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.

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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┬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.

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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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John Lord knapping rock crystal

Today I spent the day with John Lord in a polytunnel in Norfolk. I had a number of things on my shopping list, one of which was some rock crystal to be worked. Nick Overton is looking at some debitage recovered from a Neolithic site and wanted John to see how the material knapped.

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Nick had given me some pieces of crystal for John to test, but as it transpired, he had already tried it out. Someone had left him some larger pieces and these were of a more usable size. Nick’s pieces are on the top row, John’s on the bottom.

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John used an antler hammer to take off a largish flake, and then a Red Deer antler tine to start pressure flaking. Because of its crystalline nature it was unclear if as a material it would knap. The Neolithic material did indeed contain micro debatage, but the crystals Nick had obtained were small and difficult to work, hence the request.

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The larger flake proved to be workable and John was able to produce a nice leaf shaped arrowhead. The majority of the pressure flaking was done with a Roe Deer tine. For people in the past I imagine this would have been an amazing material. For me it is very similar to the bases of beer bottles that I am used to working. Some of the magic has therefore been lost on me. I collected all the debatage for Nick so he is going to be busy. The outcome for me is the following photograph of John Lord’s hands.

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