Friday, 23 October 2015

Flint and Steel Firelighting: 400,000bc to the 21st Century

Westgate Museum
Being a bit of a pyromaniac, one neglected area of flint knapping that has always interested me is flint strike-a-lights. While the first archaeological evidence of steel strikers appears in Britain in the sixth century bc and much is written of them, many books published on the subject, a vibrant collectors market and museums exhibiting them, references to the equally important flint they struck are rare. However these flints are a lot older than the strikers, few steel striker collectors will realise how much older, and I think have a much more fascinating history.

No-one really knows when striking flint and iron to create sparks first started, the oldest date suggested so far is by Danish Archaeologists who in the paper "Flint and pyrite: making fire in the Stone Age - Stapert and Johansen" suggest flints dating from the Upper Palaeolithic in Holland and Scandinavia show signs of being strike-a-lights and if this is so it may mean spark based fire lighting pre-dates bow drills or any wood based techniques. They point out the earlier use of spark based technology makes more sense as it works in wet, humid and cold conditions unlike wood based ones, stones are much more durable and anthropologically speaking wherever native peoples have possessed both techniques they have usually preferred to use sparks over rubbing two sticks. However one of the problems though with tracing fire lighting in the stone age is a lack of evidence, which may be accounted for by a number of reasons, for example there being few dedicated flint strike-a-lights as an abundance of on-hand one time use sharp flakes existed and that flakes used as strike-a-lights after being blunted could then be knapped into something else as opposed to being discarded as they were in the metal ages.

Evidence is scant but a visual record of a small number prehistoric strike-a-lights from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and later have been found. For example the  Pitt Rivers Museum exhibits a 2000 year old set of iron pyrite and flint found in Cissbury Hillfort.  

For a strike a light to work the main attribute needed is it has to be sharp. This means even the crudest piece of flint struck from a core is suitable. However there are other attributes which may effect the portability, how long a life the strike-a-light has and also its suitability to be used certain iron strikers. For example a striker with more of the edge sharp will last longer than one with a small section sharp, also a large adhoc lump will be much more inconvenient to carry around than a neat well struck flake. In the Mesolithic or Palaeolothic eras a longer lasting lighter flake would have been easier to carry while on a hunting trip, however for people settled in one place larger short life piece are fine providing their is an adequate flint supply. 

In the first example pictured above, Mesolithic strike-a-lights show great similarity to scrapers. They are thick and durable and had a retouched edge, however are quite small in size. They are small, portable, have a large sharp surface area and are resharpen-able, they fit the bill as being ideal for a hunter gatherer to carry around. However the reason they have gone to all the trouble of knapping something this elaborate may go beyond ergonomics, and their design be necessary to work with the material they were designed to strike, most likely Marcasite. 

Top Left: Marcasite. Top Middle Marcasite broken in half
revealing iron core. Top Right: Iron Pyrite with large &
small Crystals. Bottom thick flint scraper ideal for use with
Marcasite & thin flake for use with iron pyrite,
The two Prehistoric iron rocks used for firelighting have quite different properties. Iron Pyrite is quite crumbly and cannot take a strong impact from the flint. Also the larger the crystals the weaker the Pyrite. With Pyrite availability being largely limited to the rock collectors market, most samples available have extremely large crystals and are poor for firelighting. This has lead several experimental archaeologists to fail at firelighting using this method and conclude Iron Pyrite is a poor material. However in my own experiments I found Pyrite with extremely small crystals to be much more durable and an easy material to get a spark from, especially using light weight sharp flakes. Marcasite on the other hand is quite tough and the iron core requires quite a powerful impact to generate a spark. This is complicated by the nugget being at the centre of the rock and being difficult to get at. For Marcasite scraper-like strike-a-lights are excellent as they are thick and strong, and also small so can be targeted at the iron core easily. I read of one experimenter who hafts the scraper onto a wooden stick to make something similar to a chisel and uses indirect percussion on it. This provides both extra power and accuracy. 

Neolithic examples found are more a mixed bag, some resembling the worked scrapers of the Mesolithic, others crudely worked ad hoc lumps and also unworked thin flakes. The fall in quality of some of the designs can be both explained by the change in demographics of knapping skills and a change of material needs. Knapping skills did not decrease in the Neolithic but did specialise. A need for fewer but more specialised knappers became the norm. The more elaborate Neolithic examples can be put down to the competent knappers and the cruder examples to the increasing number of people who lack complex knapping skills. Similarly the change in material needs in that fewer people would have been engaged in hunting and more people living a static pastoral lifestyle so the need for an ergonomic design to carry with you was not needed. 

