These musings on the stone called flint and its poorer-quality relation chert are prompted by the recent discovery of 120,000-year-old stone tools in the United Arab Emirates. Read more about that here.
Worked flint is beautiful – hard, glassy, grey, touchable. I first held it in my hands when studying prehistoric archaeology in the early 1970s.
At the time Bruce Bradley (now Professor) was studying for his PhD in experimental archaeology at Cambridge University. He was famous even then for his flint-knapping technique – it was said that it was lucky he wore spectacles as they were covered in tiny chips from the flying fragments of stone and he would otherwise have been blinded.
When he left he sold off many of his pieces. I have to admit I didn’t go to the sale myself, but my fellow student Matthew Spriggs picked up some flint tools for me. Thus I acquired the large hand axe, an arrowhead and a small sickle, all of which are pictured here.
And thanks to the miracle of Google, I find Matt is now an archaeology professor in Australia. I wondered what had happened to him!
I had not grown up in limestone country, although my mother’s family all came from Dorset and Hampshire, where flint abounds. Limestone and chalk are built of sediments from the calcium skeletons of tiny sea creatures, fallen to the bottom of the ancient seas.
Usually the flint is in the form of spheres or “nodules”, like bubbles in the chalk. I imagine them originally full of organic jelly, eventually turning to blue-grey translucent crystal when the rock was compressed.
The closest I came to prehistory and stone tools in my childhood was watching the original Flintstones cartoons on (black & white) TV.
Then when I studied archaeology at university, I specialised in Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, so missed out on the details of the older (Palaeolithic) stone age, but fine flint was still used for tools in Neolithic times.
One Sunday I went with college friends to visit Grime’s Graves, a Neolithic flint mining area near Thetford in Norfolk. It’s an amazing place, where you can climb down ladders into one of the original pits where flint was dug out.
The miners, using just deer antlers and shoulder blades, dug down through 30 feet of soil containing small, poor-quality flint nodules to get to the wide seams of better, tabular flint below. This could be used to make bigger tools.
Then in 1976 our university archaeological field class took us to Denmark and I was really pleased when crossing a field I found this waste flake from a flint core, clearly worked by human hand, judging by the shape of the “percussion platform” at its base.
I believe I can see the percussion platform, bulb of percussion, ripples and nibbling, as pointed out in this diagram…
Some wonderful flint-knapping from the teenage caveman’s gallery
Thanks to Ron Graves for this suggestion from the Lake District:
Not flint (greenstone), but the Great Langdale Stone Axe Factory – one of the most important Neolithic sites in Europe – is probably worth a mention…