Learning about human flint interactions

This is a summary of a session last week at the University of Chester. I am a Visiting Lecturer at Chester and the students I was working with last week had all been in previous workshops or lectures in the past couple of years. Consequently it was lovely to catch up with them again.

The session had been organised by Barry Taylor and I had the relatively simple task of introducing everybody to the process of using a hard hammer on a nodule of flint to generate useable flakes. Everyone had a nodule, and so after a little explanation about platforms we were off.

I thought, from an instructor point of view, this may be a little simplistic and not fill out the time we had together, but I was wrong. Making platforms work for you actually involves a bit more than a conceptual understanding of them. It takes practice, conscious trial and error, and this takes time. It is and was time well spent. In fact, simply learning how to hit something in a relaxed manner is something most people are not taught, and so freeing up our bodies to hit effectively, and then accurately, was a large part of the process for many people.

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We were successful in that everyone generated some flakes. They also got an idea of how flint works, and how they need to work in order to work flint. Barry has some larger nodules on order, and the students are going to use these to generate flakes, use the flakes to work different materials, and then do use wear analysis to recognise relationships between actions, resultant use wear patterns, and different materials. As Barry pointed out, most people were modest when it came to summarising what they had learned, but this review process was useful to me.

I learned that this kind of human material interaction actually made for a very valuable and enjoyable session. The learning is packaged within an exercise that has apparently simple outcomes. Everyone was able to generate useful flakes and in doing so demonstrated a practical grasp of using platforms to break down a nodule and then generate useful flakes. I am going to run this same workshop at Manchester as I think it makes a great and enjoyable introduction. My thanks to Barry for coming up with, and organising a really enjoyable session.

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More on Solutrean points and ‘Johnstone’ or bathroom ceramic

I am still playing with my first batch of this lot of ‘Johnstone’, or bathroom ceramic, and am onto my second Solutrean point. As discussed earlier, I am familiarising myself with the background to these artefacts whilst exploring this particular material affordances of bathroom ceramic. There are lots of facets that are potentially of relevance, but essentially the archaeological points are bifacially worked, with some being very long and very thin. They were produced around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, in refugia in France, Spain and Portugal. The most impressive (and probably unusable) pieces are from a cache at a site called Volgu in France. Below is an image of actual Solutrean material from the Musee d’Archeologie Nationale in France.

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By World Imaging [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.

These points were thinned using a soft hammer and sometimes the tips were pressure flaked. Bruce Bradley, an experimental flint knapper at the University of Exeter, has emphasised the use of an ‘overshot’ technique in thinning. This involves establishing a spur (or sticky out bit) on the edge, and then hitting that to take off a long flake that travels completely across the face. Whilst very difficult to achieve it provides an efficient method for thinning a piece. When Kim Akerman made his Roseleaf Kimberley point he did exactly this by mistake.

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The bathroom ceramic is already pre-thinned and so effectively I am starting at a late soft hammer phase of reduction. This is my most recent example, using a soft antler hammer and pressure flaking. I have not attempted the overshot technique as yet but I grasp, conceptually, how it may work.

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This is the second face, with a little step fracture island towards the centre of the piece. This would be an ideal candidate for an overshot flake to remove the remaining glazed surface.

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So the next Solutrean / Johnstone instalment will be overshot flakes. Let’s see how that goes.

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.

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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