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.

 

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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.

Material worlds again

I have been a little obsessed by knapping both yesterday and today. I made another hard hammer handaxe, which then became a Middle Palaeolithic Leafpoint, before ending up as a non period specific spear point. Hard hammer and soft hammer with a little pressure flaking. What is good as well is that I can identify the technology that produced each removal, not because I remember, but because of the shape and form of the scar.

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Next up is a Neolithic leaf shaped arrowhead. The following example is from the museum at Whitby, and I have tried to reproduce it before with little success.

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It was obviously still on my mind as this is a much better attempt, although when I now view them together I can see the original is much more refined. The glass used here was amazing and I have to thank the guy in Oddbins last night who gave me four empty spirit bottles to play with. I may give this to him in return for more bottles. He seemed enthusiastic about the prospect, as I would be in his shoes.

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I then gravitated towards ‘Johnstone’ or bathroom ceramic, kindly collected for me by my friend David Thompson. His block of flats was having new bathrooms fitted and I now have all the old cisterns. These have been added to the ones I collected from Mansfield Cooper building when the toilets there were replaced.

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I forgot how nice this material is to work. I am pleased with all of them, and all of them indicate to me the way to proceed. The flint is great and I am concentrating on being as consistent with a soft hammer as I am now with a hard hammer. The glass worked beautifully, and making them thinner and more refined is the next step. The ceramic is really difficult to keep long. In other words it is very easy for it to break when in big pieces. Paradoxically it is really robust at arrowhead size. I can do a better job of the notching but I need a different tool. I used my soft iron nail pressure flaker with all these materials, and so they are not technically correct. I have ordered a long Red Deer antler tine today and when that arrives I am going to see how that works. My aim with the bathroom ceramic is a Solutrean point. That is uncharacteristically ambitious of me, but hey, I have about seventeen cisterns, plus lids, and I am only 56.

 

Making opposed platform blade-points

This is the third and final post from my day with John Lord, and it may be the longest. The primary aim of going to see John was to get his perspective on how to make opposed platform blade-points. Karl Lee produced around 20 blade-points for my doctoral research, and whilst formally pretty similar to archaeological examples there were differences. This is the archetypal example of a blade-point from a site in Sussex called Beedings.

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The main difference between Karl’s points and the archaeological examples was to do with how they were made. When a flake is removed it leaves a scar. Tracing these scars on tools can indicate the direction of impact and order of flake removal. In this way a blade-point’s production process is recorded on itself. This next photograph is the smallest complete blade-point found in Britain, from a site called Glaston in Leicestershire.

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70% of Karl’s blade-points had scars running only one way. He explained that it takes time to produce a platform on a core, and once produced it makes sense to use it until you run into problems. When you run into problems flip the core over and use the second platform. Karl believed this was why there was an opposed scar pattern on some blade-points. This explanation made total sense, and reflected his primary use of one platform. However, when I was able to contrast the experimental and archaeological examples 70% of the archaeological blade-points had scars running two ways, almost the opposite proportion to Karl’s examples. Something else was happening in the past. I wanted to see how John Lord would approach and explain this process.

The answer to that question was that he saw it in almost exactly the same way as Karl. John had two goes in the morning and both times had difficulty with the flint quality. We had lunch and then he had another go. He had more success this time, but like Karl was using a single platform to generate the blades. He worked hard to produce a couple with an opposed signature but these were the exception. Over lunch we were talking about Levallois points, where the point is shaped on the core, and then simply removed and ready to be used. John suggested this same idea may be at work here, with the base of the core being worked simply to shape the points before removal. this is an intriguing idea, and the ball is firmly back in my court. I need to review the archaeological examples used within my analysis in order to see if the scar pattern pattern reflects this explanation.

