Flintknapping is hard!

My experience with flintknapping began in the fall of my senior year. I was in a survival class as an elective, so we learned how to build shelters, how to make fires, and other rudimentary skills. Among these skills was flintknapping. We would sit on the floor of the classroom – a garage-like room – and whack away at pieces of glass. The teacher did it as a hobby, and had made some interesting points and other tools. He demonstrated the flaking of volcanic glass, and showed that the resultant flakes were sharper than surgical steel.  We compared a flake about the size of a razor to a scalpel from the biology department; the flake sliced right through buckskin, where the scalpel encountered some difficulty on its way though.  We were very excited to begin making our own lithics using the method he presented.

We started by gathering our material that we would fashion into weapons: large pieces of glass windowpanes from the recycling. They were only perhaps a quarter inch thick, but the fragments we began with measured about three inches by four, in a triangular shape. We decided to try to just work on the edges, to get them sharp without destroying the main piece we were working with. Although it sounds like a simple task, we soon found otherwise. We made our tools ourselves, as well: our hard hammers (or “boppers,” as he termed them) were bars of metal, about a half inch thick, rounded on the ends. The soft hammer and pressure flaker were combined into the same tool, which we made by taking an inch-thick dowel – about the thickness of a shower rod – and hammering a nail most of the way into one end. The wooden dowel served as the soft hammer. To make the pressure flaker portions, we proceeded to strip the head off the nail with pliers, leaving a dull, somewhat rounded metal stub, perhaps half an inch long. Once this was filed into more of a point, our tools were ready.

We set off in no general direction, just experimenting with the tools and materials. We found that there were a lit of ways to hit the glass so that it shattered, and very few methods that would produce a productive result. We experimented to find the limits of the tools we used – what depths and areas of the glass would flake when it was struck in different ways.  The largest flakes I could get were about an eighth of an inch thick, and covered maybe a square inch.  Working with a thicker chunk of glass would probably have produced larger results.
We did the majority of our work sitting on the floor, with our laps covered by aprons.  This was so that the flakes and shards of glass that are an inevitable result of the process were easy to clean up. When class was over, we just shook the aprons into a trash bin, and vacuumed the cement floor with a shop-vac.  By the end of a few hours’ work, I had a vaguely triangular chunk of glass, which had some of the edges mashed into something that resembled a sharp, extremely jagged edge.  To think that this was using impurity-free glass and virtually optimal tools!  I can’t begin to imagine the time investment and skill that would have gone into using rock that fractures in unpredictable ways, using whatever tools can be found, and depending on your craft for survival!  Though they may look mundane, the tools and projectile points unearthed so frequently are truly works of art, products of a truly fine craftsman’s hand.

5 thoughts on “Flintknapping is hard!

  1. Flintknapping definitely would have been hard! I think that for the time period, it was probably par the course. For the people who lived during the period when tools would have been commonly made using this technique, life in general would have probably been very difficult.
    Two summers ago I was a part of a mini-archeological field school run by a local community college which excavated a 700-1000 year old Native American, seasonal fishing site near where the shores of Lake Huron would have been at the time. The site, known as the ‘Hampsher Site’ was probably occupied for several generations before being abandoned as the Lake levels receded over time. We excavated 1 meter by 1 meter units of earth for depths ranging from 30 to 40 centimeters and found large amounts of fire damaged rock and ash in circular, bowl shaped patterns (probably evidence of ancient cook fires), fish bones, ceramic pottery sherds, and loads of ‘churt’ flakes produced during the process of flintknapping. I was amazed at how much churt flakes we found compared to the relatively small number of actual lithics/stone tools we uncovered- the stuff was everywhere around the cook fires, and yet during the entire week long dig we found only one lithic (a small spear head).
    Excavating that site, I spent a lot of time thinking about what life must have been life for these early inhabitants of my hometown- it was obvious that they had been hard working people, and that they had faced their challenging lives with skill and determination (evidenced by all of the debitage, and the finely made lithics we found, not to mention all those which had been found by earlier excavations of the site). At the end of the day, it was saddening to think that for all the effort these people had put into maintaining their lives and families, we will probably never even know their names. All we can do is work to learn about their way of life through the evidence which remains available for us to discover, and try to remember the people by the ways they lived their lives. That seems like meaningful work to me.

