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 🙂

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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.

My best barb and tang arrowhead made from a flint flake

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I am really pleased with this one. It is the culmination of a series of themes, including the belief that flint is harder to work than glass. This is still true, but I had a very different experience of working this flint than I did with the Kilmarnock type arrowhead I made a few days ago. They were two very different kinds of flint, and this was made from a flake I had lying around in the back yard so I have no recollection as to which nodule it came from.

Anyway, I now have a set of Bronze Age arrowheads for my workshop on Saturday showing the different materials that can be used for personal practice. For me it legitimises my idea that it is not just possible, but actual, to develop knapping skills on one material and then migrate over to other ‘more archaeological’ materials. As you can see a small section of the left hand barb broke off the flint example. Whilst that should diminish the pleasure I got from making it, it doesn’t. It was simply part of the making and learning process, learning that I have reached a place that I am very happy with. I have a skill and an aesthetic that I can systematically apply to a series of materials. I also have a method to enable other people to do the same. Bringing those two aspects together is immensely satisfying for me.

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Some disciplined pressure flaking

I survived the Archaeology and Classics Ball. And the rock club. And the Chinese meal. And woke up at 9am this morning feeling surprisingly OK. The sun is shining today and so I spent the morning making a second point to send to Australia. I am still finding it fascinating to reflect upon how I learn. There was a temptation right at the start to use my dog chew antler hammer to thin this bottle base. I am developing a way of working that is becoming automatic, and that is actually counter-productive. Counter-productive in that I am trying to follow a prescribed method, rather than simply do what I do. Perhaps it was at this point of recognition and because I am following his method, that I unconsciously had in mind Kim Akerman’s ‘Roseleaf‘ point. I think this may be the case as it is ultimately what I ended up with.

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Anyway, in relation to the title of the post, I used systematic pressure flaking to reduce one face and then the second. The bottle base was thick and flat and I didn’t lose much width which is a result. The above flakes were removed by pressure and they are useful. I was told last week that an artefact had been pressure flaked. It hadn’t and both Nick Overton and myself could tell by the wide removals that it had been thinned using a soft hammer. Pressure flaking seems to have taken on an occult aura, something special. In many ways it is, but perhaps no more so than skilled hard hammer work, or soft antler hammer thinning. However, familiarity with these processes, and the resultant scar patterns and debitage has now been absorbed into my understanding, and I don’t remember making myself do that. It has just happened through engagement.

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A little of the lettering from the base is still on it and I like that. Note the serrated edges as well. I produced them differently this time after having a good look at Kim Akerman’s example.

11b. Final form Convex face.

Now I have had another look at Kim’s I am a bit less pleased with mine! However, mine is technologically correct, made from period material and will soon be winging its way to Australia. Whilst not perfect, I think I would be pleased to receive it through the post.