like the physical result of a human material dialogue. I like it because it reminds me of some of the Kimberley points from the Manchester Museum, where the person has worked with the form of the material, rather than attempting to mechanically impose a prerequisite shape. We have started to buy ‘wonky’ fruit and veg from the supermarket, and this my wonky bi-point: long, wide, off centre and still too thick, but an enjoyable interactive process and aesthetic result non the less.