Ovate handaxe, originating from Barmston near Bridlington, now residing in Old Trafford, Manchester

My friend, Stephen Poole, was kind enough to bring me the above flat tablet of flint from his recent visit to Barmston beach, near Bridlington. When he gave it me on Saturday he suggested I may be able to get a small handaxe out of it.

Well he was right. I was amazed by the quality of the flint, in fact, it felt like the best material I have ever worked. Almost everything went according to plan because the flint fractured so cleanly. I used three different size hammer stones, two different sized antler hammers, and abraded all platforms well.

This has made me realise that I have been using low quality flint to date. When the material is this good, things just go well. I have not pushed this too far, as it is the only piece I have. If I had more material I would risk refining it further. However, I don’t. And so a trip to Barmston is now on the cards, because according to Stephen there is plenty more where this came from.

Addendum: I did end up using a small antler hammer to finish it, and it has turned out well. The photos are of the final finished artefact.

Bank Holiday Sunday mini flint handaxe

Today is Sunday, and as predicted the weather has changed and it is cold outside. Not so cold as to not spend an hour or so knapping, but cold enough to feel the chill by the end of it. Anyway, I was rewarded with the elusive Palaeolithic handaxe I have been chasing for the past few weeks.

Two different hard stone hammers and two different soft antler hammers and a compliant flake from the bucket. It has relatively thin margins and a good serrated cutting edges so it would work well as a cutting tool.

I was inspired to get out there this morning by reading a chapter by the archaeologist, Clive Gamble, on the history of prehistoric archaeology. In particular he focused upon the variability of the stone tool corpus and how it resists simple categorisation. Un-worked flakes in the past were used as tools and for a long time these have been simply categorised as debris. Similarly, just because something seems technologically simple, doesn’t mean it is in any way primitive. It can be a simple, expedient and perfect solution to an immediate problem. In short it made me want to make a simple chopper tool. Again I segued, this time into a slightly more complex bifacial handaxe.

I quite like it and it would work as a tool. The important thing here though is the getting out into the back yard this morning and picking up a piece of flint. I am on a learning curve with flint and enjoying observing my body develop the ability to produce these things. Not yet to order, I am negotiating with each flake and reaching a mutually acceptable outcome. The breakthrough I have made is seeing the acceptable outcome as simply an engagement in the process. A successful outcome is no longer related solely to the object I end up with, either in my hand or lying broken at my feet. The cold tips of my toes is part of the current positive outcome, and today we have been joined by a small flint handaxe.

Object style and author biography

This week I indulged in a little after hours flint knapping and made this pointy handaxe. I like it, and it bears a genetic similarity to many of the other handaxes I have made previously. This shape and form is not a blueprint I start with, but more a negotiated outcome.

Within university the concept of object biography is a current component of our undergraduate teaching. Considering the past lives of the object, and interactions that have helped to shape it over time. By its very nature, it takes the object at its present point in time and ventures backwards to reveal the objects story.

This must have been on my mind as this handaxe embodies a number of stylistic features that I can relate directly to my own biography. First of all the shape and aesthetic. For it to be a ‘result’ the acid test is that I have to like it. I have said before, I am competent at making functional tools, but I enjoy making aesthetic tools. This one chimes with my aesthetic and that is how I know it is ‘finished’.

Second up is the steep scraper retouch I have applied to the thick handle bit. Karl Lee taught me how to make a scraper, and I now use his same method to teach our students. In fact, that is what I had been doing earlier in the day, and the day before. Consequently the handle bit (if I cleaned it up) would be akin to, and could function as, a large scraper.

Finally, Because of the depth of the original flake I was using, to shape the basal section involved taking a series of long and thin removals. I was again using a ‘finger’ method learned from Karl, and with a little conscious care I could have used this process to produce bladelets. This reminded me of an observation by Damien Flas regarding an Early Upper Palaeolithic blade point from Kent’s Cavern. He recognised a series of bladelet removals from the basal section of the dorsal surface, suggesting it had also been used as a bladelet core.

The image above is a screen shot of page 207 of my PhD thesis showing the blade point in question. Observe the four removals travelling in a right to left direction on the proximal dorsal section. So the artefact aesthetic and form is clearly embedded within this author’s biography, and these aspects emerged through the process of making. This object will shortly be going on its travels, to my knapping comrade Rob Howarth. Consequently, this object biography is not ‘finished’, but has in fact only just started.

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.

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.


I am getting the hang of hard hammer handaxes



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.


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).


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.


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.


My ugly handaxe

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


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┬áby 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.


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.


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.


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!




Karl Lee making a handaxe

This is an edited video of Karl Lee making a handaxe. The handaxe making took around 20 minutes and it has been edited down to two minutes. The editing process was really interesting as it involved lots of watching and re-watching in order to discern exactly what was going on. My own knapping ability seemed to improve automatically after producing the video. I am definitely a visual learner but really surprised myself. The soil pipe handaxes were an unintended result of this process.

This is an edited video (two minutes only).