I find it intriguing as well that John’s approach would be the same as Karl’s, and it made me think about the lineage of flint-knappers in this country. I know Karl has worked with John in the past and so perhaps it is not surprising that they approached the same problem in the same way. I think it would be a really nice, and enjoyable research paper to establish the lineage of British knappers, because it seems to predict particular ways of doing things. It is apparent that these ways do not necessarily correspond with how things were done in the past, and so it would seem important and useful to pick apart how and why things are done as they are in the present, almost ethnographically. This as a precursor to exploring any past production practice. These are my current thoughts. If this post is of interest to anyone then chapter three of my thesis outlines Karl’s approach in detail.

My ugly handaxe

This is a second post from my day in John Lord’s polytunnel.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Guest post by Sunny Lum on his first experience of glass knapping

In October last year I attended John’s experimental workshop for creating Kimberley Points. As a complete novice knapper, I only had a vague idea of what would be involved, and had only prepared myself by watching a couple of quick flint knapping tutorials on Youtube beforehand, although these turned out to be almost completely irrelevant to what we ended up doing! At the start, John introduced us to what Kimberley points were and we had a short talk about the origins, uses and evolution of their creation, and also discussed the overall aim of the workshop, which was to try to end up with our own points after about 4 hours of work. He also showed us the tools the Australian aborigines originally used, namely a piece of number 8 wire, which was commonly used by the Australian sheep farming community to fence in their sheep. He also introduced us to our tools which we’d be using, which he’d created himself, adapting the wire by adding a wooden birch handle to allow better control. Other necessary equipment; huge tarpaulin to cover the floor and collect up all the glass shards, glass bottle blanks (rough cut to manageable size), a section of deep pile carpet (to protect our legs from self-inflicted damage) which was very thoughtful, protective goggles / glasses (plus coffee and plasters!)

Glass, plasters and coffee
Then there was the introduction to the process we would be using to create these points. This was explained very clearly through the use of a series of diagrams drawn onto the whiteboard, showing 2 distinct methods that created 2 different effects.
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The first step was to create a platform, which involved applying pressure with the wire almost orthogonal to the glass shard then changing the angle to create a pressure point, which breaks off a piece of the glass at an angle. This technique was used to create an angled platform on the side of the glass, which is used for the next step. Additionally, this step also is used to shape the glass into the correct shape.

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The second step was to use the platform created to apply pressure along the breadth of the glass shard in order to thin the edges. The process then repeats itself until you have reached the desired shape and thickness. John demonstrated the technique for the first step, and we tried to replicate it. It took about 50 mins or so before I became comfortable in creating a platform consistently. This was down to several factors; time to develop a feel for the correct angle and pressure required both to apply to the glass and also to hold the glass and tool in place to exert it, time to develop trust in the carpet to protect me from stabbing myself in the thigh, time to understand and get a feel for how the glass samples behaved when pressure flaking them.
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As part of this process, you had to adapt to the edges and shape of the glass. Depending on which way the edge slanted it was easier to create the platform from one side or from the other. This resulted in distinctive fracture patterns in the glass which was easily readable by John when he came to examine our handiwork. Once we had 2-3 blanks roughly platformed, John then demonstrated the second step to thin the edges. The technique was in essence the same as the first step, difference being the angle is now along the width of the glass instead of in step 1 where it was through the depth. This creates flaking across the width of the shard and removes material in order to thin the edge.

Sunny and his steep retouch

This similarity of technique allowed us to jump straight into step 2 quite quickly, although again it took time to develop a good feel for the amount of pressure required, angling of the tool and glass and again familiarisation with the fracture qualities of the glass in this different plane. We used some more modern glass and also some older turn of the century glass, which better replicated the aboriginal raw materials. This was particularly useful as it showed the difference in fracture characteristics. Modern glass was easier to create the platform, but was harder to thin, the older glass was harder to create the platform, but was easier to thin.

