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…

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…