Image - 29K. Flint Blade struck by P.H. on 1st meeting, used to split an apple
Flint is 98% amorphous silica which sometimes encloses fossils or micro fossils. Flint is always found in association with chalk although its origins are less understood. The biological origin of the surrounding chalk matrix is undisputed so the fact that flint is found within chalk and the fact that many creatures of the zooplankton have salicaceous exoskeletons strongly suggests a biological origin for flint but gives no hint as to how the silica is concentrated and mineralized into glassy nodules.
Flints have been worked since the beginning of human prehistory, either won directly from the chalk or gathered, washed and smoothed, from river beds. Tool making and tool using has been implicated in the development of human intellect, human appearance and human physique. That the soil on which early man stood and one of the minerals he first used should both be composed of the recycled remains of earlier life forms are just two of many observations that beg an anthropic explanation of our worlds origin and development.
Whilst I have known these facts for years Synchronicity (an acausal connecting principle -- the simultaneous occurrence of two meaningfully but not causally connected events -- a coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same or similar meaning) has conspired to reawaken my interest in stone age technology.
Reading 'Stig of the Dump' and 'Tool Maker' to Marie was the first link of a new chain of coincidence.
Years ago as a teenager I was involved in excavating the debris cone of a Deanne Hole. Dene holes are common features of chalk lands in the South East of England. They consist of vertical shafts that widen out into cloverleaf chambers thirty feet or more below the surface. For many years there was controversy about how or why they came to exist. One idea was that they were natural cavities cut through the chalk by acidic water, possibly later enlarged by man. Other suggestions were that they were dug by Druids for religious ceremonies or more recently, in the 17th century, as hidy holes for priests or royalists. The final consensus was much less fanciful. It is now believed that they were chalk wells dug in that form to minimise the labourers effort. The vertical shaft reduces the amount of top soil to be removed, or disturbed, to get at the chalk. When the shaft has been sunk to its maximum depth, deep enough to make the roof safe and self supporting, several men worked outwards and upwards in different directions so the chalk they cut fell down and back coming to rest below the centre shaft where it could be loaded into baskets hauled straight up to the surface. The clover leaf shape was the result of the miners working outwards in different directions.
The subject of early man came up again when our American relatives were here, in England, for their summer holiday. A wet Sunday at the end of July produced the simultaneous suggestion, from our two families, of visiting Chislehurst Caves in Kent. Following an official guide we learnt that the caves were miles of man made tunnels, dug through the local chalk in various periods of history, including Celtic, Roman and modern times. Some of the tunnels were started as Dene holes which were enlarged and then linked up with other tunnels or Deanne hole complexes. The caves were excavated for various purposes, including the mining of flints to Knap for flintlock guns and tinder boxes.
On Friday the 4th of August, for the first time in months, I looked through the radio section of the next weeks radio and TV times. I noted the listing of a program called 'The flint Knappers Tale' a conversation with Phil Harding - Flint Knapper. The programme was to be broadcast on Saturday the 5th, with a repeat on Monday the 7th. I missed the Saturday broadcast. On Sunday the 6th of August we, and our American in-laws drove to a craft and country fayre held near Guilford in Surry, this was in part because it was there and in part to meet up with some other relatives. The other relatives were in the process of moving from their previous address but were not fully moved into their new home and the fayre was conveniently placed to meet them, near but away from their new house. At the fayre there were demonstrations by many traditional craftsmen including potters, thatchers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, wool spinners and wood turners. Then I discovered, sitting by himself on a chair, out in the sun, Phil Harding - Flintknapper. In appearance he looked like an aging hippy with long hair tied back behind his head. He wore tatty Doc Martins and rough khaki trousers but was naked from the waist up, his face and torso both looked used to being exposed to the elements. About his neck was a leather thong with a barbed, flint, arrow head hanging from it. Some examples of finished tools were displayed on a table beside him, tools he had knapped from flint, and in some cases also ground and polished, While I gathered first impressions P.H. silently worked a piece of flint, selected from a pile behind his chair. His booted feet were becoming immersed in a growing mound of flint shards as he worked the initial lumps of flint into blades, sharp edged slivers of flint that could be used as they were or else be further worked into such items as arrowheads, scrappers or piercing tools. When questioned he was happy to engage in conversation. Phil Harding lives in Whiltshire and has the appropriate accent. Through conversation and observation that afternoon, and finally by listening to the radio programme on Monday 7th August, I learnt a lot about flint, flint knapping and the flint Knapper. He described himself as a semi professional Flint Knapper. It transpired that he had obtained a qualification in archaeology seventeen years ago and his day job often involves sorting and identifying prehistoric artifacts. Knapping flint helps Phil to understand and appreciate the work of our stone age ancestors. He also makes money providing a service that few others can offer. It isn't just stone age tool replicas that are required, older buildings, or copies thereof, may be finished in flint or have flint quoins or mouldings. Ancient though the use of flint is, it defies working with 2Oth century tools so knapping will never quite disappear. A recent commission given to P.H. was to manufacture 12 metres of flint mouldings for a Sussex College building which was designed to blend with earlier architecture. The specification required a cross section to the flint that P.H. would have claimed impossible to produce by knapping, except for the recent unearthing of a long lost cargo of flints, exported from Grimes Graves when knapping was still HiTec.
