Here at Buxton Museum we are lucky to have an amazing selection of flint tools and implements. These range from the 10,000 year old hand axes, two of which we have on display for visitors to handle, to the tiny microliths (an abbreviation of the Greek word for stone -LITHIKOS), made by chipping small pieces off a core block of hard quartz flintstone.
One question I am often asked by visitors is ‘How can we identify a flint that has been shaped by human hands and not by geological activity?’ The answer is ‘not easily’. Flints were fashioned, using a fracturing technique; by striking a single point on the core stone to send out fractures through the whole block (a bit like splitting logs with an axe). Unfortunately, the same technique and result was achieved, en masse, when ice formed in the cracks of the flint rocks during the Ice Age; making it difficult to identify geological flints from handmade flints.
It is worth bearing in mind that the ‘human hands’ that often shaped these flints did not necessarily resemble the human hands that we know today and that different species of humans shaped and made flint tools according to their capabilities. There have been several species of human primate along the journey to the current model: Homo-Habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Homo Sapien to name the most widely known species’ and most, if not all, species made and used flint tools in varying forms. Flint tools made by some of our earliest ancestors, such as Homo erectus in the Lower Palaeolithic Age around 1.8 Million years ago, comprised two – sided, pear-shaped, hand axes and scrapers fashioned from thick flakes of flint. These type of tools are categorised as ‘Acheulean’ which refers to the technology and industry which produced them. Acheulean tools have the largest footprint of usage spread across earth and were continually produced for over 1 million years; making Acheulean technology the longest lasting industry on earth to date.
Although the Acheulean design was to later re-emerge in Neolithic times, it was bridged by different tools and technological designs during the Mesolithic period. Flint tools from this period, around 10,000 years ago, comprised tiny microliths of flint fashioned to make delicate arrow heads, scrapers, spears and wood working tools. The Mesolithic period fell between the end of the last ice age (although, technically, we are still in the ice age), about 11, 000 years ago, until the beginning of organised farm settlements about 6,000 years ago. Mesolithic flints were the tools of hunters – predominately used to hunt herds of game as the animals moved North, following the melting ice, for new pastures.
Rather than go by shape, another way to identify whether a flint was made by human hands is to check whether the flint has been worked or ‘retouched’. Retouching involves the flint being struck by a similar stone or flint tool for the purpose of forming, shaping, sharpening or blunting the cutting edge, or, to fashion a flat holding surface. The strike angles left by retouching will vary for each flint dependent on the type of edge required; steep angles for a chopping, or blunt edge and shallow, wafer thin angles for a razor edge. If there are uniform signs of wear, or sheening from regular use, then these can be another indicator that the flint was made by hand.
Hopefully, the mysteries of this microcrystalline quartz wonder tool will be revealed in greater detail at Buxton Museum on 30th July 2016 when we will be hosting a flint knapping demonstration, by the talented James Dilley, as part of the National Festival of Archaeology.