r e c o m m e n d e d  r e a d i n g


“‘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 Care)

“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.”

William Gass,

“Flattery and Whingeing,”

London Review of Books, 5 Oct. 2000



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 modernity.

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 process.

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 population.

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 for use.

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 long.



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 died.

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

________. “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. Self-Published

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 text.

MAKING SILENT STONES SPEAK. Authors write eloquently on human evolution and the dawn of technology. Hundreds of illustrations.

THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES. A Smithsonian reprint containing “Natural History of Flaked Stone Implements” and “Stone Implements of the Potomac-Chesapeake Tidewater Province.”


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