Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Flint Knapping Tools

Antler Billets (long, short & heavy), antler set in antler pressure flaker, thin antler tine in wood pressure flaker, long and short pointed antler tines for pressure flaking.

The tools used by flint knappers both today and in the past is one of the most hotly debated areas of the art. The only definite thing that can be said is every knapper today has his/her unique preferences, some knappers prefer to keep it simple having just a few favourite tools they have mastered while other carry tool boxes of specialist utensils, some knappers prefer to knap ‘Paleo’ using only what they believe people in the past used while other knappers embrace modern technology, some knappers buy their tools preferring ones from specific shops who all make their tools slightly differently, while others custom make their own coming up with original twists and takes. Some knapper even construct elaborate contraptions such as jigs to knapping machines. The sheer variety of tools and techniques modern knappers have come up with makes the case knappers of the past would have done it very creatively too so no hard an fast views of how people in the past knapped or what tools they used can be formed. 

Click here to view a range of modern knapping tools made in the UK

Today we are still not entirely sure what tools ancient knappers used and how they used them. Archaeological finds have revealed to us many tools that were used, lithic analyses and experimental archaeology have suggested even more, but this doesn't seem to be the whole pictured as many artefacts are still unreplicatable by modern knappers, and many that have been successfully replicated have only been done so with custom made tools that lay outside the archaeological record. There have been discoveries of knapping tools  we don’t know the use for, archaeological digs have uncovered tools that would have been very useful for knapping, but not in clear enough context to say they definitely were part of a knapper’s tool kit, also first hand descriptions of prehistoric knappers by people such as the Conquistadors suggest the way tools were actually used is very different from some modern methods.

Flint knapping has been around for 2.6 million years and done globally, so it is not surprising there was a lot of variety in what was made, how it was made and what was used to make it, for example one stalwart of man made knapping tools throughout much of the world is the deer antler, however in several parts of the world such as Australia and parts of South America, antlered or horned animals simply do not exist, so alternative tools had to be found.

(Left; Flint Knapper's Kit? Discovered during Heathrow Terminal 5 excavation) 8 Arrowheads, 5 Flint Tools, Whetstone, Copper Awl.

At the moment modern knapping seems dominated by one very limited area of knapping, biface production, and two methods of lithic reduction, direct percussion and pressure flaking and the tools most conducive to doing this the most commonly mastered by modern knappers. Which has lead them to continue to use these methods when experimenting in other areas such as making blade cores. Such a limited style of knapping and tools use in no-way reflects the majority of knapping done in prehistory, the main methods used or the tools used. 

Direct Percussion is the main method of knapping used today, basically is hammering. The piece of flint is hit with a hammer, some varieties of which are called billets and boppers. The first kind ofthis tool is a hard hammer, in prehistoric times these were stones and possibly pieces of copper, in modern times stone, copper, aluminium and iron/steel is used. Copper is the most limited of these usually being made into a billet and replicating the effect of a very hard hammer stone, iron/steel hammers used in the gunflint, strike-a-light and brick making industries are much more specialised and come in various weights and shapes such as pointed, rounded, flat ect. Hammer stones though offer the most flexible option in range of sizes, shapes and weights but most importantly textures and hardness. Being able to switch between hard stones such as chert pebbles to soft stone such as limestone offer a knapper a greater flexibility than modern tools, though they take a longer time to master.

Hard tools are used in the early stages production to remove large pieces of the flint, when the flint is suitably reduced softer hammers need to be used so not to break the flint and also because they enable longer thinner flakes to be removed. Prehistorically deer antler billets were a favourite for this but also wooden ones. Many modern knappers use moose antler billets which are heavier and more dense than deer antler, however none have ever been found in the archaeological record so it is a point of contention how authentic something made with one of these is. Other traditional tools suggested are copper, bone and ivory. Modern knappers tend to use a copper bopper and occasionally aluminium ones, technically hard not soft percussion, they perform similarly to antlers, are much quicker to master and much cheaper, last a lot longer and require little maintenance unlike antler which need constant maintenance. 

A less common method of knapping used in modern times is indirect percussion, this is where a hammer and punch are used to remove flakes. Antler or wooden billets being commonly used for the hammers and antler for the punches. 

 (Left: Copper Boppers and Copper Pressure Flaker, made and sold by Prehistorics Shop)

Pressure flaking, a lot of prehistoric pressure flaking was done with an antler tine while most modern pressure flaking is done with a pressure flaker. Pressure flakers were used in prehistoric times though. Pressure flakers are short sticks with either and antler tine tip, wooden tip, copper or iron/steel nail inserted into it. Otzi the Ice Man was found to have an antler tipped pressure flaker on him when his body was discovered in the Alps, also in Peru a pressure flaker with a wooden tip was recently dug up. Longer pressure flakers are known as Ishi sticks were used by the American Indians and even longer ones with copper tips were used by the Egyptians,  copper has also been found on tools in Europe though the exact tool type is unconfirmed. Iron/steel nails is a very recent addition made by modern knappers, but were also adopted by Australian Aboriginals and American Indians after contact, so technically prehistoric, iron/steel working better on obsidian and glass and making notching a lot easier. Another suggested insert for pressure flakers is animals incisors, these can be large predator's down to rats, a set of rat's incisors were found alongside some knapped objects in the US.

1 comment:

  1. Do you know where i can get antler pressure flaker and antler billet in UK. Im not from UK but i got couple of friends there