To work flint P.H. sits with a core on his knee or in his hand. He hits the core with a hammer which is either a harder stone or softer bone or antler. He protects his hand and his knee with a piece of leather. His eyes are not protected though his bag contains safety specs, he claims he uses specs when on his own but doesn't like to spoil his macho image in public. The choice of core and hammer comes down to experience and the intended end product. Flint is a difficult material to `read', pieces with major flaws can be discounted by the dull noise they make when struck but many apparently faultless flints shatter due to internal stresses or microscopic flaws. It isn't always essential to use a hammer harder than the flint as flakes can be removed by applying sufficient pressure to the right point, and the correct angle. The effectiveness of the end product was shown by small cuts that Marie and James sustained by handling flakes, then I used a larger flint flake to split an apple, using less effort than if I had been using a kitchen knife. P.H. claims to have used flint tools to chop small trees and to skin a Roe deer (the animal had not been killed for the purpose). The absolute worth of flints as tools is something he doesn't like to be drawn on, for as he says it was irrelevant when there was no alternative and when the raw material for new tools was immediately to hand, when the need arose. He also believes that the degree of finish of many museum exhibits indicates they were prized by their owners for reasons other than their practical efficiency.
Some archaeologists have made extended studies of how early men made and used their tools. Nicholas Toth examined the volcanic lava implements made at Koobi Fora (Northern Kenya) to find out such factors about their makers as whether they were right or left handed. N.T. has used stone implements for butchering big game, including elephants, and also for digging the ground so he could find the strengths and limitations of various types of tools. In practice many were found to be surprisingly efficient. Perhaps we should not be surprised by the efficiency of flint tools as electron microscopists still use glass `knives' for cutting ultra thin sections. Glass is chemically and physically similar to flint and `glass knives' are used in microtomes because freshly broken glass is sharper than steel, but the knives have to be replaced frequently because the glass will not keep it's edge.
Stone age hunter gatherers societies with low population densities would only live in areas where food was relatively plentiful, otherwise they would move on. This means that even without vacuum cleaners, washing machines, freezers or other modern labour saving devices they ought to have had an excess of leisure time to invest in making implements which were aesthetically pleasing, over and beyond any improvement in function. The importance of stone and stone tools to hunter gatherers is demonstrated by the fact that scientific examination of raw stones, part worked stones and finished stone artifacts shows they were often transported considerable distances from their point of origin.
I am fascinated by stone age technology because flint working was mankind highest technology for thousands of years and has remained the highest technology for some primitive peoples until the present day. If some global catastrophe could end modern western civilisation, without destroying all of humanity, flint knapping may yet again become man's supreme technology. As Einstein once remarked "I don't know what weapons will be used to wage the 3rd World War but I am sure sticks and stones will be used for the 4th." Thousands of years after our history has ended stoneware will make up the bulk of remains left for our successors, or visiting aliens, to evaluate our civilisation.
(I994? Addition) Since my first encounter with P.H. his distinctive west country accent has twice roused me from TV induced vacancy. A couple of years ago PH appeared in the last of six programmes about the history of a Cornish valley due to be flooded to make a new reservoir. The sixth program was about the earliest human inhabitants of the region and Phils voice suddenly became the voiceover for a scene in which Phil himself dressed in animal skins used twine and melted beeswax to mount a flint spearhead into an ash wood shaft. About a year later Time Team made its debut and again P.H. unexpectedly appeared on the scene. Since then he has appeared in each of the several series made.
Last year 1997 time team went live over several long weekends and the C4 web site ran message boards that the haunt of Tony Robinson and Phil Harding groupies
And it is back this year!
C4 UK - Time Team
Time team - interview 1997
Time Team Club
Time Team Forum, friends
Fortean Times - continues the work of Charles Fort
The Art of Flint Knapping - book
Modern efforts in Stone tools