No, it’s not what you’re thinking – according to the eternally fabulous Terry Pratchett, “The oldest profession is that of flint-knapper, a confusion which has caused many an embarrassed misunderstanding in quarries everywhere.” (From The Discworld Companion)
Anyway, I’ve been reading a lot about Prehistoric Britain recently – it started because my children were studying the Stone Age at school, and then (as is the way of these things) I got interested and decided to read on… Peering back through the obscurity of many thousands of years, little physical evidence survives of our Neanderthal and Early Human ancestors – vital clues about how humankind developed therefore come from the stone tools these early people made and used. After reading (in great detail) about the development of hand axes and flint arrow heads, I leapt at the chance to spend a couple of hours at Torquay Museum with a master flint-knapper, archaeologist Phil Harding (the engagingly enthusiastic, Wiltshire-accented one from Channel 4’s Time Team programme).
The flint-knapping event was organised by Torquay Museum to tie-in with their new exhibition about Britain’s First Humans. It features the Boxgrove Shinbone, a half-a-million years old fragment of one of the earlier human lines, Homo Heidelbergensis, and also showcases a piece of jawbone excavated in 1927 from Kent’s Cavern, which is just a mile or so from the museum. The jawbone has been extensively analysed, and in 2010 was dated at over 41,000 years old, making it the earliest known relic of our type, Homo Sapiens, in North West Europe. This is why archaeology is so bloody amazing – a tiny two-inch scrap of jawbone clinging onto a couple of yellowed teeth gives us a poignant point of human contact across the millennia. It proves there were people living in the Devon hills and woodlands thousands of years ago, people who in evolutionary terms, were exactly like us.
Luckily, Phil Harding is not just an expert flint-knapper, he’s a great showman – keeping a roomful of people from toddlers to octogenarians riveted while you whack seven shades out of a great lump of rock is quite a feat. Using his replica stone-age tools, a soft hammer (made from deer antler) and a hard hammer (basically a large round pebble) he soon transformed a huge nodule of chalk-covered virgin flint into a usable hand axe. The techniques are actually very subtle and skilled – successful flint-knapping is about calculating angles and pressure to ensure the rock flakes shear off and create the correct shape for the tool. Even an old-hand like Phil (he’s been knapping since he was a boy) can be thrown by natural flaws in the rock. An internal fracture in the flint nodule cracked off a larger chunk of rock than he’d intended, which meant that Phil’s demonstration piece ended up a tad smaller than usual, although it fitted perfectly into my small hand.
And this is where I got a little shiver up my spine… About halfway through Phil’s knapping process, the axe was already usable. The basic tool was right there, with its twin cutting edges and the rounded ergonomic shape that snugs into the palm for ease of use. And yet, the vast majority of ancient hand axes go way past this basic point of utility. The makers spent extra time refining the shape, perfecting the symmetry, chipping carefully and subtly at the edges to create a perfect teardrop. These axes aren’t just lumps of rock that do an effective job of skinning and butchering a deer, they look good, feel good in the hand. They are not merely functional, they are also beautiful.
This process of designing an object for the sake of the tactile and visual pleasure it gives, reminded me of my previous post about Alexander McQueen’s fashion designs (here). Some archaeologists have speculated that the creation and possession of elaborate tools was a way of proving one’s worth in order to attract better mates – that the hand axe became a status symbol, the Porsche or Rolex watch of the ancient world. To me, that seems too obvious, too reductive an explanation. I prefer to believe that for our Palaeolithic forebears in the distant past, the urge to craft something they could take pride in, to create something beautiful for the sake of beauty, was as strong as it is today.
For more about Torquay Museum and the First Humans exhibition, visit: