“That’s right. It’s a dolphin”


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!


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Neolithic points produced using a stone and antler tine pressure flaker


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


A Bronze Age ‘Kilmarnock type’ flint arrowhead


Same procedure as the last lot, except using my metal pressure flaker on some very hard flint. Again, I selected a pre-thinned piece, a blade produced by John Lord, of which I have about thirty. I took all the thick bits off with a stone, and then pressure flaked the shape. I am using Chris Butler’s (2005) book Prehistoric Flintwork for the relevant shapes and sizes and this is a useful exercise. I am learning about the flintwork from different periods by making the stuff. This flint was particularly difficult to work. I had an obsidian preform that I reduced and that was like soft glass, easy to work. This flint felt ‘dry’ and hard to work. Even with my favourite pressure flaker my invasive thinning was limited to 7 or 8mm maximum. When making it I made sure the thick section was the point and the thinner section could be the base, and therefore easily notched. And so it transpired. I am churning about two out per day at the moment, not sure what has come over me?


Meet the flintstones


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.

Using old glass

bubble glass

The above Kimberley Point has been made from an old piece of glass, the flat side of a Camp Coffee bottle. My aim was to retain the raised letters that spelled ‘chicory’ but it was not to be. If you look closely it is clear that there are bubbles in the glass and the section on the bottom left is the edge of one large bubble. These voids meant it was necessary to continually adjust in order to manage them, hence the small size.

curved glass

This second point is made from a side section of an old glass beer bottle. This is similar to one seen in the Manchester Museum and the main issue here was managing the curve and the variable thickness of the glass. The proximal section on this piece was much thinner than the distal. I am happy with it as a point, but in order to get that feeling of sharp serration on the margins I need to get the initial invasive flakes deeper, to reduce the angles. So whilst the microwave turntable presented its own set of problems, the transition to using old glass has highlighted some interesting issues that need to be considered when attempting to make these points as aboriginals did: uneven glass thickness; managing a transverse curve on longitudinal section; and accommodating bubbles in the glass. All in all an interesting process.