“‘Think how we would be punished in this world, if
we neither loved learning ourselves or let other men love it: that we
had the name of Christians only, and few of the virtues.’ (King
Alfred, on sending the bishops his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral
“He remembers how the Greeks translated every text
into their own language, and he encourages this practice in his bishops,
so that what is locked in Latin, and so kept from the people, will be
set free in their understanding.”
“Flattery and Whingeing,”
London Review of Books, 5 Oct.
A friend of Archipelago suggests some books worth reading:
Anthony Baker writes on flint knapping. (Anthony Baker is a
builder and the owner of Timshel
Books, specializing in books about
Indians north of Mexico.)
Clearly I was not about to learn flint knapping from a book,
especially one titled HOW TO MAKE ARROWHEADS that
came with a money-back guarantee. Scattered at my feet were hundreds of
sharp stone chips, the debitage from blows dealt to ten pounds of
obsidian purchased from a rock and gem shop. Flint knapping has a
language hundreds of thousands of years old, and I was stuck in the
Paleolithic, practically mute.
My search for a teacher was half hearted and constrained by what I
thought were the marginal resources at hand. There were no flint
knappers listed in the Yellow Pages. Later I was to learn from books
written by master flint knappers, and I would drive twenty five hundred
miles to take a course offered by one who made a living replicating
stone tools and weapons.
Modern flint knappers use tools make of moose, elk and deer antler,
not so much to stay true to the manufacturing methods of our ancestors,
but because the antler is moderately soft, and the removal of long
thinning flakes across the stone is more likely to be accomplished than
with a harder tool. Hammers of rock can be, and were, used. In
particular, hand-held rocks were used to break boulders into more
manageable sizes. The tools and techniques involved in the manufacturing
of stone tools are diverse and were recorded by explorers and
anthropologists from the first white landfall until Ishi, the “last
wild Indian,” walked out of the hills above Oroville, California, in 1911.
In 1916, the Bureau of American Ethnology
published Bulletin 60, “Handbook of Aboriginal
American Antiquities,” a book exhaustively detailing the practices of
the lithic industries. This was an era of broad experimentation and
research within the field, and a time when ancient villages and quarries
often existed in pristine state awaiting the shovel of the
archaeologist. In this work are sketches and photographs of superb
examples of stone-working craftsmanship.
But for a huge span of time, simple unimproved rocks were an
extension of the throwing and pounding hand of early man-like creatures.
Two million years ago, the enlarged cranial capacity of Early Homo
endowed our ancestors with the capability of manufacturing a tool by
modifying an untamed rock. A stone with several chips knocked from
opposing sides provided a wavy but effective slicing edge.
Place your foot on the belly of a large dead animal and try pulling
off a meaty thigh by brute force. Much easier to dismember your meal
selection, sling it over your shoulder and carry it back to camp.
For tens of thousand of years these simple tools were the rage of
The primitive simple-edge worked. A few more flakes removed from a
side and the longer edge is more effective, but is still a broken cobble
of meager design. After a few hundred thousand years of study, our
ancestors were removing flakes in an alternative pattern from both
sides, creating two edges and two worked surfaces. The rounded river
cobble had lost most of its original form; and, efficiently, this method
of reduction invariably leads to an implement with a point. Now we have
a hand-ax, a tool that can be employed in any number of crushing,
cutting, slicing, dicing, digging operations.
This hand-ax form, in size roughly that of an avocado with edges or a
large russet potato with a point, is about all that a flint knapper of
today can manage to produce after a few days of practice.
Technologically, we can skip over distant millennia of the far past, but
our mechanical skills, temporarily, are still a couple of hundred
thousand years old.
When I was learning from that booklet with a money-back guarantee, my
attempts were directed toward duplicating the arrowheads I discovered
while walking the plowed fields of my youth: well-crafted long, thin,
pointy objects. Flint knapping is a skill of reduction. Like sculpting,
one starts with an ungainly mass and subtracts material until the goal
of form is realized. I was skipping important stages in the reduction
When I was searching for scholarly works on lithic technologies, the
Smithsonian Institution provided me with relevant titles culled from its
List of Publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology. The
Smithsonian gave me, also, the name of an anthropologist working
on a paleo-Indian site in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. E.C.
was a flint knapper of consummate skill and, of all wonders, was
teaching a Lithic Technology course that summer in Oregon.
Before I left for Burns, Oregon, I haunted the local antiquarian
bookstores, armed with a bibliography of works pertinent to the craft of
flint knapping. I purchased a weighty government publication, the “Fifteenth
Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology 1894.”
Within was an article by William Henry Holmes, “Stone Implements of
the Potomac-Chesapeake Tidewater Province.”
Holmes conducted his research in what is now Rock Creek Park. This
woodland still exists, undisturbed, within the residential corridors of
northwest Washington, D.C. It was here that Holmes
and crew explored the vast stone workshops of the prehistoric native
Water-rounded cobbles of very hard but flakeable quartzite are packed
into the bluffs and valley floors by the thousands. This quarry was
mined for hundreds of years by the Indians, and the resulting debitage,
waste flakes of the manufacturing process, could be measured in tons.
Hundreds of crude tools and tool-like objects were also unearthed.
Professional and amateur archaeologists working in North America were
finding crude tools and implements of stone that in appearance matched
those of European manufacture and dated to the Paleolithic, the era of
hand-axes, cleaver-like instruments, and utilized flakes. Holmes
ascertained that the “primitive” tools excavated in Rock Creek were
actually waste from the flint knapping industry of the recent historical
past. They were preforms or tools broken, discarded, or found unsuitable
His drawings and plated photographs are minutely descriptive and
display through excavated example the eight- or ten-step methodology
used in the reduction process, from cobble to completed tool.
