“That’s right. It’s a dolphin”

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WordPress sent an email to remind me that I haven’t posted anything in a while. We have been digging on a hill above Rochdale where Mesolithic microliths and debitage have been identified eroding from a footpath. Consequently, not much knapping has been happening, and I have not had much to report (although this is a lithics based post from the dig).  The only real news is that I have ordered some flint!

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This is what £100 worth of flint nodules from Needham Chalk looks like. I have destroyed about four nodules since I last wrote. In the process I have generated plenty of flakes for scrapers and arrowheads, but still struggle to work any nodule that is not tabular into a core tool. I have watched a couple of Youtube videos and have strategies in mind, and I think the key thing is being able to get rid of lumps from the core. This involves experimentation and practice, hence the flint.

The nodule of flint in the initial photograph, and the title of the post can be seen as a homage to Karl Lee. He has done a number of introductory sessions for us with students new to lithics, and students perhaps not so enthusiastic about lithics at 9am on a Tuesday morning. Karl’s approach was to remain silent until the start of the session. He would then hold up a nodule of flint that looked startlingly similar to a large human penis, and ask the students: “What does this look like?” The students were invariably unsure of how to respond and lots of sniggering and whispering would ensue, but no answer. Karl would then break the tension with “That’s right. It’s a dolphin“. Laughter followed as the students realised the session wasn’t going to be as boring as they had feared. After that opening Karl had their attention and would proceed to talk through the process of making a handaxe. As well as being a skilled flint-knapper he is very engaging, and that is a really valuable attribute in a teaching and learning environment. The irony here is that the nodule in my photograph actually looks like a dolphin.

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The handaxe of solace

I am pretty busy at the moment. Busy in a good way but it means I don’t have much free time to be playing in the backyard. I remedied this tonight. I was supposed to go to what looked like a good meeting this evening, but it felt like too much and so I dropped Karen off at the meeting and took the dog for a slow walk. Whilst walking I remembered I had a nodule of flint donated to me by Elizabeth Healey sat in the backyard. My next thought was leaf shaped arrowheads, but my pressure flaking gear is at uni. My third thought was handaxe as I did have hard hammers at home.

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The above photo is of a step fracture, or it could be a hinge fracture, I am not sure how I would categorise it, and besides, it has gone now. The interesting thing about this step fracture is that it occurred just at the point where the nodule was connecting with my thigh. My thigh was acting as a damper and encouraging the flake to run out of energy, thus causing the step. I observed this happen a number of times, and it parallels the phenomenon that can occur when pressure flaking arrowheads. This is why American knappers use a base with a channel so that the flake being removed has no support.

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Anyway, I was able to successfully reduce this nodule and produce a small, but neat and tidy hard hammer handaxe, to order so to speak. I used both a large and small hard hammer, the large one for most of the work, and the small one for invasive thinning to straighten up the edge. All very controlled with no hairy moments when it could have all gone wrong.

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One of the things I am doing at the moment is writing an article for John Atwood. I am at the stage where I have the article almost complete, it is just that I am not sure what it is I am saying. It would have been good to finish it tonight and send it to him so he can get on with it, but I felt like I needed to go into the backyard. This is in fact partly what the article is about: doing stuff as opposed to thinking about stuff. When I am overwhelmed by thinking, making things, flint-knapping in particular makes me feel right. I have had a pretty productive day, not yet found the ending to my article, but this session in the backyard and resultant handaxe has been the highlight.

I am getting the hang of hard hammer handaxes

 

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This was one of the flat nodules found on the beach at East Runton. Today I spent this morning applying the methods I picked up from John Lord with ultimately some success.

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I used up five of my flat nodules and came away with this handaxe. It was almost all hard hammer flaking and I learned a few things on the way. I made a real focus on preparing the platforms and then then taking the removal, and this gave me a very high success rate on all the nodules. I followed John’s lead and used the abrading stone to sculpt the platform area above a ridge to the ideal shape. I think I was also hitting more confidently as well. The first nodule was looking good until it split in half, because I failed to support it on my leg. That was a useful reminder. By the second nodule my hard hammer (left) was starting to show signs of wear and tear and I shifted over to a new one (right).

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This was a good move and my hits became cleaner. However, I really struggled thinning with my soft antler hammer. It has worked really well in the past, but I kept getting step fractures. I shifted over to a new one kindly given to me by a colleague Ellon Souter. This one was better but I was doing something wrong, however my hard hammer work was going really well and so by the fifth one I was almost exclusively using that.