  2. Flintknapping does sound hard! I’ve always been intrigued by the ancient lithics I see in museums; it is incredible that people could not only make these objects from just stone, but relied on them to survive. You also bring up a good point that despite the students in your class having access to much more advanced tools than the ancient humans could have dreamed of, it was still very difficult to create anything like those artifacts seen in museums. Additionally, in the classroom setting, you didn’t have the pressure of your immediate survival depending on the success of your lithic reduction techniques. These all point to flintknapping being a much more difficult process than you would expect, especially in those ancient societies.

    An interesting thing about flintknapping is that it is, as I’m sure you learned, both a difficult and enjoyable hands-on activity. For those two reasons, flintknapping is a great way to get the public involved and interested in archeology. If a museum held a hands-on flintknapping demonstration, it would be a great way to physically show both how these ancient societies lived and the struggles associated with it. By showing how difficult the process of lithic reduction is, it also shows just how important these lithic tools were. Survival was the highest priority of these ancient societies, thus a resource and time intensive activity like flintknapping wouldn’t be undertaken unless it was vital to their survival. This hands-on activity could be a great way to dispel the stereotype of archeology being dry and boring, and provide a way to not only get people interested in the field, but to also teach them about some of their ancient ancestors as well.

  3. Let me start by saying how cool it is that you took a survival course! I would love to do that. Although reading your description, flintknapping sounds beyond frustrating.

    In class we learned that projectile points are relatively common finds and that farmers usually have buckets and buckets of them. I know my relatives in Tennessee find them all the time. I like that you called them works of art and explained the difficulty that goes in to making them. It’s a good reminder that while these little tools are so common, they are still highly interesting archaeological finds.

    The fact that these tools are found all over the world is also interesting to me. Flintknapping projectile points to use for tools is either a natural instinct for humans OR it was a skill that over time was spread from civilization to civilization all over the world. Flintknapping connects ancient civilizations to one another in a way. This has been one of my favorite parts of class so far, seeing the connections between humans in ancient times as well as modern times. You took a survival class in the 21st century and they taught you the techniques of people in ancient times. It’s such a cool thought that you got to experience what they would have experienced in flintknapping.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think that projectile points have become somewhat like the “penny” of archaeological finds, so common that they are sometimes over looked. Being reminded of the trying process of making one makes me appreciate them much more.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about how hard flintknapping is. My brother (an archaeologist for the state of Illinois) would always talk to me about it and show me pictures of all the cool points and other tools he found that week at work. He even tried to teach me once how to do flintknapping; it was the hardest thing ever! I ended up with just a rock with chunks takin out of it. I can’t imagine how they made all of these intricate tools and other stone work, it must have taken an extremely long period of time. Besides the whole construction and the process of making points, I have always been intrigued by the actual uses; especially for volcanic rock. I remember watching a show about the Mayans and how they would use the volcanic rock as weapons because it is so sharp that it could slice right through a man. Who knew that rock could be made to be sharper and stronger then what a surgeon uses now in modern day medicine. (I think thats pretty incredible) It’s astonishing how many uses there are for such simple things as rocks and how humanity was able to survive off of them.

  5. I think that flintknapping is a very unique trade and also very interesting. Wihen we learned about flintknapping in class we really didn’t get into great detail, but from reading your post I have found out much more and how intricate the whole process is. I also think it very cool that you took a Survival elective in school. There must have been a lot of useful information from that class.
    Having the ability in the class to actually perform flintknapping had of been a cool thing and I cannot believe that the the volcanic flakes are that sharp. Maybe doctors should invest in some flintknappers. The process sound like it could take almost days to craft a decent piece. Also seems to be very tedious work, having to test each instrument to decide what works best in certain situation. Unbelievable that so many of these projectiles and other weapons and tools were created. Like you said these people that created these items are truly craftsmen at their finest.
    Especially with the tools they had to work with of that time. So much is involved with the flintknapping process.
    It is so interesting that we can discovery these flintknapped pieces of work and determine how it was made and what methods were used in the process. I am glad that we are able to find these artifacts and identify them. It tells so much about civilization and the way things were in our history.
    I truly am fascinated by the fact that you took the survival class. The knowledge of using your resources is an extremely valuable trait. I would love to take a class like that. I did not even know something like that existed.

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