Rob Howarth and Rob Fulton

This phase was quite tricky because the process of thinning the edges destroys part of the platform, so if you didn’t create enough material removal from across the width of the shard to thin it, you ended up with a broken platform which was hard to re-use without resorting to step 1 again. It took some experience to realise this and frustrated progress when you really should have moved on. Rob Howarth, who had more experience knapping, ended up producing a pretty impressively shaped and thinned piece at the end, going through the two steps multiple times.

Rob Howarth's slim point

Time passed very quickly, and I enjoyed the challenge of working out how and where to apply the pressure to flake off and shape the glass. It helped immensely to have a file at hand to resharpen the points on the wire tool. The blunt end dissipates the force, requiring you to exert more and results in less controlled fracturing.
The biggest challenges I faced:
* developing a feel for how to hold the glass securely and safely
* developing a feel for how to apply the pressure into the glass securely and safely
* developing a feel for the angle and pressure required to create the pressure flake for step 1
* developing a feel for the angle and position and pressure required to create the thinning for step 2
In the end, I ended up with 3 half finished pieces. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t have a finished piece, however I was very happy with the progress I’d made and the skills acquired that I could continue to work on those pieces if I wanted to. Overall, a very good well run and guided workshop. Helpful if you have some prior experience, but not necessary. 

Sunny smiling, Rob F inspecting
Many thanks to Rob Fulton for being one of the guinea pigs, Rob Howarth for providing the cleaned period glass and these photographs, and Sunny Lum taking the time to put his reflections down on paper for me.

Kim Akerman makes a Kimberley point

I have mentioned a few times that Kim Akerman is the preeminent scholar when it comes to these points, and that he has been very helpful in my research. He has kept in touch and answered some of my questions on the production process that have been sticking points for me. This post is his response to a couple of my general questions, about the correct order of work, and invasive flaking without losing too much width. To illustrate he produced a point and recorded the process. This post will be lengthy, but informative if this is a subject of interest. This body text is my interpretation, the photos with text are his explanations.

 

 

This is the piece of water worn period glass that Kim started with. We had discussed the differing ways of establishing a platform and this was the issue he dealt with first of all.

 

 

He used the margin of the convex outer surface as a natural platform and a small hard hammer along one edge, and a pressure flaker along the second to begin invasive flaking. As can be seen both methods achieved similar results.

 

 

He then continued to take more invasive flakes and establish in his mind the shape of the point he was aiming for. All this flaking was aimed at flattening the inner concave surface of the glass.

 

 

Here we can see that whilst the inner concave face is now heavily worked and being flattened, the outer convex face is as yet un-flaked. Shaping in plan has also begun.

 

 

5c. Lateral edge showing unifacial pressure flaking on interior concave faceSame story in that the concave inner surface is now almost completely flaked apart from an intermittent central ridge of original surface. Kim has a problem with this later. The curved outer surface still remains un-flaked and you can see the edge of the original outer glass surface curving up at the forefront of the photo.

 

 

And at this point flaking of the easier convex outer surface begins. What follows is a process of flaking and shaping to achieve the approximate form required.

 

 

At the above stage the easier to flake curved outer surface is used only to create platforms so that invasive flakes can be removed from (what was) the curved inner surface. The aim here was to remove the intermittent central ridge of original surface that remained on the inner face.

9b. Removal of margin by overshot flake

The aim was to get flakes to penetrate across the centre in order to remove the problematic ridge and it is at this stage that a flake overshoots and takes off too much material.

 

 

the central ridge has been removed and the task now is to bring the reduced piece back into shape, and this is done by working both faces.

11a. Final form. Concave face

11b. Final form Convex face.

This is the end result, what Kim calls a rose-leaf shaped point. I commented in the previous post how my points need to be called ‘Manchester’ points. I think this is not the case for Kim’s. He was trained by aboriginals, uses the same bodily methods, materials, tools and reduction sequences. When aboriginal tool making lapsed, Kim carried the process on, and I believe this is why he has gone to the trouble of sharing the process here. He cares about sharing this knowledge with other people who value it. Perhaps the process of sharing a valued knowledge was one part of what Kimberley points were about.