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The handaxe in the centre in today’s. The one on the left is ‘my ugly handaxe‘ that has been reworked for a third time to a shape I can live with! This was a very enjoyable and interesting morning and as my friend Sunny Lum has put it “I can see why this process is highly addictive”. Four hours flew by.

 

Material worlds

This post focuses upon the varying range of materials available to us for knapping practice. Each of these materials presents its own set of particular problems that need to be resolved in order to produce an artefact. They are in approximate chronological order in relation to my own discovery and use of them.

First of all then is an industrial ceramic used to make large diameter soil pipe. The soil pipe on the left is again from my friend Joe Curley. It may or may not be of a similar high quality to the material seen on the right that was used to make the handaxe. I will need to break into it to find out. The large fragments of the material used to make the handaxe were fantastic to work and I would love to find a source. I discovered a number of large broken fragments at Salford Quays near my home but I have now used all this found material 😦 To produce the handaxe it was mainly hard hammer with a little soft hammer finishing. The main issue with this excellent material is managing the curve. The main benefit and drawback is that it is effectively pre-thinned. You can get good results quickly, but then have to get on top of thinning when you move onto flint nodules.

Second up is bathroom ceramic or Johnstone as it is called by north American knappers. I saw this being knapped on a Youtube video a long time ago, and as soon as the soil pipe worked I started seeking out and trying this material. I was fortunate in that the University of Manchester refurbished the toilets in our building at the same time as I was looking for material. Consequently I have lots of these cisterns waiting for my attention. Some hard hammer, mainly soft hammer up to now. It is a coarse material to work and I haven’t really explored pressure flaking with it yet.

Third up is glass, my current favourite material to work. This is old glass from a tip near where I live. I think most of it is early 1900s material, thick, uneven and with bubbles. However, great to work with and has really helped me develop my pressure flaking. Modern glass is good too, if you use bottle bases. Most of the side panels are too thin.

Porcelain or high quality ceramic also works. This piece of patterned vase was from approximately the same site as the above glass and the material pressure flaked beautifully. Modern China also works but is harder to flake.

And then flint, the material most commonly used by our ancestors in Britain, mainly available in the south and east of England. This is the material I have least experience of working with because I live in the north west. It comes in nodules of varying form and being able to quarter and optimise the nodule is something I want to learn and understand. I have made a number of handaxes, but currently they all turn out pretty small. Availability of material can almost correlate directly to my relevant skill level working that material. No surprise and a fact that emphasises the importance and value of practice.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive summary. It is meant to highlight the value of looking at materials differently, recognising the qualities they embody and thinking about how those qualities can be manipulated. Each of the above examples was a small exploratory experiment, to understand the qualities of the materials in question. The accumulative result is that I have developed some good abilities using hard and soft hammer and pressure flaking. When we look at a finished artefact, and then for the first time try our hand at knapping, the results can be disheartening. The breakthrough for me was finding materials that were abundant enough so that I could make lots of mistakes, again and again. Slowly but surely things started work, but most important was the pleasurable aspects of the process. With hindsight I realise that I was playing with it. Each little experiment was less like science, and more like playtime. I am currently reading about theories of learning and want to understand why I find it such an engaging experience. What is the nature of the relationship between me and the activity? Perhaps that will be the content of a future post.

Meet the flintstones

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We have just returned from eight days in Sussex, and one of my aims was to get hold of some flint with which to practice. I know from experience that because nodules come in irregular shapes the quartering process can be complicated. Quartering is simply breaking the nodule up into pieces useful for the task at hand. Currently I do not have a systematic method for dealing with a nodule when I want to produce a handaxe. Less hit and miss, more hit and destroy. The flint nodules and cobbles I collected in Sussex came from two main sources: Birling Gap; and Selsey Bill. Birling Gap has nodules eroding from the chalk cliff face and so both smaller nodules and rounded flint pebbles were freely available at the foot of the cliff. I collected a small rucksack full. Selsey Bill offered a range of damaged pebbles of flint and other materials that look knappable. Again, I collected a sac full. I want to use the cobbles to learn how to systematically produce pebble chopper toolscobble chopper tool

The above is the best cobble chopper I have made to date, and it is the systematic production of these that I want to master. There is a really nice small example within the Brice Collection in our own department, and the aesthetic examples seem to be so because of their simplicity. A minimal series of removals to produce a useful tool. With the four or five small and flat flint nodules I want to produce four or five small handaxes. Let’s see how that goes.