My tools were thick and clumsy, too bulky to attach to a handle or a
shaft. In weaponry there is a mathematical ratio of required thickness
to length and width. A projectile must be aerodynamic, its trajectory
true to the shooter’s aim. Upon arrival it has to be thin and sharp
enough to pierce the skin of the victim.
“Stone-Worker’s Progress A Study of Stone Implements in the Pitt
Rivers Museum” by Sir Francis Knowles was found serendipitously in a
box on the floor at a library sale. This slim volume bound in plain gray
wraps, was responsible for a minor epiphany.
From the preface: “...the writer made the first fully clear and
literate presentation of the ‘turned edge’, or prepared marginal
striking platform necessary for getting good flakes across from both
sides to meet and make a thin section.”
In my eagerness I had been crushing the sharp edge, and the energy
sent through the stone was undirected and quickly dissipated.
Periodically grinding the sharp wavy edge will leave a dulled thick area
at the apex of each wave. Striking these thickened “platforms” with
a billet allows the energy to dissipate evenly, and this energy will
seek a wider, longer margin of diffusion. The flake is actually being
“pushed” off the stone. Flaked tools are made from stone that is
isotropic in nature, made up of hard consolidated material, and will
fracture in any direction that a force is applied.
An open cardboard square fourteen inches on a side can represent an
unbroken stone. Setting it on one corner will leave two corners in a
vertical position, and two corners on a horizontal plane. As you push
down on the vertical tip, the square will begin to flatten, and the
horizontal or diagonal plane becomes longer. Many of my tools had a
thickness-to-width ratio of two to one, like the box half-flattened;
similar in shape to the rejects Holmes found in Rock Creek Park. To make
a model of an ideal tool cross-section, keep pressing on the top corner
until the thickness of the square is four inches between the vertical
corners, and the width (diagonal/horizontal) becomes twenty eight inches
Europeans of the late middle ages considered stone arrowheads the
darts of mischievous woodland elves. Large, shapely Neolithic daggers of
stone, supposed the product of lightening bolts, were kept in a place of
reverence within the home, for everyone knows lightning never strikes in
the same place twice. Civilization created employment for flint knappers
when the ancient flint quarries in Brandon, England, were reopened. In
Brandon, workers with specialized metal hammers made squared bits of
stone for the flint-lock rifle and sparkers for the metal and flint “strike
a lights,” the precursor of the match.
If we can pinpoint the era of modern flint knapping, we might date it
to Victorian Britain. Flint tools were being found in ancient river
gravels and reputable scientists were attributing these to the hands of
early man. Edward (Flint Jack) Simpson made replicas of these artifacts,
tumbled and chemically treated them, and sold his “finds” to museums
and the public.
François Bordes, an authority on the French Paleolithic, filmed his
flint work for the education of others. Don Crabtree of the United
States made exact replicas of fine stone points found on prehistoric
Indian sites. In Africa, Louis Leakey made stone tools in order to
understand their use in the past. In remote parts of New Guinea, flaked,
polished and hafted tools are still manufactured, the art having never
Today a few hundred people are self-employed as full time flint
knappers, and the ranks of hobbyists and aficionados number in the
thousands. Web sites offer stone and flint knapping kits and some sell
exotic material such as knappable fiber-optic blanks that come in a
rainbow of vibrant colors. Diamond-sawn fully shaped blanks are
available. Like painting by numbers, one completes the spear point by
flaking across the faces; instant flintknapping.
Bordaz, Jacques. TOOLS OF THE OLD AND NEW STONE
AGE. New York: Natural History Press
Bordes, François. THE OLD STONE AGE.
New York: McGraw Hill
Crabtree, Don. “An introduction to Flintworking.” Occasional
Papers of the Idaho State University Museum
Kroeber, Theodora. ISHI IN TWO WORLDS.
Berkeley: University of California Press
Oakley, Kenneth. MAN THE TOOL MAKER.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Holmes, William Henry. “Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of
Ethnology to the Secretary of the
Smithsonian Institution, 1893 -’94” Washington D.C.: The
________. “Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology
Bulletin 60, Handbook of
Aboriginal American Antiquities Part One, Introductory, the Lithic
Industries.” Washington D.C.:
The Smithsonian Institution.
Meltzer, David and Dunnell, Robert (eds). THE
ARCHAEOLOGY OF WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES.
Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press
Schick, Kathy and Toth, Nicholas. MAKING SILENT
STONES SPEAK. New York: Simon & Schuster
Waldorf, D.C. THE ART OF FLINTKNAPPING.
Wilson, Thomas. “Arrowpoints, Spearheads, and Knives of Prehistoric
Times,” Annual Report of the
Smithsonian Institution for the year ending 1897. Washington D.C.:
The Smithsonian Institution.
All these books are available by searching the data base of the
on-line book consortium Advanced Book Exchange (ABEbooks.com). Original
early Smithsonian reports will cost one or two hundred dollars. For
those interested in reading further on the subject of flint knapping
without spending a lot of money, I would recommend the following:
THE ART OF FLINT KNAPPING. The author is a
skilled flintknapper; many photographs and illustrations enhance the
MAKING SILENT STONES SPEAK. Authors write
eloquently on human evolution and the dawn of technology. Hundreds of
THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES. A
Smithsonian reprint containing “Natural History of Flaked Stone
Implements” and “Stone Implements of the Potomac-Chesapeake