Birka Settlement
The coming of the Iron-Age created revolutionary change in firelighting. It meant people were no-longer dependant on rocks as a source of iron. The introduction of striker meant an end to any kind of flint specialisation, any piece as long as it was sharp would work. The finds from the Birka Settlement in Sweden (8th to 10th Century) show examples of strike-a-lights from a post knapping age and are simply flakes struck from a nodule, the knapper demonstrating the understanding of how to set up a flint core so to be able to remove a simple flake. Whereas while a few of the  later Italian examples show a degree of skill put into, most are little more than hit and hope showing that any real competence at knapping had all but gone from medieval Italy. Though this may be localised as the English were building flint churches using bricks of quite astonishingly high knapping competence at the same time. 

Medieval Italy

In books that trace the history of gun flints it is told that the original gun flints were strike-a-lights and specialist gun flints then developed from there. Looking at it from the strike-a-light point of view it could be said from the moment the first strike-a-lights were used as gun flints, they went extinct as a technology. 

When flintlocks first appeared a renaissance in the skill of flint knapping was rekindled on large scale and expertise began to develop again. Quickly a new market for gun flints was seen, this being as high quality strike-a-light for those willing to pay. While being no better than any sharp piece of flint at firelighting they did however provide an aesthetically pleasing and highly compact option for gentlemen's pocket tinderboxes. However the crude hit and hope flakes continued in use among most people until this method of firelighitng became obsolete.

In 1859 with the discovery of the Antiquity of Man by John Evans and John Prestwick (that being the proof man is hundreds of thousands of years old, not 6000 as the Bible states) a flourishing of interest in flint tools followed. The tools had previously been regarded as peculiar freaks of nature but were now re-evaluated as being made by ancient man. Antiquarians began to seriously start looking into the tool production methods of prehistoric people and existing native populations around the world.  In a few short years the master knappers at Brandon in Suffolk the home of the world's gun flint industry expanded their repertoire to become competent in multiple forms of knapping.  It was there that the paths of gun flints and strike-a-light diverged and briefly they became separate entities again.

In the deep dark catacombs of the British Museum, hidden from the public gaze is the Fred Snare Set. One of the most talented knappers Brandon produced in its long history Mr Snare invented new knapping techniques and knapped a variety of things from works of art to the entirely functional, these included his novel design for a strike-a-light, he claimed it a superior design to any other around and better than using a gun flint. The strike-a-light itself was included in Brandon Tinderbox Sets sold to Gentlemen and almost  identical the earlier Mesolithic examples possessing the attributes of being small, durable, having a 360 degree sharp edge and being resharpen able. 

The Fred Snare Set at the British Museum.. 
Mr Snare's Strike-a-lights then are rare example of technology turning full circle and a return to a hunter gatherer design being considered superior. Strike-a-lights had started out needing to be specialised and required skill to produce because of the traits of the natural iron sulfide rocks they had to be used on. However this had become redundant with the invention of steel strikers. Also the settlement of people removed any ergonomic needs for professionally produced flint. Finally even the idea had then become extinct with the invention of a new technology gun flints, which were so aesthetically superior. 

Blade from Flint Blade Core
Today most traditional firelighters use fire steel and ad hoc pieces of flint. Short trips and modern backpacks mean small compact and resharpenable designs are not required and aesthetically pleasing gunflints are not a modern world trend. With this in mind it could be tempting to say the development of strike-a-lights is over, however with 400,000 year of twists and turns behind them this may be a little hasty. 

As a flint and steel firelighter myself over the years I have made Fred Snare Strike-a-Lights, used crude debitage chunks and perfect light flakes. I have found no real advantage in any, as long as they are sharp they all work. However I have developed a preference for blades from blade cores. These are light and have a large functional areas, though are not durable. They are also the best thing to use with Iron Pyrite being light and sharp and the ends work well with Marcasite. However in the spirit of Fred Snare I have made an attempt to take skilled strike-a-lights into the 21st century with the Pyromatic 1.1. 
Pyromatic 1.1

The Pyromatic 1.1 has a long straight light edge perfect for use with Iron Pyrite, it has a thick and small so targetable rounded edge for use with Marcasite. Also it is large enough to get a solid grip to provide a solid strike on the Marcasite, or insert the thinner straight edge into a wooded slot for indirect percussion. The Pyromatic 1.1 also has a 360 degree sharp edge for longevity, two long side edges specifically designed for steel strikers to protect the two rock striking edges top and bottom. The Pyromatic 1.1 is plano-convex to give superior sparking and make it sit flatly in any box, it is essential for any serious Bushcrafter and available at all fine stores this Christmas. 

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